The Omer – the seven week period between Pesach and Shavuot that we are currently in – contains references and recollections of more events in Jewish history than any other period of the year: From Biblical times, the exodus from Egypt to standing at Sinai, from Talmudic times the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, from the medieval period the crusades, and from the 20 th century, the Holocaust, Israeli independence, and the reunification of Jerusalem – have all left their mark on this forty nine day period.
What themes bind together Jewish history as a whole, a history replete with tragedy, triumph and much else in-between? Two moments in Biblical narrative appear to capture diametrically opposed takes on Jewish history and it is the interplay between the two of them that helps explain many of the critical events of Jewish history.
When the gentile prophet Bilam attempted to curse Israel, his words were turned into a blessing, including the line, ‘a people alone they shall dwell, amongst the nations they shall not be reckoned’ (Numbers 23:9). Put upon these words whichever interpretation you will – its events, the character of its people, its longevity, its stubbornness to give up and die in the face of what seems rational – Bilam’s words capture an idea that Jewish history is not like that of other nations. Many have understood the line to be not only descriptive, but also prescriptive: we must ensure that we are indeed unique and that our history is unlike that of other nations.
Yet a few hundred years after Bilam’s blessing, the Bible recounts that the people went to the prophet Samuel and requested that he appoint over them a King, ‘so that we may be like all the other nations’ (Samuel I 8:20). Whether cultural or political, the urge is to be a nation like all others – to cease to have that Jewish abnormality.
The tension between these two ideas, that of being ‘a nation that dwells alone’ or ‘a nation like all the other nations’ has shaped Jewish history. Many events in Jewish history – from the Chanukah story to the differing responses to Emancipation – can be seen as the tension between these two ideas.
The genius of Zionism lay for its founding fathers in its potential to reconcile and fulfill these hitherto conflicting impulses, promising normalization with the rest of the world through the practices and institutions of statehood at the same time as allowing for the development of a distinctly Jewish society. Zionism almost succeeded in reconciling the two ideas – but not quite. Probably since 1967, these two conceptual approaches to Jewish nationhood became embodied in distinctive clashing groups in Israeli society. Many disputes in modern Israel can be usefully understood, not simply as arguments between left-wing and right-wing, but as an expression of these two opposing ideas.
When Rabin introduced the Oslo plan to the Knesset, he did so in the following words:
No longer are we ‘a people that dwells alone’, and no longer is it true that ‘the whole world is against us’. We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century.
And when Yigal Amir objected to Rabin’s plan, he was murderously exhibiting a different take on Jewish history as well as a dispute about policy. Similarly, when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 the country divided along Bilam-Samuel lines. For those for whom Zionism meant normalisation with the rest of the world through shared political and economic practice, rule over a hostile population of over a million Palestinians and the costly defense of a few settlements made no sense. But for anti-disengagement camp, who took the idea of dwelling alone most seriously, ideology entailed the rejection of disengagement rather than its embrace. Isolated settlements are a metaphor for Israel surrounded by hostile Arab nations, which is itself a metaphor for the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history.
The critical question does not appear to be which one of these ideas is the ‘genuinely’ Jewish one. To the extent that one can be objective in this discussion, it would seem that both elements – the desire to be unique and the desire to be like others – despite their contradictory combination, are both genuinely Jewish traits and together are responsible for the ebb and flow of Jewish history. What matters crucially however is what the content of both ideas mean for us today; in what ways do we understand our uniqueness, and in what ways do we aspire to emulate others? The answer we give to that question determines whether these two eternal traits will be able to balance and complement one another and thereby ensure a secure and successful Jewish future, or whether they will eat away at one another entailing assimilation at one end and parochialism on the other, further dividing and diminishing an already dispersed and fractious people.