The Idea of a Jewish Society

J. Perl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the Gregorian year 2000, Rosh Hashanah dinners were politically intense in Jerusalem. An unwelcome visit to Muslim shrines by Ariel Sharon (then leader of the Knesset opposition) was followed, only hours before the festival began, by violence. At the time, I was finishing my first year as a citizen of Israel and was taken aback to find a member of Ehud Barak's government, a figure of international prestige, at the New Year's dinner I was attending. I naturally hoped the minister could tell us things we had not heard on the news and that he could offer a sense of what the government might have in mind to do. But the minister had questions of his own. Is it not true, he asked, that those elected to parliament in Scandinavian countries are required even today to swear allegiance to the state and the state church? Why could not Arabs elected to the Knesset be required to swear allegiance to Israel as a specifically Jewish state? The minister feared development, not only of an Arab fifth column in Muslim/Christian areas of Israel like the Galilee, but also a pro-Palestinian bloc in the Knesset. I do not remember at this distance how much history the minister was offered that evening, but I did not say aloud what I was thinking. It was the oath of allegiance to the Established Church that had kept elected Jews (Lionel de Rothschild, notably) from sitting in the House of Commons for much of the Victorian era, and here was a member of the Jewish state parliament wondering aloud whether Jews should not demand a likewise impossible oath of Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. So far as I know, the minister in the end proposed no such oath to the cabinet. But the fact of his raising its possibility—even under pressure of High Holy Day violence in the Holy City—had me thinking about . . . T. S. Eliot. [End Page 447] Or rather, I was thinking about the ironies of history and naming them, as a shorthand, T. S. Eliot. For here was a state founded by free-thinking Jews for free-thinking Jews. Its founders had not conceived it as a place even for religious Jews, though accommodations were made for them; and certainly not as a place for non-Jews. A Jewish state was, even the Soviets agreed, an obligation after Auschwitz. No gentile state—given history—could trust itself to guarantee Jews so much as a right to breathe. So like Aeneas and his band, returning from a Troy in ruins to an Italy the goddess Venus said they came from, Zionists and refugees with no obvious place to go arrived at a piece of land they did not want to know was inhabited. "Now what?" has been the question ever since. Whether Israel is a real democracy is not the issue. (A columnist in Haaretz, the most distinguished Israeli newspaper, wrote recently of the prime minister: "Sharon, the man with the balls of steel, has the leadership vision of a blind goat.") At issue is a problem more Eliotic: At what point does diversity begin to attenuate identity? Can a Jewish state, in other words, be both free-thinking (inclusive, pluralist, liberal, secular) and meaningfully Jewish? The answer that Israeli governments have consistently supplied or implied since 1948 has been Eliotic as well. I would go so far as to suggest that Israel may be the country that most fully embodies what Eliot hoped the modern world might be and, moreover, the culture in which the word modern appears to mean most nearly what he meant by it. Israel offers something like the mix of homogeneity and "friction" (the population is more than eighty percent Jewish, but the Jews split into mutually disdaining factions) that Eliot argued will characterize any flourishing culture. 1 The continual outcry from Sephardim, including politically powerful Sephardim, against the undue influence of the Ashkenazi elite testifies to Israel's having...
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)447-454
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2003


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