When Herzl wrote in his diary, the day after the First Zionist Congress, "...in Basel I founded the Jewish state," it was clear to him that the state hadn't really been founded in those summer days of 1897. Rather, the infrastructure that provided a basis for a political framework for the Jewish people for the first time in 2000 years had been formed.
Or as Herzl said, he gave people "the feeling that they were the national assembly." Until they met, the Jews lacked not only territory, but an institutional authority that could speak in the nation's name and demand a state.
That was the significance of convening the congress, holding elections, electing an executive committee, charging a voluntary tax (the shekel), creating financial instruments - which in later days would be called "the state in formation."
I pondered over this Copernican revolution of Herzl's as I read two reports published in Haaretz on December 2. The first was about Arye Leib Teitelbaum, one of the Israelis killed in Mumbai, whose family asked not to cover his coffin with the state flag before flying it to Israel. Teitelbaum was a Satmar Hasid and his family are Neturei Karta people, who see the very establishment of the Israeli state as fundamental heresy and a refusal to accept the Kingdom of Heaven.
The second was a short story about Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, whom the writer Nadav Shragai called "one of the heads of Chabad's Messianic faction." Since the disengagement from Gaza, Wolpe has regarded Israel and its government "as though it were British rule" and its leaders as "a king as harsh as Haman."
Wolpe and his supporters call on religious soldiers to disobey orders and proclaim that "we are in exile." An overdose of messianic Zionism has led Wolpe and his men to see the tangible historic product of Zionism - the State of Israel - as the kingdom of evil.
The fact that two opposite interpretations to religious tradition could lead to a radical delegitimization of Israel's existence should raise a number of thoughts. First, it appears that at least as far as the Jewish public is concerned, the deepest undermining of Zionism and Israel's legitimacy does not come from the extreme left wingers dubbed "post Zionists," but from religious groups with deep faith. It is possible to be both a believing Jew and a meticulous enemy of Israel.
Traditonal religious Zionism of the Mizrahi school of thought, which sought the middle way between loyalty to tradition and avoiding the path to possible false messianism, is being eroded between the contradictory interpretations of Neturei Karta and Rabbi Wolpe. This moderate religious Zionism was one of Zionism and Israel's cornerstones and now, with the disappearance of the historic National Religious Party, one component has dropped out of the pluralistic Zionist building.
Second, it was David Ben-Gurion who understood the deep meaning of establishing a state: the Jews in exile created a normative basis for their existence (the halakha) and developed institutions (rabbinate, community), which implemented and reflected these norms effectively. But the loss of the political basis meant that the Jews had no single authoritative legitimate institutional framework which could enforce its power domestically and speak for them to other nations. The Zionist movement of Herzl's school wanted to create this framework and has withstood difficult trials before and after achieving independence.
Ben-Gurion's treatment of the Altalena and after that in dismantling the Palmach (the Hebrew acronym for Plugot Mahatz - Strike Companies) may be criticized for its uncompromising harshness. But those two moves, with all their differences, were based upon the understanding that establishing a state requires one agreed authority - even if occasionally one needs to take harsh measures to obtain and preserve it.
The Palestinians' present failure to set up a national authority is an example of what could happen to a nation whose leadership fails to grasp, or is incapable of implementing, a national authority.
Neturei Karta's position (even in the painful circumstances of the murderous attack in Mumbai) and Rabbi Wolpe's approach show that the process Herzl started and Ben Gurion continued has yet to be completed. From this point of view - not in the meaning Neturei Karta and Rabbi Wolpe attach to it - we are still at least partly in exile.
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