Can Israel be a country like any other?
The mistaken concept that Israel will become a country like all others has already had a long shelf-life in parts of Zionist history. One tiny but typical example was when Jewish prostitutes in pre-Israel Palestine began their profession, there were ambiguous feelings in society. Some were primarily ashamed, others emphasized that it was another sign of Jewish “normalcy” on the way to statehood.
Israel’s independence established many institutions, similar to other countries. This includes a government, Parliament, Supreme Court, an army, security forces, a central bank and so on. Another normalization of the Jewish people’s reality has been the ingathering of close to half of the world’s Jewish population into Israel.
Further contributions to making Israel “normal” may come in the future, including internationally recognized borders.
If the peace negotiations progress somewhat, the idea that Israel will become a “normal” country is likely to become more prominent again. This notion means that Israel will become fairly similar to Western democracies.
Many Israelis admire the relative quiet as well as the hedonism of the West, and wish they could live that way too.
However, such “normalization” has its limits. One is that all nations are intrinsically unique. To this one should add that some are more unique than others.
That is the case with Israel. It is one of only a few countries comprised mostly of immigrants. This is largely true for the United States, Australia, Canada, Argentina and so on, yet the main influx of people in those countries came much earlier. A far larger difference is that Israel’s immigrants have ancestors who prayed long ago for a return to Zion, where Jewish generations had lived far more than a millennium before.
Uniqueness derives from internal and external factors.
A crucial element in Israel’s uniqueness is that its history is radically different from that of any other country. The Jewish people’s long sojourn in the Diaspora represents a development without precedent. In recent history, the same is true for the Holocaust. This strongly enhances Israel’s uniqueness not only today, but also for the foreseeable future.
Interrelated with this is Israel’s current reality. The Jewish people’s past has far more bearing on the present than through a few historical remnants. The Jewish tradition, much of which consists of religious elements, also influences the state. So does the centuries- long Jew-hatred in many parts of the world. Historical anti-Semitism – religious or ethnic – has primarily mutated into anti-Israelism. No other nation faces similar delegitimization. Even beyond this, there are genocidal threats coming out of parts of the Muslim world.
There are other factors which contribute to Israel’s uniqueness. They derive from the combination of both a language and a religion not shared by anyone else.
Many nations have a language which is not spoken by others. Greece, for example. However, the dominant Orthodox religion of Greece is not unique. This expressed itself clearly during the Yugoslav war when the Greeks – contrary to most European Union citizens –identified largely with the Serbs who are also Orthodox.
Related to the desire for unachievable major “normalization” is the promotion by some of an absurdity: Israel should “assimilate into the Middle East.” This superficial concept raises many questions and hardly any valid answers.
What should Israel do to “blend into” the Middle East? Should it glorify the few Israelis who intentionally murdered Palestinian civilians, as the Palestinian Authority lionized the many murderers of Israeli civilians? Should Israel indiscriminately bomb Palestinian villages after terror attacks? Should it deal with Arab parties’ demonstrations like the Egyptian military does with the Muslim Brotherhood? Should Israel develop chemical weapons like Syria? Should it execute common criminals like so many Arab states do? Many essential characteristics of the countries surrounding Israel are so incompatible with Israel’s basic norms and values that this “blending into the Middle East” is yet one more pipe dream.
In recent decades, a new role for Israel has emerged.
It is increasingly becoming an indicator of the state of mind of the Western world and its widespread dubious morality. Issues concerning Israel and its interactions with the West are so numerous that one can understand “where the West is at” from them in many fields. A similar reality concerned Jews in previous centuries. This is also still the case in various places.
Finally, the idea that Jews should adopt the dominant culture of their surroundings is an ancient one.
It goes back way beyond the desires and behavior of Europe’s many assimilated Jews during the centuries.
Already two millennia ago in the last independent Jewish state, that of the Maccabees and in the period immediately thereafter, there were Jews who revered and imitated Roman culture. The contributions by these Hellenists to Jewish history are minimal, if any. The same may also happen with the legacy of those who dream about a “normal” State of Israel.
The author is emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has published more than 20 books. Recently, his book Israel’s New Future has been republished with a new introduction as Israel’s New Future Revisited.