Daniel Gordis, recipient of the National Jewish Book Award and Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, discusses his forthcoming book “The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength.” His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
People sometimes ask: What would you like your book to accomplish? In this case, my answer is easy: I would be thrilled if “The Promise of Israel” changed the conversation that we’re having about Zionism.
“The Promise of Israel” makes an audacious and seemingly odd claim. It suggests that what now divides Israel and the international community is an idea: the idea of the ethnic nation-state — a country created around a shared cultural heritage. Yes, it is true that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still tragically locked in an intractable and painful conflict; but that, I believe, is not the primary reason for Israel’s unprecedented fall from international grace.
Israel is marginalized and reviled because of a battle over the idea of the nation-state. Israel, the quintessential modern example of the ethnic nation-state, came on the scene just as most of the Western world had decided that the time had come to be rid of the nation-state. Today, Europe’s elites wish to move in one direction, while Israel suggests that humanity should be doing precisely the opposite. The conflict in the Middle East is about borders and statehood, but the conflict about the Middle East is over universalism versus particularism, over competing conceptions of how human beings ought to organize themselves.
So I decided that what we really need to being speaking about is how the conflict over the nation- state developed, how Israel got caught in it, and, most importantly, to demonstrate that a world bereft of the idea that Israel represents would be an impoverished one. Yes, I knew it would sound hyperbolic, but I wanted to argue that what is at stake in the current battle over Israel’s legitimacy is not simply the idea on which Israel is based, but, quite possibly, human freedom as we know it.
The very notion that the future of human freedom might depend on a small country like Israel is very counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. The very idea sounds crazy, I know. But that’s the conversation I wanted to get started. Imagine a world in which Jews, when talking about Israel, focused not on borders and checkpoints, occupation and conflict, but about the idea that the Jewish state is critical not just for Jews, but for freedom-loving people everywhere. It would be a new conversation, a new Zionist discourse. We need that, desperately. If “The Promise of Israel” contributes to that conversation in even a small way, I’ll be very gratified.
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