Tel Aviv became the fulfillment of Herzl’s dream in Altneuland: the secular, liberal repository of contemporary Israeli culture. It has always appealed to Israelis with little patience for divine command, historical claims, or spiritual yearning. The splendid beachfront, enticing café culture, and throbbing nightlife display its cosmopolitan and hedonistic aspirations.
Jerusalem, perched on Mt. Zion at the end of the road from Tel Aviv, remained isolated and insular. With the Jewish Quarter destroyed and the Old City inaccessible after 1948, it became a provincial town stripped of the holy places that symbolized its spiritual heart and soul. Its shtetl neighborhoods, pre-modern and enclosed, with their narrow lanes and shuks and religious customs, were not hospitable to outsiders. In its more elegant western European enclaves, life was refined, sedate and introverted.
But not twenty years after independence, following its swift and sweeping victory in the Six-Day War, Israel was transformed. As Moshe Dayan proclaimed, “We have returned to all that is holy in our land. We have returned never to be parted from it again.” Even soldiers from kibbutzim, the ideological stronghold of secular Zionism, could imagine that “we were inscribing a new chapter in the Bible, a chapter of miracles, wonders and greatness…. The whole of the Promised Land is ours.”
After June 1967 Israelis by the thousands and tens of thousands could finally roam across the biblical landscape. Their itinerary took them from Jerusalem to Rachel’s Tomb, outside Bethlehem, and to Ma’arat HaMachpelah in Hebron, the burial place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs where no Jew had been permitted to pray for seven centuries. They visited ancient Jericho, biblical Shechem, and the hill country where the Maccabees fought for freedom from foreign rule.
The Old City was finally restored to the Jewish people. The Western Wall, the repository of Jewish sacred history and for so long the symbol of the timeless Jewish yearning to return, now became the site of its miraculous fulfillment. Despite its more garish recent sacrifices to modernity – the new entrance to the city, high-rise apartment buildings and luxury hotels, and a shopping mall – the contrast with Tel Aviv remains as sharp as ever. To some, Jerusalem can still seem too Jewish for a secular Zionist state.
Within a year an intrepid group of pioneering Israelis, who became known as “settlers,” seized the opportunity to restore Jewish life in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Using the classic Zionist strategy of settling the land “dunam by dunam,” they began to rebuild destroyed Jewish communities and, eventually, to build new ones.
First came Kfar Etzion, the cluster of kibbutzim just south of Jerusalem that Arabs had demolished on the eve of the Independence War. Then, after a decade in the new settlement of Kiryat Arba, Jews returned to Hebron, whose Jewish community had been viciously destroyed during the Arab pogrom in 1929.
* * * * *
The sudden, unexpected and, to these religious Zionists, miraculous convergence of Zionism and Judaism was profoundly disturbing to secular Israelis committed to Western liberal values. For the young writer Amos Oz the Six-Day War brought tragedy, not triumph. The modern “marriage” of “the Jewish heritage and the European humanist experience” that previously defined Zionism would, he feared, be shattered by religious zeal.
The settlement movement eventually transcended its ideological origins in religious nationalism. Secular Israelis who could not afford Tel Aviv real estate prices moved to affordable new communities across the Green Line, within an easy commute to jobs and cultural pleasures. Inner city ultra-Orthodox Jews with rapidly expanding families, traditionally aloof from Zionism, relocated to settlements just outside Jerusalem.
But most Israelis, like most Diaspora Jews, do not seem eager to belong to a distinctive people that dwells alone. In recent years the venerable Zionist contrast between Israel and galut has receded. Israel’s cultural intermarriage with the United States is no less problematic than the 50 percent Jewish intermarriage rate in the American promised land.
Indeed, yeridah has replaced aliyah: there are more Israelis living in the United States than Americans in the Jewish state. They prefer the Silicon Valley and Los Angeles to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. That dismaying inversion of Zionist expectations is an ominous portent for the future.
Israel’s cultural intermarriage with the United States has the potential to undermine Jewish distinctiveness in the Jewish state. The price of normalization, for which Herzl and his secular Zionist disciples yearned, could yet become exorbitant.
After sixty-five years of wars and intifadas, and the encircling threat posed by militant Islam, it is entirely understandable that many – perhaps most – Israelis would yearn for peace now, peace in our time, peace at almost any price. That might be possible if only Israel were like other nations. But Jewish history, ancient and modern, suggests otherwise.