Thursday, August 06, 2009

Herzl and the challenges of Israeli Society

This week, as part of the kids' summer vacation we took them to the Herzl Museum at Har Herzl. It has recently been renovated and modernised. So here are a few impressions.

The museum is built with certain assumptions in mind. There is no doubt that it is directed at the young Israeli public, and to this purpose, it has to explain certain things:

1. It has to explain what anti-semitism is. It is quite incredible that our kids who grew up here have no idea of fear of non-Jews, or any sense of discrimination. As for my growing up in England, anti-semitic remarks were always around, and there was a latent feeling that as Jews we were somewhat vulnerable to attack. Israeli kids have no concept of an environment of exclusion and Jew hatred. (For example, we were discussing Soviet Jewry the other day and talking about Jews being restricted from practising their religion. My 4-yr-old said: "But where were the chayalim? Wherer were the Jewish Chayalim?" - He cannot conceive of Jews as oppressed, powerless; as objects of discrimination.)

So that is one thing they have to teach.

2. A second thing they try to transmit is the atmosphere of culture, of nobility, dignity and even high-society that represented the way of life for the ruling European echelons. From a contemporary Israeli perspective, life is so casual, there is so little sense of ceremony and formality that they need to explain this, both in order to describe Herzl's European persona, and also the manner in which he sought to launch his Congress in the best of European formality and decorum.

3. But the prime reflection that strikes a person as they experience the museum is that clearly the assumption is that young (school age?) Israelis see Herzl as archaic and irrelevant to their lives. It represents an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy man who dreamed of an Israel that has nothing to do with the Israel that we live in.

Here, I experienced a certain frustration. For me, as a Zionist, I was looking forward to something of a pilgrimage, to take my children to a place in which the assumption is that this man envisioned the reality of a Jewish national home, and set the foundational momentum to make it happen. Israeli society clearly has little sense of its "Founding Fathers." That is certainly a bad thing.

The museum ends by raising the question as to what degree Herzl's vision has been fulfilled. Is Israel the beacon of civilisation pushing back the frontier against barbarianism in the East? Is Israel the economic and industrial power that Herzl envisioned? Does it fulfill his thinking as regards the place of religion, and did he envisage a war-torn country, fighting well beyond its sixth decade?

And yet, this discussion as to the texture of Israeli civic society, about its values, its cultural thrust, its ideals, norms and principles, are a vital discussion. Frequently, I feel we discuss these issues only in moments of despair and crisis, and even then, as rivaling camps, as combaatants rather than people who seek to live together. Two recent events: the shooting at a Gay center in Tel Aviv (link), and the question of whether to deport Foreign Workers (link) have raised vital questions about what it means to be a "Jewish" - Yes, Jewish country.

Does Judaism dictate that we look out for the stranger in our midst (link), or alternatively, that we ensure that there are fewer non-Jews living amongst us, to reduce the possibility of intermarriage and assimilation?

Does Judaism dictate respect and tolerance, or does it condemn Homosexuals because the Torah forbids it? Do we hope, plan, educate to an atmosphere, a national culture of tolerance, acceptance, mutual respect, or one of condemnation, judgmentalism, and exclusion? And if we adopt the former set of norms, then how do we work towards goals and ideals? and in what way can we furter the Jewish charachter of the country?

I have been reading Rabbi Sacks' new book, "Future Tense". He has a chapter (A New Zionism) about this point:
"The first challenge of Zionism, the creation of a Jewish state, has been achieved. The second, the creation of a Jewish society, has barely begun."
Rabbi Sacks talks about " the absence of an Israeli national narrative" and the fact that we have yet to define a national set of priorities that can gain widespread commitment and give a raison d'etre for the entire nation. This is the building of a Jewish SOCIETY rather than just the building of a STATE. Here there are vital questions, and the work of Herzl and his compatriots are far from finished. We desperately need to have this conversation; yes - a conversation, rather than a confrontation. For this reason, we cannot enter, let alone emerge, from the Herzl museum tired and cynical.
There is much work to be done, and many unanswered questions.
(I have already written on these themes here and here and here)

1 comment:

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