The Jewish state and the state of the Jews

January 06, 1991|By RICHARD O'MARA

The Future of The Jews.

David Vital.

Harvard University.

161 pages. $18.95. David Vital's book is about the Jewish people and what is to become of them. Scattered across the planet for some 19 centuries, subjected to the most relentless persecutions, the Jews, in 1948, reconstituted themselves on a territory, raised a flag and asserted themselves as a state among the other states of the world. It was Zionism's stunning triumph. To have reclaimed Palestine, the ancient home of the Jews (and in the teeth of so much opposition) and to have revived and put into currency their antique language -- no people have ever done anything like that before or since. It affirmed the exceptional nature of the people in a most heroic way.

Yet in doing this, David Vital believes, the Zionists virtually assured the withering of Jewish life elsewhere in the world. How did they do this? Why?

There is no evil intention, no betrayal. It is simply that now that Israel is a state it is inclined to act as a state acts -- to construe for itself where its interests are and pursue them. This, of course, has always been difficult, owing to the existence of the Diaspora. What other country has people spread out all over the globe, people of some influence who contribute to the state coffers and in turn demand influence in the formulation of national policy? It marked the exceptionableness of the Jewish state, yet it was a situation that could not endure, if only because policy decisions can be made only by those who must live by them and bear with the outcomes -- that is, by the people in the homeland itself.

As conceived, the founding of a Jewish homeland was to provide Jews besieged in the Diaspora a place of refuge and, for those not under threat, a spiritual beacon, a comfort. Yet, comfort was the last thing it yielded to the Diaspora. The moment Israel was established, the question of national loyalty became a factor in the various countries where Jews resided, and with that question came the strain that dual allegiance inevitably imposes, a strain which has not lessened over the past four decades.

Dr. Vital, a historian of Zionism at Tel Aviv University and of Jewish civilization at Northwestern, believes the Jewish Diaspora is on the road to oblivion. But it was not the creation of the state of Israel that initially sent it off in that direction. That happened after the French Revolution, when Napoleon asked the Jews in France if they wished to surrender their "exceptionableness" and join the new civil society only then being created, and thereby "to discount the national content of the life of the Jews themselves and virtually to dissolve the national component of that great complex . . . of history, high culture, belief and social and ritual practice we call Judaism."

According to Dr. Vital the center of Jewish life today is in Israel. The Diasporas, American and European, ". . . beaten by assimilation on the one hand and by destruction and threats of further punishment on the other -- are now coming apart. Where there was once a single, if certainly a scattered and far from monolithic people -- indeed, a nation -- there is now a sort of archipelago of discrete islands composed of rather shaky communities of all qualities, shapes and sizes, in which the Island of Israel, as it were, is fated increasingly to be in a class by itself."

It is not as sad a picture as one might think. The ultimate goal, the Return, has been gained. The sadness is only for those left behind.

Mr. O'Mara is Foreign Editor of The Sun.

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