Imagination Can Also Be a Destructive Force

Under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, messianic nationalists from his Likud party, the Habayit Hayehudi party and movements similar to them in spirit are unraveling the seams of Israeli society.

Theodor Herzl.
Wikimedia Commons

It’s said that reality surpasses imagination, but imagination sometimes has the power to affect reality. If nations arose as a result of the human ability to imagine large social and political systems, then the imagination of the Jews, under the leadership of the early Zionist figures, truly surpassed even the wildest flight of fancy. Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Chaim Weizmann and others fired the imaginations of Jews around the world and inspired them to reconstitute as a nation, in the modern sense of the term, in a political framework within a defined territory.

Once the imagination had been fired, these leaders turned the resultant sense of unity into an organization with a social-political structure in the form of Israel, a Jewish state in its national sense.

In contrast, the current leadership of the Jewish people living in Israel is doing everything in its power to unravel these unifying threads of the imagination, intensify the differences between different population groups and explode the nation that has been formed here into tribal fragments on the altar of nationalism and messianism.

Jewish nationalism emphasizes the right of people with shared ethnic characteristics — culture, religion, language, territory, origin, history and way of life — to self-determination. But Jewish communities around the world differed from each other in most of these traits. Their one common characteristic was the Jewish religion, in all its various forms. Yet it wasn’t religion that fired the imagination in the way needed to spur action. For 2,000 years, religion hobbled the national awakening in the chains of messianic redemption and a threatening interpretation of the three oaths that, according to Jewish tradition, Israel swore to God when it began its exile: not to storm the walls; not to hasten the end; and not to rebel against the nations of the world.

Against a background of anti-Semitism and the rise of nationalism, the emphasis that the leaders of practical Zionism placed on the nation’s pre-exilic history, alongside its aspiration to establish a society based on universal values, created a subjective sense of belonging to the Jewish nation. When this sense of belonging was coupled with a demand for a political framework, the two necessary conditions for turning Judaism into a nationalism recognized by the international community had been created.

The success of Zionist leaders in spurring the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from various countries, mainly European, in order to build the Jewish state in the making was unprecedented. It is second only to the success of the new state’s leadership in creating a melting pot (despite all its shortcomings). By means of this melting pot, the leadership succeeded in bringing together Jewish communities from every corner of the world, despite their members’ different appearances and cultures, and imbuing them with a consciousness of a shared fate, future and interests.

The current Israeli leadership is as far from those successes as the East is from the West. Under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, messianic nationalists from his Likud party, the Habayit Hayehudi party and movements similar to them in spirit are unraveling the seams of Israeli society. They are widening and deepening the schisms: Ashkenazim versus Mizrahim; religious versus secular; secular versus ultra-Orthodox; ultra-Orthodox versus religious Zionists; left versus right; center versus periphery; Israel versus the territories; and, the latest addition, supporters of universal liberal values versus those who are nurturing the buds of fascism.

This “tribal” awareness, which President Reuven Rivlin has publicly bemoaned, is, like the awareness that we are “one people,” primarily the result of constructive activity by leaders and shapers of public opinions. The destructive drip, drip, drip, led by Netanyahu, of messages cast in the mold of “us and them” (“The left has forgotten what it is to be Jews”) legitimizes and encourages expressions of toxic sectoral and tribal sentiment by many members of his own party and of Habayit Hayehudi.

Ironically, they make these statements in the name of “national unity.” But according to their view, such unity is possible only if everyone different from them adopts their nationalist, religious, messianic, Torah-oriented, antiegalitarian views.

If our leaders once used our imaginations to raise us up and create a home for us, today they sit in their fortified home and are incapable of imagining anything for themselves except how to destroy it. Sometimes, reality truly does surpass imagination.