An interview with Michael Brenner, author of In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea
Why does Israel attract so much attention?
The answer lies in history. Many people call Israel “the holy land” for a reason: it is here where the origins of their religions were shaped. The Jewish people too are regarded as special: they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the world’s dominant religions. In Christianity and in Islam, Jews were both seen as a people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected by God. While over the last two hundred years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained. That the Jews became victims of the most systematic genocide in modern history lent them yet another mark of uniqueness. After two thousand years in exile, the fact that Jews returned to their ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded the people and place with additional mystique.
Did the Zionists view themselves as unique?
The irony is that the Zionist movement was established at the end of the 19th century precisely in order to overcome this mark of difference and uniqueness. Many Zionists claimed that they just wanted to be like anyone else. Chaim Weizmann, longtime leader of the Zionist movement and Israel’s first president, was quoted with saying: “We just want to be another Albania,” meaning a small state that nobody really cares about. Even Israel’s founding document, the declaration of independence, says that Israel has the right to be “like all other nations.” But at the same time the notion of being different, perhaps being special, was internalized by Zionists as well. Many of its leaders argued that a Jewish state has a special responsibility. Even the most secular among them regarded Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations” as a crucial part of a prophetic tradition.
Does this mean that Zionism was a religious movement?
Not at all. Most of its early leaders were strictly secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, knew no Hebrew and in fact very little about Jewish traditions. But he wanted to establish a model state for humanity, and saw the formation of Israel as an example for the liberation of African-Americans. Long before any other state granted voting rights for women, he let women be active participants in the Zionist congresses. He drew a flag for the future Jewish state that had seven stars, symbolizing a seven-hour-workday for everyone. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was a Socialist and rejected organized religion. But just like Herzl, he believed in the mission of a model state that could spread the prophetic ideals of universal peace and equality among the nations.
Why then is Israel seen by many today not as a model state but as a pariah state?
Herzl discussed other potential destinations, such as Argentina and British East Africa, as refuge for the persecuted European Jews. But the only place Jews had an emotional connection with was the territory they had originated from. Over centuries, Jews prayed for their return to the land of Israel. But it was not an empty land. The Arab Palestinians soon developed their own ideas of nationhood and rejected the growing Jewish immigration. In the meantime, antisemitism increased in Europe and other countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came too late to save the lives of millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But by then, most of the world recognized the Jews’ right to their own state in their ancient homeland, as reflected in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Yet the Arab world did not see why they should pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. The situation reflected the parable of a person (the Jews) jumping out of the window of a burning house (Europe) and hitting another person (the Palestinians) on the street in order to save his own life. The ongoing conflict of two peoples over the same land, combined with the special significance of this land in the eyes of the world, led to a situation where even outsiders have strong opinions. For Evangelical Christians, Israel fulfills a divine mission, while for others, especially in the Arab world, Israel is regarded as a foreign intruder in the tradition of the medieval Crusaders and modern Imperialists.
So, can Israel one day become just a “normal state?”
To begin with, let me qualify this question. The idea of a “normal state” is a fiction altogether. Every state sees itself as special. But it is true that some states receive more attention from the rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another Albania in the eyes of the world, or relegated in our attention to its place among the nations between Djibouti and Belize? I do not believe so. The history of Jerusalem is different from that of Tirana (Albania’s capital), and the Jews have attracted so much more attention than nations of comparable size. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the limelight of media attention. However, let us not forget: The people in Israel live their everyday lives just like everywhere else. They worry about their jobs and about their sports teams, they want their children to be safe and successful in school, and they dream of a peaceful future. In this deeply personal sense, Israel has become a state just like any other.