On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Response to “Jewish Peoplehood and Israel” From Steven M. Cohen

Of the many rich passages in this compelling statement on Peoplehood and Israel, I am most drawn to commenting upon that which cites what for Chancellor Eisen is a (if not the) principal value of the State of Israel: “The State offers unparalleled scope for the teaching and practice of Torah in the public sphere . . . education . . . health care, treatment of the poor . . . minority communities, and issues of war and peace.” (See the original for the full sentence and context.)

I find this statement noteworthy not for what it says, but for what it leaves unsaid; and I wonder if the omissions were due merely to space limitations or conscious design. Missing (for me) is specific reference to the inherent value of restoring Jewish society to the Land of Israel, our ancestral homeland, where our people, in the words of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, ” first . . . created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

Missing (for me), as well, is a lusty celebration of the inherent value of statehood, of the restoration of State power to the Jewish people, of the revival of the Hebrew language and culture as a glorious achievement of the return to Zion. Absent, in my mind, is the expression of ecstasy and exhilaration in the long-awaited achievement of the inspiring ambition expressed in Hatikvah: “To be a free People in our Land.”

Now, perhaps all that is indeed implied in the phrase, “the teaching and practice of Torah.” But I suspect not. I suspect that my good friend and colleague genuinely holds to what I’d call an “instrumentalist” view of the ultimate value of Israel: Israel as facilitator. Its existence enables a richer and fuller practice of Torah.

For me, while also deeply appreciating the fullness of Jewish existence in Israel and the challenges of building a just society, I am more deeply moved by an “inherentalist” Zionism—one which sees the settlement of the Land, the construction of a Jewish society, the achievement of Statehood, and the flowering of a modern Hebrew culture all as ends and achievements in and of themselves. And, for sure, these differences are surely differences for the Sake of Heaven, ones that enrich our discourse, our Zionism, our Judaism, and—in our particular case—our friendship as well.