I have often tried to imagine how the Israelite slaves in Egypt responded to the Ten Plagues, the midnight flight and sudden Exodus into the unknown desert, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, and the abrupt transition from bondage to freedom.
Slavery was all that they and numerous generations before them had known. Suddenly, appearing out of nowhere (actually, the Sinai desert) and without any primary elections or other democratic processes, an Israelite named Moses, speaking like an Egyptian, claimed to have received divine instructions to become their leader and to negotiate on their behalf with Pharaoh. But instead of improving their situation, this only made it worse, as the taskmasters added to the workload and the overall suffering.
When the plagues began to cripple Egypt, did the majority of Israelites, who were mysteriously protected from the worsening crisis, worry that their all-powerful overlords would eventually exact revenge? How many were able to grasp the scale of these events and their significance, and to go beyond the immediate traumas and fears for the future in an entirely different and unknown environment? Did groups like Israelite Voices for Peace and C (Cairo) Street organize demonstrations and sign petitions against Moses, Aharon and the other Elders, and publish columns in leading newspapers denouncing the rabble rousers?
In recent generations, more than 3,500 years later, the Jewish people are again in the middle of tremendous historic events. The Shoah, the return to the Land of Israel and re-establishment of national sovereignty after 2,000 years of exile, accompanied by the ongoing wars and threats of extinction, are all wrenching changes in our individual and collective existence. This suffering includes mass terror attacks, barrages of missiles from Gaza and Hamas, and the cold-blooded murder of Jewish children.
In our exodus, the Jewish people moved from exile and subjugation into freedom and self-determination, embodied in the State of Israel, with all of its faults and growing pains. For the majority of Jews around the world, Israel has become the center of their religious, cultural and national identities—about half of the Jewish population now makes their homes in Israel. Millions more identify closely with Israel, weigh-in on the efforts to adjust diverse traditions to the demands of a modern democratic society, and contribute to or benefit from the rich Jewish cultural renaissance.
But for some Jews, the modern mix of afflictions and triumphs is too overwhelming to deal with, and they focus on more immediate and local concerns. Their relationship to Israel is limited, distant, and sometimes alienated. For a small but influential group with access to the media and funding from hostile non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Israel and Jewish independence is a burden and an embarrassment. Their minimalist Jewish identity remains deeply embedded in the Diaspora.
Today’s Jewish and Israeli counterparts to Moses’s critics are unable to cope with the requirements of freedom and self-determination, and look to a generally hostile “international community” to impose their interests and policies on the rest of us. These post- and anti-Zionists write columns in the New York Times and travel the world, denouncing Israel on university campuses, in United Nations frameworks, and some churches supporting the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a means of keeping the Jewish nation in a state of political slavery.
But history does not move in reverse. “Independent Israelites” who stayed in Egypt quickly disappeared, as did those who turned around in the desert and returned to the house of bondage, embittered and angry. Similarly, in our times, Jewish history is moving in one direction. We have witnessed terrible suffering leaving the Diaspora and regaining freedom. And while Israel is not yet the perfect Jewish and democratic state that has been imagined, what we have managed to accomplish is still miraculous.
Gerald M. Steinberg heads NGO Monitor and is professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.