“People resent the Jews for having emerged from their immemorial weakness and fearlessly resorted to force. They thereby betrayed the mission that history had assigned to them — being a people … that did not get tangled up in the obtuse narrowness of the nation-state.” – Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt
It is now Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout their history on the same date on the Hebrew calendar — the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.
Tisha B’Av primarily commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but on this day we also reflect on the many other tragedies which occurred on this date, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 to the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Like many Israelis, I intend to spend some time on this day at the Kotel participating in what represents a public bereavement for the many victims of our collective tragedies. Typically, however, in addition to such mourning, I often can’t help but reflect on this painful annual recollection of suffering and catastrophe in the context of the Jewish community’s often ambivalent relationship with power. Such ruminations are only heightened by my new citizenship in Israel, a nation often forced to exercise power in order to prevent additional tragedies from befalling the Jewish people.
Indeed, Israel’s rebirth in 1948 can be seen as a direct response to these calamitous events — an attempt, through the various mechanisms of statecraft, to turn Jewish history around and act instead of being acted upon. Whether defending itself in war or aiding and rescuing endangered Jewish communities around the world, the Jewish collective has had at its disposal — for the first time in over 2000 years — a state apparatus with the means (politically, diplomatically, and militarily) to protect its interests as other nations have throughout the centuries.
However, with this organized exercise of strength comes a price, a unique moral burden that many Jews, especially in the diaspora, seem unwilling or unable to bear — as any exertion of power, or control over your own fate, inevitably carries with it the loss of innocence often projected upon people perceived to be victims and lacking in moral agency.
Israeli military power (exercised against terrorism, asymmetrical warfare and other small-scale regional threats, and in major wars against state actors) and the relative success and political power of Jewish communities in the West, seems to instill in many Jews a loss of identification with their community for fear of falling on the “wrong side” of the left-right political divide.
This chasm often finds expression in the need to identify in a way uniquely separate from such seemingly crude “ethnocentric” expressions of political and military power which carry with them the necessity of physically defending a nation (one representing a very particular identity) in all the complexities and compromises that are invariably associated with even the most progressive national enterprises.
Before the birth of the modern Jewish state, German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig in his pre-Holocaust book The Star of Redemption expressed his belief that a return to Israel would embroil the Jews into a worldly history they should shun. He viewed Judaism as a “supra-historical entity,” whose importance lies in the fact that it is not political but presents a “spiritual ideal” only. He saw the creation of a nation-state as a blow to the Jewish ideal of an apolitical spiritual life.