Moses, Ben-Gurion and Netanyahu to Lead Israel at a Crossroad

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A Ukrainian 19th-century lubok representing the Seder table.

Passover 2015 just so happens to interrupt the political negotiations in Israel over forming a new coalition government. This timing not only highlights the chasm between Israel’s partisan politicking and the standards of morality and leadership that Pesach and the story of exodus espouse, but also underscores the fact that it is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alone who can bridge the two.

The final act of leadership of Moses was to endow the People of Israel with an invaluable political and societal legacy. As Dr. Micah Goodman describes in his book “Moses’s Final Speech,” Moses instructed the Israelites that preserving sovereignty and freedom in their land was dependent upon their building a model society that would serve as a light unto the nations. In such a society, for example, religious authorities – the priests – would be confined to the temple, so that the public sphere could be “secularized”; the highest authority, the king, would be beholden to the law; and that civil rights of individuals would be protected. Moses intertwines morality and nationhood with the powerful message that if one is lost, so will the other be lost.

David Ben-Gurion is Zionism’s Moses. He, too, in a career that lasted more than 40 years, presided over the transition of Jews from powerlessness to power; from being scattered in the Diaspora to being ingathered in Zion; from being organized as a decentralized network of communities to a centralized form of statehood and government. He, too, left a written legacy spanning national security, society and economic development, which draws from the Jewish past and penetrates deep into its future. He, too, saw the existential interconnectedness between the quality of the Hebrew society and its destiny.

The beginning of the 21st century represents another moment of profound transition in Jewish history, with Israel standing at an historical crossroad, fateful for the entire Jewish people. This time, the challenge is to contend with the unprecedented level of Jewish power, influence and affluence at a moment of great vulnerability. The extraordinary stature of the State of Israel and Diaspora Jews, primarily in the United States, clouds our collective long-term vulnerability, which, paradoxically, also stems from the hyper-concentration of Jews in those two locations. Iran’s imminent nuclearization, the rising global tide of Islamic anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel, and the gravitation of power away from the West primarily to the Far East, where Jewish presence and influence are still nascent, further compound our collective concern. The deep internal divide among Jews and Israelis and the disengagement from the societal DNA that ensured Jewish longevity for centuries, as well as Israel’s frustrated quest to become a model society and the crisis of its political elite are additional dark clouds on our horizon, which underlie much of the disengagement of many Diaspora Jews from Israel.

Thus, the leadership challenge that stands before us is monumental: we must adapt the mission of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people to the conditions of the 21st century. While it should certainly be shaped by Israel’s remarkable military power, political influence and economic achievements, it should also be governed by modesty that internalizes the existential vulnerability of Israel, in contrast to the resilience of the Jewish Diaspora. These notions must shape our national security outlook, the structure of our society, Israel’s process of and limits on lawmaking, and the role of its civil society.

Benjamin Netanyahu will soon begin his fourth tenure in the highest office of the Jewish people of our time, becoming the second-longest-serving prime minister of the State of Israel. His electoral victory endows him with the authority to lead the Israeli nation and the responsibility to lead the Jewish people through this transition of reinventing Judaism and Jewish society. Clearly, stopping the Iranian nuclear project is a centerpiece of Netanyahu’s legacy. But this issue should not obscure the fatefulness of the hour on multiple other fronts.

Goodman concludes his book with the statement that “Zionism is the second chance of the Bible.” The first opportunity – from the conquest of the land by Joshua to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and the calamity that followed the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E. – ended with failure, demolition and exile.

Nineteen centuries later, Zionism created for the Jews a second chance to operate from a place of power and sovereignty in Zion and the State of Israel. Inspired by the legacy of Moses, we must now marry our nationhood with our morality, and do so from a position of resurrection, not destruction; from within Jerusalem and not from exile; from a position of power, not weakness; from a place of monumental achievements, not unbearable defeat. There is no better time to commit to serving this vision than during the Seder.  

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