The Renaissance of Jewish Patriotism



With a title that boldly refers to Herzl’s classic The Jewish State, Yoram Hazony’s book The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul snagged a lot of attention—and a wide array of reactions—when it was published in 2000. Hazony, the founder of The Shalem Center and a former close aide to Binyamin Netanyahu, analyzes how Israel’s artists, writers, and professors have affected political thinking in today’s Israel.

Raised in New Jersey by Israeli parents passionately committed to Zionism, Hazony details what he found when he and his wife moved to Israel in 1988. The Israel of the founding generation was not the Israel of the “espresso generation,” which is what some call the founders’ children. The new, more comfortable generation of Israelis didn’t have to work the land with a hoe in one hand and a rifle in the other, like their parents did. In addition, Hazony found that many of today’s Israelis were not particularly aware of their Jewish heritage or traditions, despite living in a Jewish country.

Hazony’s book explores how and why this happened. In a talk with Aviya Kushner, Hazony discussed the book, his thoughts on the current situation, and his plans for the Shalem Center, the think-tank and publishing center he heads in Jerusalem:

The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul appeared several years ago, before the current violence. If it were to be republished tomorrow, would you change anything?

The Jewish State isn’t about politics, it’s about culture and the idea of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. There is a very powerful connection between ideas at the cultural level and political events. We’ve been able to see this in especially clear fashion in the past one-and-a-half years. Many people who were on the fence on the importance of Israel maintaining a Jewish identity have begun to rethink their positions.

For example, the Kinneret Covenant—signed in January 2002 by a large number of public figures—reaffirms Israel’s character as a Jewish state. In general, it’s clear that ideas such as Jewish patriotism and the term “Jewish state,” which had been very out of fashion, have been going through a renaissance. I very much hope that it’s not just a reaction to political events and I hope it will stick. I hope that we’re entering a period where for all the evil that’s taken place, there will be a rediscovery of the common aspect of Judaism and Zionism.

Do you think there is a gulf between Israeli Jews and American Jews, and if so, has that gulf narrowed lately due to the terrorist acts in both Israel and the U.S.?

The problems facing Israeli Jews and American Jews are essentially identical. They are: a discomfort on the part of many Jews with Jewish tradition and Jewish identity and an inability to see how they can fit together with a modern, civilized, and humane attitude toward the world.

I think the supposed contradiction between Judaism and modernity, Judaism and democracy, and Judaism and Western civilization are based on a misreading of Judaism and very often on an ignorance of Judaism. All of the external challenges that Israel faces are ones that we could deal with with relative ease if Jews were sure of their connection with their own people and their own tradition.

I understand that the Shalem Center is engaged in a number of projects intended to deepen understanding of Jewish history and tradition, and that it also does some translation work to bring Western philosophy into Hebrew. Tell me a little bit about Shalem and your plans for it.

Shalem is devoted to research and writing—hopefully on the highest level—on subjects related to the aspects of Judaism that are common and relevant to all Jews, regardless of their denomination and level of observance. We have a book coming out by Michael Oren, which will hopefully be a definitive study of the Six-Day War. We publish a journal called Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation. This year, we published The Federalist Papers in Hebrew. And we’re publishing the first Hebrew translation of Hobbes’ Leviathan.

As a person raised in the US who moved to Israel, what was the most surprising thing you found? And did you finish your schooling in the US or in Israel?

I was born in Israel, grew up in New Jersey, went to Princeton, where I met my wife, and got a doctorate in political philosophy from Rutgers. I moved to Israel with my wife, and other friends from college, in 1988, when I was in the middle of my doctorate.

The hardest thing is finding out that Israelis have the same kind of questions about their Jewishness that Israelis do. Americans coming to Israel think Israelis are super-knowledgeable about being Jews, that if they’re going to serve in the army for the Jewish state, that means they’ve got it all figured out. American Jews and Israelis are kind of alike in that way—in their questions.


Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.