The Memorial Wall at Yad Vashem – the Wall of Holocaust and Heroism – has four sections, ranging from the Shoah to Rebirth. Magnificently designed by Naftali Bezem, it takes us movingly from an inferno in which the Holy is utterly profaned to the divine sanctuary of new Jewish generations. But these generations, symbolized by the countenance of a lion, must still shed endless tears.
For all of the lion’s greatness and strength, he can never be permitted to forget. Always, always…he must weep for the past. Implicit in this seemingly paradoxical imagery is the indelible imprint of Jewish uniqueness. Indeed, without this incontestable uniqueness, there can be no redemption; not for the Jews and, therefore, not for the wider world. In going up to The Land, Bezem’s new Jew acknowledges that Israel can never be regarded as merely one among the nations, but rather as a singularly special nation for all time.
Jewish uniqueness is both an individual and collective obligation. The latter is not possible without the former. Facing the world without a deeply felt sense of uniqueness, the Jewish state – the individual Jew in macrocosm – can never muster the spiritual and reverential strength it will need to survive.
We must never forget that Israel has a very special place in the world, and that denying this special place does unpardonable violence to the sacred. Here, the wisdom of Martin Buber is instructive: “There is no re-establishing of Israel, there is no security for it save one: it must assume the burden of its uniqueness….” Yet, today, Israel is obsessed with a very contrary and dangerous ethos. Today, virtually all of Israel wants only to be like everyone else. Above all, it wants to “fit in” the world. If Israel is “successful” in this wrongful ambition, the resultant triumph of secular uniformity, of utterly inappropriate goals and values, will only hasten Israel’s demise.
Israel, of course, faces many threats, some of them authentically existential. These threats, primarily the growing risks of unconventional terrorism and unconventional war, understandably preoccupy the concerns of Israel’s political leaders and military planners. But there are also less obvious and less palpable threats that, in certain respects, are every bit as ominous and are actually interrelated. None is more serious than the accelerating national retreat from Israeli Jewish uniqueness, a retreat animated by steadfast imitation of popular culture in the United States. For far too many Israelis, the currently optimal Jewish state is looking like Los Angeles.
For many states on this imperiled planet, imitation is not a conscious choice. For a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with unyielding economic and systemic constraints, these states are simply consigned to mimicry by dire circumstances far beyond their control. Here there is little for us to comment upon or to criticize.
Israel, however, is another matter entirely. What distinguishes Israel from these other imitative states is that it has purposely chosen mediocrity, all too often actually preferring an incremental pattern of social and political imitation to even a hint of leadership by Jewish example. As for originality, in political arrangements, in non-technical academic investigations (we all know how wonderful Israelis are as innovators in high-tech industries) and in virtue, Israel has become something of an embarrassment.
The consequences of a shamelessly imitative Jewish state are already plain to see. For Israel, imitation has led directly to the Oslo and Road Map process of national suicide, including the recent and unforgivable “disengagement” from Gaza. And, reciprocally, the Oslo/Road Map Process has led directly to a loss of Jewish meaning and loss of Jewish national will. Now accepting a “post-Zionist” discourse that would have been incomprehensible to earlier generations of Israelis (e.g., as early as January 14, 1999, Shimon Peres congratulated the PLO on its “long struggle for national liberation”), today’s Israeli citizens are largely unaware that they inhabit the most endangered state in the Middle East and that they represent the most endangered Jewish community on the face of the Earth.
To a significant extent, the prior governments’ “New Middle East” is the apt metaphor for Israel’s self-inflicted ordinariness. Celebrating an Israel that now refuses to remove itself from the vast sea of materialism and imitativeness, this fashionably au courant image displays sharp discontinuity with millennia of meaningful Jewish history, a history overstocked not only with martyrs, but with those Jews who were able to recognize Jewish national conformance and assimilation as a slow form of Jewish death. For Israel, the “New Middle East” now offers not only intolerable risks of war and terrorism, but also the even more insidious risks of death by intentional religious underachievement and willful cultural mediocrity.
On a planet where evil often remains “banal,” the effective origins of terrorism, war and genocide lie not in monstrous individuals, but in societies that positively despise the individual. In such societies, the mob is everything and a dreary secular sameness is the hallmark of national “progress.” Surrounded by exactly such societies, all of which “fit in” by keeping Israel “out,” the State of Israel – prodded by Washington – has now decided not to reject this terrible and terrifying mob, but to join it, to honor it, even to take an absolute delight in its conscious suppression of individual human promise in favor of a presumed belonging and public acceptance. For Israel, however, it is not only good to be “a light unto the nations,” but it is an altogether timeless and sacred duty.
In Naftali Bezem’s art, a ladder is the apt representation of aliyah, of the Jew going up to The Land. Of course it also arouses associations with Jacob’s dream and with Kabbalist degrees of ascension. By these associations, the meaning of aliyah is extended meaningfully to illustrate Jewish fullness and perfection, conditions that can never be separated from an unhindered awareness of Jewish uniqueness.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and publishes widely on Israeli security matters. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.