With the internal crisis surrounding the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms, the enemies of the Jewish state are in a festive mood. They have exploited this domestic controversy to open a new chapter in their campaign to delegitimize Israel. The Jewish state, they say, is not a nation at all, but a fractured society akin to a broken plate that is soon to fly apart. Of course, this leads quickly to the claim that the Jews themselves are not a people, but a creature of pure imagination, destined to vanish over the horizon of history.
This is ancient stuff, born of the debate over whether the Jews are a religion or a nation. That the Jews do not conform to these artificial categories never occurs to those who assert them. Indeed, the Jews are a religion and a nation that have managed to remain united and interrelated despite living scattered across the world for 2,000 years, from Poland to Morocco, speaking different languages and creating their own distinctive but still unmistakably Jewish subcultures. That Israel reflects this unity within diversity and diversity within unity should not be a surprise.
The highbrow Italian journal of international politics Limes recently rejected this truth wholesale, publishing an issue entitled “Israel Against Israel.” First among its targets is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is accused of lighting the bonfire of protest on Israeli streets, though he has nothing to personally gain from pushing the reforms, given that the corruption trial against him is now collapsing. Nonetheless, Limes titles one piece, “Netanyahu’s Religious Zionism,” replete with the usual attempts to use historiography to prove Israel should not exist.
Another article, “The Ottoman Syndrome,” equates Zionism both left and right with the Turkish empire that once ruled the Land of Israel, portraying the Jewish state as a kind of relic of that empire, barely holding various ethnic and religious groups together while pursuing expansionist aims in hopes of maintaining its power over them.
The rest of the issue contains innumerable sarcastic references to the history of Israel and particularly Israel’s origins. In Limes’ post-Zionist narrative, the nobility of the incredible human efforts and heroism required to create the Jewish state is, of course, expunged. There is the expected emphasis on the possibility of building a Jewish state in Uganda—roundly rejected by the early Zionists—along with the negation of the uninterrupted Jewish presence in the Land of Israel and the Jewish majority in Jerusalem and other cities. Also erased is the extraordinary revival of the Hebrew language, one of mankind’s great cultural achievements.
All of this adds up to the assertion that Israel is not a Jewish state, but an incomprehensible mosaic, a collection of “tribes that in the promised land are stirring, distinguishing, scrambling.” There even are maps provided of all the various groups living in Israel: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, religious, secular, Arab and so on.
The obvious response to all this is “so what?” Is this not, in fact, the magnificence of Israel? Should it not be celebrated that Israel’s democracy has embraced so many different communities and granted them their political freedom? The image of Israel as a land of chaos is belied by what one sees on the ground: A country that is wealthy, orderly and clean despite immense hardships, terrorism and political conflicts. It is hyperactive, crowded, ever searching for more industries, startups, hospitals, cars, flowerbeds… more and more, all new and exciting.
In the end, Limes declares, Israel does not represent the Jewish people and certainly has no right to represent the Diaspora. “The king is naked,” it howls. But he is not. Israel represents its citizens and any Jew can become an Israeli citizen if he or she wishes to do so, because Israel believes that every Jew is part of the Jewish people.
The truth is that the entire argument that the Jews are an illusion is a cliché. It has been advanced since the Babylonian exile and then the destruction of the First Temple. It was a ridiculous claim then and a ridiculous claim now.
Indeed, the indissoluble link between nation and religion is not just ancient but fundamental to Israel’s existence. David Ben-Gurion, a socialist, was a secular man who founded a secular state, but his knowledge of the Bible was immense and he believed that the visions of the prophets were the cornerstone of the nation. Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, was equally secular, but made sure that synagogues were immediately built in his new city.
Over the centuries, religious Jews helped keep the Jewish nation alive. Without their tireless preservation of language, philosophy and ritual, Judaism would have disappeared. They saved the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple and numerous other catastrophes.
Religious and secular Jews have always been indispensable to one another. Certainly, there are differences between various sects and communities, between the Haredim, religious nationalists, secularists, socialists and so on. In Israel, they contend and coexistence, but such is the case in any diverse and democratic country. It is a beautiful mosaic.
It is worth remembering that, on the eve of every war, Israel’s enemies have declared that Israel was already falling apart, collapsing from internal divisions. And yet, it was Israel that emerged victorious.
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is the author of Jewish Lives Matter.