The Ancient Jewish Debate about Modern Israeli Politics
“...Now appoint us a king to judge over us (so we can be) like all other nations” (1 Sam 8:5)
But the Jews aren’t supposed to be like other nations, Samuel thought to himself. And in the biblical narrative, even God agrees.
The Jewish request for a king around the year 1000 BCE is one of Hebrew Bible’s pivotal moments. Until now, the Israelites were ruled by various charismatic leaders, known as prophets and judges, chosen based on their unique leadership abilities along with their spiritual and moral innovations and prowess.
But the Israelites had enough. Why should we, they argued, be unique in this respect of lacking a king? Why not be like all the other nations with a normal government and system of law. What is so different about us that we need to insist on this “higher” form of government led by priests and prophets instead of politicians.
The king will take advantage of you, Samuel protested. He will use your sons, daughters, animals, and fields for his advantage - becoming increasingly corrupt as his power grows. Our ancestors witnessed the suffering of the King in Egypt and we are witnessing first-hand the evils that the local Canaanite and Mesopotamian kings are doing to their tribesmen - why do you still want to be like the other nations?
But the people wouldn’t relent. While prophets remained an important part of the ancient Israelite public sphere, they appointed a king. Just like other nations.
From the outset of the Jewish tradition there has always been a constant dialectic between universalism and particularism. Are we a unique, chosen people, who have been endowed with a special mission that requires us to act with moral and ritualistic distinction from others? Or are Jews just like any other nation, obviously with certain unique attributes, but only insofar as every nation is somewhat unique?
While this implicit debate occupies and underlines many of the pages and narratives within the Hebrew Bible and subsequent Jewish philosophical works - it is perhaps most tangible within the realm of Israel vis-a-vis the contemporary Jewish community.
On the one hand, the argument of the people hasn’t changed for 3000 years. In the time of the Bible the people simply wanted to be like every other nation. They did not want a system of government or laws to require them to act according to some superior standard. “Appoint us a king to judge over us (so we can be) like all other nations” they said - why should we be different?
We see almost the exact sentiment today echoed throughout the halls of both the Israeli government and mainstream Jewish communities. Stop holding Israel to a double standard that isn’t applied to any other country in the world!
Throughout its history Israel has acted in accordance with as high of a standard that could be imagined from any other nation on Earth given equal circumstances. Imagine any European country when we consider their legacy, the people argue, and how they might have acted in 1948 when, after rejecting peace, the local Arab population took up arms against their Jewish neighbors. Yes, Israel did fight back and it did end up in the destruction of villages and communities - but when the war calmed Israel handed citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Arabs, some of whom still today reject the country’s fundamental right to exist.
Or we can jump to 1967 and the occupation of the Palestinians. After Israel begged her not to, Jordan joins the other Arab nations in attacking Israel with explicit genocidal intent and subsequently loses. Israel then attained military control over the West Bank, occupying millions of people in the process. Now Israel couldn’t just offer everyone citizenship - a tiny country cannot grow 20% in population size overnight - to say nothing of their ideology towards the country. Nor could they have simply pulled out of the territory given the inevitability of another attack (and of course just 6 years later another attack happened and if Israel was not in control of the West Bank the Yom Kippur war may have resulted in exponentially more Israeli death). Again, put in this impossible scenario, it’s hard to imagine any other country acting differently.
It is for these reasons, the people argue, that Israel can hardly be held morally or politically responsible for the plight of the Palestinians or Israeli occupation. Israel did the same as would be expected from any other country, nothing less and perhaps nothing more.
This argument, one that is internalized by a large percentage of the Israeli public and Jewish community, is very simple. We want to be treated just like any other country! So what if Israel commits the occasional human rights violation, what country hasn’t! Yes the occupation may be a terrible situation and current reality for the Palestinians living within the West Bank or in Israeli blockaded Gaza may be awful, but if any other country was in a parallel situation - given the germane history - it wouldn’t even be a question let alone an international uproar.
But throughout Jewish history there has been another dominant voice. One initially reflected by Samuel thousands of years ago and continued throughout the millennia by other impassioned and critical voices. We need to be better than others, these voices teach. It doesn’t matter what the Canaanites, the Egyptians, or the Greeks did - our entire tradition is based on moral progression that differs us from these nations. It doesn’t matter what other countries might do or have done if they were in Israel’s situation, Israel was created as a Jewish state and accompanying that titles is a strict moral imperative demanding that we be better.
Perhaps, if pressed, these people would relent that Israel may not be technically responsible for much of the current Palestinian plight, but that hardly matters. In a tradition full of prophets demanding justice and moral imperatives we are not looking to be technically “right”, we are looking to be radical harbingers of peace and justice to the world, and Israel is woefully missing that mark.
Israel needs to be exemplary. We do not criticize Israel because it is worse, rather we criticize it because it needs to be better. Other biblical nations may have had kings but we need to stick to prophets, Samuel taught.
Whatever value judgement we may have on this fact, the reality is that Zionism and its success fundamentally tied Judaism to Israel. Zionism set off not to simply create a state of Jews but, in the words of Ahad Ha’am, a Jewish state. We can spend years debating the exact definition and ramifications of Israel being “a Jewish state” but one thing is for certain. The great Jewish historical dialectic between particularism/universalism and the question of whether or not Jews have an imperative to be moral exemplars will continue to remain at the center of the project of Zionism.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entries were selected as one of the three best for the third and fourth quarters of 5779. You can find them on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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What is the concept of "ohr lagoyim/le'ohr goyim" [a light to the nations], and how much should it be emphasized as an ultimate purpose of the Jewish nation/people, and/or the Jewish state of Israel? Did the concept exist before the time of the prophets, as an underlying, obvious, goal, or was it something new from those times? Is it something we are supposed to bring about on our own, and work for, or something that will naturally happen through miracles of G-d's will? What are the sources and the different ways of understanding it since the times of the prophets? -thank you!
See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.