Israel has been criticized recently for the passing of two laws which set it in a questionable direction. The first was the “nation-state bill,” which stresses the Jewish identity of the state at the expense of its democratic character. It has the unfortunate effect of marginalizing the Arab minority in the country.
The second was a law denying surrogacy rights to same-sex couples, which was legislated under pressure from the ultra-orthodox parties.
The laws have been reported in the Western media in an alarmist manner as signifying an Israeli descent into a more ethnocratic and religious mindset. The common wisdom would imply that Israel has abandoned its moral impulse. However, the reality is far more complex.
‘White Helmets’ rescued from Syria
Israel continues to play a moral role in its foreign policy which is often overlooked. The latest example is the Israeli involvement in the rescue of 100 “White Helmets” from southwestern Syria. The group is a collection of regular citizens known for risking life and limb in order to remove civilians from the rubble following attacks on residential areas throughout the country.
The Syrian government has recently been sweeping up the last bastions of rebel control. This, unfortunately, means that members of the rescue organization were in mortal danger. The Israeli government helped evacuate the White Helmets and transfer them to Jordan. If so, Israel helped save their lives.
The move is not an isolated incident. The Israeli government has been noted for its humanitarian efforts in disaster areas worldwide. Its role in relieving the beleaguered citizens of Haiti following the horrific 2010 earthquake was notable.
More recently it participated in both an extensive humanitarian effort in western Syria and in the rescue of a youth soccer team trapped in a cave in northern Thailand by providing Israeli technology to help the missing boys communicate with the Navy Seal divers who rescued them.
If so, which is the real Israel? Is Israel an exclusionary apartheid state driven by ethnocentrism, acting altruistically only to improve its image? Or is Israel a vibrant democracy which only oppresses the Palestinians in order to defend its security? Propagandists on both sides would have you believe that Israel is simply one or the other.
The Israeli impulse to exclude itself from the world and to participate in the international community both arise from the same biblical sources of Jewish identity. According to the Jewish religion, God ordered the Israelites (precursors of modern Jews) to serve as “a light unto nations.” For both secular and religious Jews, this is an inexorable part of their self-perception. As such, it has become part of Jewish culture and tradition quite apart from religious doctrine.
‘A light unto nations’
The traditional Jewish responsibility to serve as a “light unto nations” is equal parts beautiful and ugly. It is beautiful because it requires that Jews pursue justice for the less fortunate outside their own communities. This impulse has been behind the oversized Jewish presence in philanthropy organizations worldwide and the noted contribution of American Jews to the civil-rights movement in the United States.
The injunction to serve as a moral beacon to the world also has an exclusionary and ugly side. It calls on Jews to remain separate and aloof in a state of moral condescension. The story of the Torah – the original five volumes of the Old Testament – is one of the Israelites struggling (and usually failing) to conform to high ethical standards. The idea that the Jewish people serve as a moral beacon flows inexorably from the covenant with God, described in the Bible, which identifies the Jews as God’s “chosen people.” Only by staying apart from other people and their moral inferiority, the biblical narrative goes, can Jews act as a moral beacon to the world.
This idea continues to guide Jewish self-identity to this day. As Rabbi Norman Lamm, recently retired as Chancellor of Yeshiva University explained, the concept of the chosen people “denotes the development of communal separateness or differences in order to achieve a collective self-transcendence”… but also “implies the obligation of this brotherhood of the spiritual elite toward the rest of mankind.”
It is tempting to think of Israel as part of the global move away from liberal values in the era of Trump. However, Israel is not becoming more exclusionary than before. Nor is it becoming a more moral participant in the international community. Rather, the very core of Jewish and Israeli identity is to act concurrently on both impulses.
Perhaps this moral complexity provides some clue as to why a state as tiny as Israel inspires such outsized emotions.