Israel’s Purpose

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Let me ask you a question: Why should the State of Israel exist? What’s the point? This question is not rhetorical. And the answer to this question is not necessarily self-evident.  

I once attended a lecture of Tal Becker’s, a fellow at the Hartman Institute, who explained that, historically, there have been three different ways to answer this question.

This framework is critical in understanding the State of Israel specifically and Zionism in general.

  1. The Jewish state should exist in order to serve as a safe haven from all the anti-semitism in the world.
  2. The Jewish state should exist in order for the Jewish people to be like everyone else, to be a nation like the rest of the nations of the world.
  3. The Jewish state should exist in order to be exceptional and serve as a “light unto the nations.”

From these ideas, there are fascinating implications that play themselves out.

Those who associate their Zionism with the first reason typically see Israel as an insurance policy and a protection against a hostile world. The world is implacably against the Jewish people, this view establishes, and a Jewish state necessarily exists in order to protect the Jewish people. There is a sort of “existential threat of the day” menu – it could be Hezbollah, Hamas or BDS.

Those who associate their Zionism with the second reason want Israel to be normal and accepted like everyone else. At the United Nations, there is a desire to belong. When Israel wins Eurovision, there is tremendous pride. When Israel medals at the Olympics, it feels good. (As an aside, check out our Munich Olympics video with the accompanied lesson plan, which goes into this). There is a quiet, almost subconscious desire for acceptance and embrace. Theodor Herzl, for example, did not think Israel was merely a refuge from anti-semitism; he thought it could be a cure if we would become a nation like the other nations. The question of whether or not Israel is supposed to dwell alone or not is at the forefront of the minds of people who think this way.

The last group contains those who associate their Zionism with Israel being exceptional. Some people in the more progressive Jewish camp want Israel to be exceptional in terms of tikkun olam, or the pursuit for peace and equality. Their Zionism is challenged when then they don’t see this come to fruition well enough,  but elevated when they find Israel engaged in exceptionally positive behavior.

This brings us to a story you may have missed, but speaks to a vibrant and critical aspect of the Zionist vision. The State of Israel sent search and rescue personnel to help after a mining dam collapsed in Brazil. Was this done in order to score political points, as some have suggested? I think it takes a remarkably toxic level of cynicism to choose to view it that way. Instead, I believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent this group because it has always been Israel’s mission to do so, and it has done so after the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 and Mexico in 2017.

The Jewish state exists in order to contribute remarkably to the whole world.

Herzl laid out his vision in 1896 in The Jewish State:

“Whatever we attempt to accomplish there [in the Jewish state] for our welfare, will have its powerful effect, promoting the happiness and wellbeing of all Mankind.”

Let’s make sure our students hear this story and understand the Zionist underpinnings to it.

I want to thank my colleague Elana Raskas for partnering with me to tell this story.

What Happened?

On Friday, January 25, a dam collapsed in southeast Brazil, causing a devastating flood of mud and mining waste. At least 115 people were killed and another 248 are reported missing.

As the country mourns this tragedy, rescuers have been searching for bodies and possible survivors. On Sunday, January 27th,  Israel sent a rescue team to assist in the efforts – the only country to do so. The team was comprised of 130 soldiers, divers, doctors, engineers, firefighters, and search-and-rescue experts. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro thanked Israel warmly for its services.

Why Does This Matter?

Israel’s very purpose – As stated above, there are three primary ways of viewing the State of Israel’s purpose that inspired early Zionist thought.

  1. Safe haven – After more than a thousand years of exile, oppression, homelessness, wandering, pogroms, persecution and even the Holocaust, Israel was established to be a safe haven for Jews. Israel absorbed Jews from Europe before and after the Holocaust, from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet, from Ethiopia in Operations Moses and Solomon, and from the former USSR after its collapse, to name a few.
  2. Nation among nationsTheodor Herzl believed that once Jews had a place of their own, and functioned as a country like any other, the “Jewish Problem” would disappear and anti-Semitism would be a thing of the past. While this hasn’t quite proved to be true, this idea was a major motivator in the founding of the State.
  3. Exceptional nation – This approach, which can be seen here, in the response to the disaster in Brazil, goes a step further: Israel is not only here to be a nation like any other; it is capable of the extraordinary. Built on Jewish values, Israel seeks to contribute to and improve the world. It leads the way in technology, health, security and other fields. Indeed, Israel has measured up in the world arena in many areas, impressive for such a young nation. In the area of disaster relief, it has joined other countries in several relief missions, such as after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Michael in 2018. The UN ranked the IDF’s emergency unit number one in the world in 2016. In Brazil, it was the only country to send a search-and-rescue team. It has even provided humanitarian aid to citizens of its less-than-friendly neighbor, Syria. As Israeli political leader Shimon Peres has said in the past:

“Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better… However small a nation we may be, we are the flag-bearers of revolution. The State of Israel is part of that revolution, part of an ancient ethos that demands that we be a ‘treasured people’ and a ‘light unto the nations.’”

Discussion Questions

  1. When you think of what Israel does for surrounding countries, and countries around the world, what feelings does it evoke for you?
  2. If you were prime minister of Israel, which countries, if any, would you choose to help? Would it be the ones who describe themselves as allies or the ones with which Israel has a colder relationship?
  3. David Ben-Gurion said:

“By these will the State be judged, by the moral character it imparts to its citizens, by the human values determining its inner and outward relations, and by its fidelity, in thought and act, to the supreme behest: ‘and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Here is crystallized the eternal law of Judaism, and all the written ethics in the world can say no more. The State will be worthy of its name only if its systems, social and economic, political and legal, are based upon these imperishable words… To maintain the status quo will not do. We have set up a dynamic State, bent upon creation and reform, building and expansion.”

Do you think he would be proud of what Israel has become in terms of its efforts with the global community?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Play this video so students can see the scope of the destruction in Brazil. Have students flex their empathy muscles: ask them what nearby residents and family members must be feeling right now; how do we react to tragedies so many miles away; is there some way we can help?
  2. Israel is a full-fledged country capable of sending an entire rescue team with the latest tools, technology and medical devices. This may seem out of reach for students; how can they, as teenagers, make a difference? As a class, come up with a few ways in which you can help a population in crisis. Choose one that your class will focus on for the rest of the school year.
  3. A notoriously anti-Semitic Brazilian cartoonist, Carlos Latuff, drew this:

In the cartoon, the Brazilian president welcomes the Israeli team. The team has blood on their hands and says, “Sorry for the delay! We were busy killing Palestinians.”

In response, a Jewish Brazilian cartoonist drew the following:

As Israeli and Brazilian rescuers reach a victim, a Palestinian sits on the side. The Brazilian says: “You stay there and don’t do anything? Go get help! Go!” The Palestinian smiles and writes, “Israeli kills a survivor.”

Ask each student to write down what they see in each cartoon. What is the illustrator conveying? Ask students to write a response to the first, or both, cartoonists. If you have time, guide your students in drawing political cartoons of their own, or engage them in a discussion about the power of images vs. words.

Further Reading

  1. Peruse these pages for many stories about Israel’s humanitarian aid
  2. The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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