The extraordinary focus of the West in particular and the world in general on the Jews and the Jewish state is a shocking thing that, through a century (at least) of repetition, no longer shocks. With the ability to dominate the headlines of an American presidential campaign and to give nine deaths the gravity to capture the attention of a world that blithely ignores the deaths of millions, the “Jewish question” should perpetually astound in its power.
As David Mamet writes today in the Wall Street Journal, that all says much more about the world than it does about the Jews.
In his op-ed, Mamet uses an ancient and true reading of the akedah to highlight the stakes in the current Western debate over the legitimacy and future of Jewish independence. As Lenn Goodman has written probably better than anyone, the true challenge God posed to Abraham on Moriah was not whether he could believe in a God that would demand he sacrifice his son. (Mamet correctly notes that is something humans had believed for “tens of thousands of years.”) Abraham’s trial was whether he could believe in a God that would demand he not kill his son – that His message of goodness and unity could be so complete that it did not require that people give up that which they most cherished to demonstrate their belief in Him, but that they hold on to it and care for it as well as they could.
It’s a message that’s been driving the Jews first, the West second, and the rest of the world last crazy for the last 4,000 years, precisely because it is at once so true and so expansive in its claims on our behavior. It’s an idea of love and divinity that is much harder to live up to than the relatively easy sacrifice of a loved one in an extroverted demonstration of the depth of one’s belief. The Jewish idea propounded by Abraham demands that we take the responsibility we bear to those we most cherish with the first and last seriousness, avoiding the easy out of casting them into the pit to add glory to our own pretensions.
It may be, as Mamet argues, that the Jewish state puts this question before Western eyes more starkly today than anything else does. Israel’s existence and need are a permanent call on the conscience. In an era of guilt and declinism, Israel’s successes, whether technological, military, economic, cultural, are for many so much more grist for the mill: instead of lying down and accepting its eclipse, Israel fights. Its very existence is the proclamation of a right.
It’s all for the worse for enlightened Western consciousness. Many prefer their museums of Jewish death to the reality of the Jewish life that once walked and thrived in Europe. They would also find it easier to piously mourn a defeated Jewish state than to defend an existing one.
All the harder for us then to generate the support and concern Israel both needs and deserves.