Shelter at Moshav Komemiyut, near Ashkelon.
Shelter at Moshav Komemiyut, near Ashkelon. Photo by Alex Levac
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Zeev Raz is the embodiment of the Israeli dream. Born on Kibbutz Geva in 1947, he was a storied combat pilot. In June 1981, as commander of the 117 Squadron, he led the attack on the nuclear reactor at Osirak in Iraq and was awarded the chief of staff's medal of honor for evincing a high level of professionalism and daring. He was demobilized with the rank of colonel. He currently works at ELTA Systems Ltd., a group and subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, which specializes, among other things, in electronic warfare.

In recent months Raz has been coordinating a historical, ideological and political e-mail discussion group about the meaning of life in Israel. In this, he says, he is trying "to touch the tail of the road he did not take." That is - the contemplative intellectual road. Many of the participants - "the regiments of the mind and spirit," as Raz calls them - live, like he does, in the upper spheres of the Israeli elite. Some of them are prominent in the world of academia. They meet with intellectuals and correspond by e-mail. Most of them are no longer young, are secular, are in all probability readers of Haaretz and, in many respects, they can say that life in Israel has treated them well.

However, as Israel marks its 64th Independence Day, they are pondering and debating as though they did not have 150 years of Zionist thought behind them: Is Israel just one option among many, or is the place of the Jewish people in its own land? Not all of them are optimistic.

The discussions began in earnest after A.B. Yehoshua joined in, elaborating on comments he made earlier this year in a public forum: "To my mind, the Holocaust is proof of the failure of the Jews' Diaspora identity as it had been formed during the course of more than 2,500 years. The failure is manifested not only in the Holocaust but also in the massive assimilation of many members of the Jewish people into the peoples among which they lived. Of the four to six million at the end of the Second Temple period, one million remained at the start of the 18th century.

"Some of the problems in the Middle East stem from demographic inferiority we are not able to correct. The Jewish people after the Holocaust is no longer the same people with the potential it had before the Holocaust. The failure of the Diaspora identity has pushed more than half the people to replace this identity with a sovereign territorial identity."

Prof. (emerita ) Hamutal Bar-Yosef, a poet, translator and literary scholar, agreed with him: "Why are we not allowed to say we have a part in the responsibility for the Holocaust? The time has come to stop relating our history as a chain of 'they did to us' and 'they did to us.' We must take responsibility for our deeds and our shortcomings, even if they are mistaken."

Historian Anita Shapira found it difficult to restrain herself: "It has not yet been proven that what bothered the Nazis and their helpers was the Jews' dual identity," she wrote to Yehoshua, reminding him: "Had Rommel's divisions succeeded in reaching Palestine, it would have become clear that they made no distinction between Jews with a territorial identity and Diaspora Jews." Fellow historian Yehuda Bauer wrote in a similar spirit.

Yehoshua also believes that Jewish existence in Israel is "more complete" than in other countries. Bar-Yosef agreed: "The State of Israel is the only state where the life and the culture are Jewish. Normal Jewish life and the development of Jewish culture will not be possible in a state where the Jews are not a majority."

Zvi Kesse, who occasionally publishes opinion pieces, wrote: "It is not by chance that in 3,000 years there has been no Jewish generation that can come anywhere near the strength of the creative achievement here in just three generations - in society, the military, technology, literature, art, poetry, popular lyrics and music, education and every area of life and activity."

And then literary critic Dan Miron chimed in. Brilliant, sarcastic and arrogant, he tore them all to shreds. "Yehoshua the thinker (as opposed to Yehoshua the writer ) does not know how to think historically, i.e., to build his concepts on the realistic and the existential," Miron wrote. "He thinks counter to history."

Zvi Kesse's remarks are "simply chatter," Miron added, asking: "Is the economic, social, organizational, scientific, artistic and political achievement produced within three generations on American soil by a community of immigrant Jews, anguished and sorrowful people who started out as peddlers and sweatshop workers, really inferior to that of Israel, which came about with the essential economic and political help of members of that same community?"

Miron invoked Jewish intellectuals from Franz Kafka to Albert Einstein and asked: "Kurt Weill, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein didn't come anywhere near Naomi Shemer? Woody Allen is fleabane next to Joseph Cedar?" Nor, continued Miron, has Hebrew Israel restored the Jews to so-called normalcy. "Historically, the Jewish norm is manifested in an absence of sovereignty and Jewish culture - in multilingualism," he wrote.

Hovering over this debate is the question of whether to stay or to leave. Some of the participants evince secular discomfort. One of them, a woman named Efrat Schechter, wrote: "I have no doubt that the existence of the state will continue with or without me, for the simple reason that the process under way here is transforming me into a secondary factor. Whether I stay or not - the majority that will rule here is not mine and apparently it also does not want me. I do not think there will be a Taliban state here. I believe there will be technology, progress, initiative and original thinking here, but all of this in the framework of some state based on rabbinical law, for a life in which I do not have the tools to prepare my children."