In his article entitled, “Utopia limited: burdening Israel with perfection,” (July 8), Rabbi Alan Silverstein decries the world’s hypocritical moral condemnation of almost everything Israel does. A moral standard of utopian perfectionism is demanded of Israel, but of no other nation. It is a standard, he says, that no nation can possibly live up to — although, ironically, Silverstein observes, many in the second generation of early Zionists had a similar standard of an Israel that is morally perfect.
Somewhat complementary to Rabbi Silverstein’s article is novelist Michael Chabon’s recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, “Chosen But Not Special” (June 4). Chabon argues that while Jews have a unique history connecting them to the Land of Israel, the State of Israel and its people are made up of ordinary, fallible human beings whose actions should not be judged by higher standards than other nations.
It is true that much or most of the non-Jewish world’s moral condemnation of Israel’s actions is not only hypocritical but also reflects a deep-seated anti-Semitism. That said, however, I want to suggest that the Jewish world — in Israel and the Diaspora — may be focusing too much on the double standard of morality set by others and too little on the moral demands we should make on ourselves.
The legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state rests on the historical fact that our people came into being there more than 3,000 years ago — and that it has been the homeland of Jewish dreams and prayers ever since. But is that the only legitimacy we Jews should care about? As Jews, don’t we also need to consider the moral dimensions of our claim to the Promised Land?
The biblical claim to the land was a conditional claim in important respects. The Torah text demands that Israel be different from, not the same as, other nations of the world, both morally and religiously. That is what we read in chapter after chapter of the Torah every week.
We cannot read only the chapters and verses where God promises the land without also reading the chapters and verses where God demands moral behavior in the land. Not moral behavior according to the standards of other people, but behavior according to more lofty standards.
After the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile, remembered next week on Tisha B’Av, there was a 2,000-year post-biblical yearning for a return to Zion. The prayer books written by the early Jewish sages and reworked by their later successors over a 2,000-year period were filled with that yearning for a return to the Promised Land. But was it a yearning for “just another country?”
That may have been the vision of Theodor Herzl and the original secular Zionists — to be just like other countries, although culturally Jewish. But Herzl and his colleagues largely turned their backs on the Jewish prayer books. Perhaps they did so precisely because the prayer books yearned for a Zion that is not just a geographic location where Jews can reside in security. It was a yearning for a nation envisioned by the Prophets. Indeed, it may be that the second generation of Zionists — the perfectionists cited by Rabbi Silverstein — were reacting to the first generation’s seeming lack of lofty moral ideals.
Rabbi Silverstein appropriately argues that a perfectionist vision of Israel was and remains a fantasy. The Jewish Bible and prayer books did not envision a utopia on earth. Nor was the vision, to use Michael Chabon’s words, one of infallible human beings. But surely it was not a vision of a nation with the same moral standards as all other nations.
It is doubtlessly true that, sitting in the comfort and relative security of life in the United States, I cannot fully appreciate what it meant to live in Russia during the pogroms, or to live in Israel today in constant danger of extinction. Yet I think we Jews have to ask ourselves why we have been reading the Bible and the prayer books for thousands of years if what we want for ourselves is simply to be like everyone else, and to be judged by the same moral standards as everyone else.
The methods of achieving the biblical vision can be debated. How Israel should, in any given situation, deal with Hamas, or Iran, or Turkey, is debatable. How Jews all over the world should deal with anti-Semites is debatable. But should we view the biblical vision itself as debatable?
I am not suggesting a “love your enemies/turn the other cheek” standard of behavior. But is it debatable that the vision we have inherited requires Jews, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, to accept a double standard of morality? Indeed, the Israel Defense Forces acknowledges that double standard and tries mightily to implement it. And if they can, I would argue, so should all Jews accept the double standard as part of our heritage without constantly complaining about it.
Our heritage brings with it a difficult moral mission. Like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, we might often wish that God had chosen some other people for the mission. But if we were, indeed, chosen for it, we must not reject the double standard of moral behavior that it implies — whether or not the rest of the world gives us credit for our efforts.