When Theodor Herzl pleaded with his fellow Jews to will the dream of a Jewish state into being, it was for a very practical reason. As the father of modern Zionism wrote 122 years ago in “The Jewish State,” only in their own nation could the Jewish people escape persecution and be free to practice their religion and advance their culture.
Other early Zionist leaders had different reasons for urging the creation of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland, ranging from Ahad Ha’Am’s vision of a central hub for global Jewish creativity, to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s religious imperative of bringing Jews home to Zion as a precursor to the messianic age.
What all of these ideas had in common was movement — Jews needed to move from wherever they lived to a particular spot on the globe, and once they were there, they needed to build something new, something that had never existed before. Not just a re-creation of the ancient Israelite kingdom, but a modern exercise in Jewish self-determination.
The questions began even before the state was declared: What does it mean to establish a Jewish state? What should be the relationship between Jewish law and the secular laws of this new nation? How should the state treat its non-Jewish citizens, as well as its neighbors in the region?
When a revolution stops moving forward, it calcifies.
Some of these questions were addressed in the nascent state’s declaration of independence, which, like any such document, was aspirational. It still is. For when a revolution stops moving forward, it calcifies — and Israel is nothing if not a profound revolution.
American Jews old enough to remember the wars of 1948 and 1967 understand in their kishkes how precious and vulnerable this dream, this revolution, truly was for the Jews. Many witnessed a world where Jewish life had been nearly snuffed out, and the spectacle of the young state hovering on a precipice was all too real — and terrifying.
Those who are now middle-aged remember a more confident Israel — the kibbutz and urban streets of the 1970s and ’80s — which flexed its muscle with a grin and looked ahead with optimism.
Those in the younger generation know none of that, and as recent studies reveal, their attachment to Israel is waning. That is a tragedy — not for Israel, which can take care of itself, but for the Jewish people as a whole. It comes from confusing the state’s policies with its potential; it wrongly perceives Israel as belonging only to its residents, when in fact it belongs to all of the world’s Jews. We are all responsible for its welfare and its foibles. We all have a right to speak up, and a duty to pitch in.
All we need is the will.