This is a guest post by Rabbi Zvi Solomons
“When the first Jewish prostitute is arrested by the first Jewish policeman and sentenced by the first Jewish judge, we can consider ourselves a sovereign state.”
Thus wrote the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachum Bialik in his diary. He was part of the first wave of Zionism, whose aim was to build a State like any other. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, was prompted to his great mission by the sound of the French mob in 1896 baying for the blood of the French staff officer Dreyfus, who had been framed by the French military establishment for spying. The Jewish Question – the problem of the Jewish diaspora in the midst of Enlightenment Europe, bundled with the accusations of dual loyalty and internationalist rootlessness, could be settled by normalizing the Jews. The way to do that, in Herzl’s and Bialik’s eyes, was to create a new Jewish nation.
This is the foundation stone of Zionism. Jews became rootless because we had no country of our own, having been exiled and sent wandering over the face of the earth. So we needed to be re-invented.
This is what in fact happened. Over the decades from the 1880s we re-discovered ourselves first as peasants, then as settlers, then as farmers and established inhabitants of our ancient land. There are indeed today Jewish policemen, Jewish judges, and Jewish prostitutes in Israel. The country is full of Jews. But we have this last week learned a terrible truth. In pursuing that nationalism we have become what we always were but had forgotten.
We have become just like everyone else.
We were never really any different. Having been oppressed and downtrodden we had perhaps forgotten that when we had power in Israel we often abused it and found ourselves doing things we should never do. Although we have been called to the highest of missions, isn’t the Tanach all about how we have fallen short – whether in rebelling or worshipping idols, or putting our faith in things which are not divine.
The truth is that we have always been human. Being human, how could we really be any different? The reason that the Torah is filled with stories of human frailty – Yehuda and Tamar, Yitzhak sporting with Rivka, Joseph and his brothers, even Moshe Rabbeinu hitting the rock twice – all these are to teach us that we should accept our frail human nature. We who are less than them should realise that we fail and are imperfect. And that imperfection is our humanity. Human endeavours fall short of divine perfection by their humanity. Even the choice of a king is decried in the Bible as a concession to the human weakness for having a strong leader.
The old Yiddish saying that “Jews are just like everyone else only more so” has never been more true than in the light of the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir from Shuafat.
In the cold light of day we have Jewish teenagers accused of the very crime committed only a week previously by others on Jewish teenagers. Nachum Chaim Bialik, how terrible it is to see your dream fulfilled!
Before we rush to condemn this new Nation that we have become, however, we should take hope from this. Israel is implementing the same approach to this vile murder as it has to the murder of our own Jewish boys. The teenagers’ lawyer is complaining that his clients have not had access to a lawyer during their questioning. This is something which this far has scarcely bothered Nationalists, when the boot was on the other foot. The extreme rhetoric now seen as normal, emanating from the mouth of right-wing politicians such as Naftali Bennet, has suddenly gone into reverse. People are beginning to realise that being like everyone else implies behaviour which makes us very uncomfortable to be ourselves.
Now we see where the path of normalisation leads, Should we really be like everyone else? or should we try to be better?
That there is such hurt and outrage in Israel that a Jew could even be accused of this vile crime against an Arab boy, is heartening. There is a flurry of posts on social media to find any possible excuse. It is the World Cup, or perhaps the boys who did it were from disturbed backgrounds. After all this is not what we, ourselves, expect of Jews. Jews don’t murder.
But after all that, if we are honest, yes, we are human like everyone else.
The difference lies in where we go from here. This is the moment when every Israeli, every Jew, has the opportunity to look deep into his or her soul and make a decision to recognize that peculiar Jewish value: the potential to overcome the human desire for revenge and replace it with hope. Can we be not just like everyone else, but being more so, prove ourselves better?