From the July essay at Mosaic Magazine, “Religion and State in Israel: A Modest Proposal,” by Moshe Koppel:
As communities weaken, citizens’ lives are animated less and less by shared narratives that provide meaning, direction, and motivation for virtuous acts. Meanwhile, the state, unchecked by the mediating influence of these communities, expands its power. The resulting dystopia is characterized by the “soft despotism” of the state captured so perfectly by Tocqueville: “an
immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring [men’s] enjoyment and of watching over their fate [and whose] object [is] to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood” (Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Book 4, Chapter VI).
Tocqueville was optimistic about the ability of 19th-century Americans to resist the soft despotism of the state, because he found in them an abiding love of liberty. One might wonder about the disposition of present-day Americans in this regard. But whatever the case may be in the U.S., historically Israel’s situation has been different.
The United States was founded by citizens of European states who sought freedom from those states; Israel was founded by members of a stateless people seeking their own state. And so it is unsurprising that Israel’s founding myths should have been all tied up with statism. As things have played out, today’s descendants of the Zionist group instrumental in founding the state constitute an entrenched elite pursuing a universalist agenda that, under Israel’s geo-political circumstances, imperils both state and society. Their religious counterparts, similarly, have become largely addicted to a statist agenda: religious Zionists out of faith in the state’s redemptive powers, and religious non-Zionists out of dependency on state welfare.
Recent events on the political front, including the repeated failure of diplomatic and other concessions to advance peace, the state’s rejection of the religious-Zionist territorial agenda, and the dramatic weakening of religious parties whose constituents depend in part or in full on state welfare, have precipitated some fresh thoughts on all sides. Nevertheless, the basic lineaments of the statist agenda remain in place, and any real change for the better will be slow and hard-fought.
Israel’s promise is that it will free the Jewish people from dependence on other nations and facilitate the transformation of Judaism from a counter-culture to a national culture; in short, that independence and liberty will allow the Jews to mature as a people. It would be worse than merely ironic if instead the Jewish people were to allow their own state to infantilize them, turning them from a stiff-necked people into, in Tocqueville’s words, “nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”