Underpinning much of the divisions in Israeli society is the tension between the particular and the universal, between the biblical prophecy that the Israelites will “dwell alone”, and the Medieval philosophy that regarded Jews living among the nations as “the heart of a body”. A dichotomy between globalists, open to the world, and isolationists, between those who reject outside influence and those who cherish it, between voyagers and homebodies.
The argument is moot. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the world. The past, present and future of the Jews and Israelis are intertwined with those of the world. We are all travelers, all globalists.
Even the groups most committed to isolationist Jewish ethos, the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists, embody our connection to the world. The ultra-Orthodox dress code, for example, harkens back to the fashion popular among non-Jews in 19th century Eastern Europe, which they chose to distinguish themselves from the modern world threatening their values. However, the garb also indicates a persistent link with the world and history of the Jewish people dwelling among the nations. Similarly, a central tenet of contemporary religious Zionism expresses reservations about outside cultural influences and political alliances, citing the uniqueness of the people of Israel. However, religious Zionism itself is a relatively new ideological construct born in response to European ideas of nationalism and the right to self-determination.
Moreover, the circumstances of the Jewish people dictate a constant connection with the world. Most Jewish history occurred in exile. Any true attempt to appreciate it lies in seeing the broader framework of in history in Europe, the Middle East and, in recent generations, the United States and Latin America. Today, too, some one-half of our people live outside Israel interacting with its physical and ideological non-Jewish environment. The constant movement of these Jews (and Israelis, too) from here to there means a constant opening to the world. Israel, by law the state of the Jewish people, must understand the world and learn from it if it seeks to understand the other half of the Jewish people.
There are also utilitarian reasons for adopting an approach that is open to the world, as non-Israeli Jews offered crucial help for Israel over the years; so much so that some were even asked to undertake leadership roles in Israel, such as the 1952 proposal to name Albert Einstein President of Israel or the 2005 appointment of Stanley Fisher as Bank of Israel Governor. The biographies of many Israelis reflect this reality, too. For example, Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Bennett were both previously US citizens. Israel was further effective in mobilizing key international actors in achieving the state’s goals. From the Zionist success in securing support for its independence in 1947 from the two (rival) great powers powers, the US and Soviet Union, all the way to securing US economic, diplomatic and military aid in recent decades. The tremendous success of Israel as the “Startup Nation” is also owed to its links with the world, as the sector has flourished through a global network of education, finance, and trade.
Under these circumstances, Israel would do well to give up the pretense of barricading itself off from the world. Isolationist ideas, such as not sending our officers to study at elite foreign institutions “lest they return with ideas incompatible with the uniqueness of the State of Israel” must be rejected out of hand. The challenge Jews and Israelis faced in the past and are facing today is in shaping an identity that balances the local and the global, one that encompasses the best of the two, rather than rejecting one for the other. An effective balance between the particular and the universal is one of the secrets of success of the Jewish people and the State of Israel; violating the balance reflects a narrow understanding of the past, a limited perception of the present and a potential risk for the future of both Israelis and Jews.
Dr. Ehud Eiran is an Associate Professor of international affairs at Haifa University; Nadav Tamir is a former diplomat adviser to President Peres. Both are Board Members at Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. (was published in the Jerusalem Post on 27 August 2020)