Future Tense: The Next Challenge

February 1, 2008
Future Tense e1379272985492

This extract from Future Tense was published in The Jewish Chronicle on 1st February 2008.

The first task of Zionism was achieved with extraordinary success: the creation of a Jewish state. The second task has not yet been achieved: the creation of a Jewish society. Yet historically it was the second, not the first, that drove the vision of the Bible. Israel in ancient times was not conceived as a political project alone. If it had been, it would have disappeared after the Babylonian conquest, along with the Canaanites, Hittites and Perizzites. Judaism never saw power as an end in itself. Politically, one of the most successful Israelite kings was Jeroboam II. Yet we do not see him as one of our heroes.

The visionaries who sustained our national identity, from Abraham to the last of the prophets, saw the Jewish task as the creation of a society built on justice, compassion, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual, a society that was the opposite of the empires of their day, in which few had power and the many were powerless. As historian Norman Gottwald wrote about the Israelites of Bible times, 'Israel thought it was different because it was different: it constituted an egalitarian social system in the midst of stratified societies.' G. K. Chesterton once said that America was the only nation built on an idea. He was, of course, wrong. Biblical Israel was based on an idea, millennia ahead of its time: that every individual is in the image of God, and society must honour that fact.

It may seem absurd to speak about these things at a time when Israel is – as it surely is – fighting for its life, especially in the wake of this week's terrorist attack in Dimona. Yet that is what the prophets did. While others were reacting to the present, they spoke about the future. Their message was simple: serve God. But it had a deep rationality that can be translated into secular terms. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and especially Jeremiah were political realists. They knew that Israel is a tiny country surrounded by large empires. It cannot match them on any conventional measure of military-demographic strength. Israel wins its battles because of its extraordinary morale, itself the result of its societal strength. When divisions open up within society, people become demoralised and the nation falls prey to its larger, more powerful neighbours. In Israel, social solidarity is the nation's best long term defence.I had a life-changing experience when writing the first of my political books, The Politics of Hope. I suddenly realised that Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, contains a political theory more subtle than any of the philosophical classics. Uniquely, Israel had not one foundational moment but two.

One is the moment when Israel first became a kingdom in the days of Samuel. Until then it had been a loose confederation of tribes, without a political head of state. It was led, during emergencies, by charismatic figures like Gideon, known as 'judges'. In Samuel's old age the people demanded a king. God tells Samuel to warn the people of the risks involved, and adds that if, despite the warning, they still want to go ahead, Samuel should appoint a king.

The narrative is fraught with ambivalence. Samuel warns the people what will happen if they appoint a king. He will take their sons into the army, their daughters into royal service, seize their property and tax their produce. When that happens, he says, 'You will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and God will not answer you.' Is the Bible telling us that monarchy is good or bad? Maimonides said 'good', Abarbanel, who worked with monarchs in Spain, said 'bad.'

It was the nineteenth century Talmudist, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes, who solved the problem. What God and Samuel were proposing was a social contract, on the lines later expounded by the founders of modern political thought: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. A group of self-interested individuals will find it worthwhile to appoint a leader who will defend them from lawlessness within and enemies outside. To do so they will have to sacrifice some of their liberty and wealth, but the alternative is anarchy and foreign conquest. Samuel's appointment of Saul is the first recorded instance of a social contract.

What makes the history of Israel unique is that this was its second political founding, not its first. That had happened centuries earlier at Mount Sinai in the days of Moses, when the people made a covenant with God. They were no longer a group of escaping ex-slaves. At Sinai they became a body politic under the sovereignty of God with the Torah as their written constitution. In the days of Samuel they became a kingdom, but it was in the days of Moses that they became a nation.

Tanach, in other words, makes a clear distinction between social contract and social covenant. Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is based on self-interest; social covenant is about shared identity. Social contract belongs to the world of politics; social covenant is about morality and collective responsibility, the idea that kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, 'All Jews are responsible for one another'. Only one other nation has ever had a similar dual founding, namely the United States, whose covenant is set out in the Declaration of Independence (1776), and whose contract was formulated in the Constitution (1787). This is no coincidence: the Founding Fathers of America were deeply influenced by the Hebrew Bible.

Israel's dual structure enabled it to do what no other nation in history has ever done: survive as a nation for two thousand years without a state. After the Roman conquest, Israel was no longer a kingdom. Its social contract was inoperative. But it still had the covenant. Therefore it still remained a nation even in exile and dispersion. In Judaism, covenant is stronger than contract. Society matters more than the state.

That is what makes ancient Jewish history so relevant today. Israel is a highly successful state. But there are fault-lines within society, between religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sefardim, sabras and new immigrants, the cultures of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and many others. At times, like the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin or the Gaza withdrawal, fissures become open wounds. For anyone who remembers what happened in the wake of national divisions in the First and Second Temple periods, warning signals should be sounding loud and clear.

Towards the end of the 2006 Lebanon War, there was at least one prophetic observer: Ari Shavit, a secular journalist, writing in Haaretz. He spoke of how, for twenty years, Israeli elites had 'forged a regime of rampant capitalism and extreme individualism that debilitates any sense of solidarity and enervates the national immune system.' They promised peace without preparing people for the struggle they would face if the peace process failed. They turned Israel 'into a pleasure yacht' with no understanding of the looming storm. 'A country in which there is no equality, no justice and no belief in the justness of its path, is a country for which no one will charge ahead.'

I cannot say such things. I do not live in Israel. I do not lay my life on the line as its people do, every day. Prophets, as Michael Walzer has reminded us in our time, speak from within the society they challenge. They are not armchair critics, speaking from afar. All I know is that Israel is a nation of heroes capable of meeting any challenge. But heroes need a diet of ideals not supplied by the market economy or liberal democracy alone. That is why politics and economics are not enough to sustain a society. There must be a richly textured sense of the common good. That needs not social contract but social covenant.

What, in practice, might that mean? What if the leaders of the Haredi community were to rule that every yeshiva student must spend ten per cent of his time working with secular Israelis among the poor, or in hospitals? What if secular universities required their students to do social work within the Haredi community? What if a new secular-religious synthesis were to emerge, built on shared humanitarian principles and a strong sense of Jewish heritage? What if rabbis were to lead the way in promoting citizenship, parenthood, neighbourliness, civility, community service and our responsibilities to the vulnerable and disadvantaged? What if secularists were to insist that familiarity with our religious classics is an essential part of Jewish literacy? What if the focus of Zionism was to turn from statehood to society-building, from contract to covenant?

And yes, this already happens in many outstanding projects, and wherever it does, it creates a Kiddush Hashem. But it is not yet a national movement or mood. The values for which the prophets fought could not be more relevant to the politics of today. Israel, ancient and modern, represents the search for freedom, justice and compassion against the perennial temptations of tyranny, resentment, cruelty and death. The dark forces have not disappeared: the cult of the suicide bomber is as evil an aberration as the world has seen in many generations. When it comes to the defence of freedom and the sanctity of life, Israel is still on the front line.

Israel's enemies have come to the following judgment, based on an insight of the great fourteenth century Arab intellectual, Ibn Khaldun: affluent, city-based civilisations eventually become decadent and effete. They become hedonist and individualist. They lose the will for the struggle and the sacrifices it entails. Eventually they fall to the desert dwellers, who have no need for luxury and no fear of death.

Israel's enemies underestimate its strength. It remains a nation of indomitable courage. But at this time of uncertainty and apprehension, it needs a renewal of its moral energy and a restatement of its ideals. It needs prophets, and they can only come from within. The time has come for a renewal of Israel's covenant with history and hope.