Rabbi Berel Wein

JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2000 /11 Adar I, 5760

The individual and the state

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ONE OF THE LEGACIES of the awful century that has just ended is the rejection by much of Western society of the concept of individual sacrifice on behalf of the nation-society. This is undoubtedly a reaction against the horrors perpetrated by the false god that glorified the nation/state during the past century. The nationalism and imperialism that led to the slaughter of the First World War, the fascism and totalitarianism that marked the path of the Axis Powers in World War II, the slaughter of millions and the oppression of tens of millions more as well as the destruction of the Russian economy by the Bolsheviks, all contributed to the current deification of the individual and the rejection of societal norms and responsibilities by the citizen.

The pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme now and the state's demands on its citizenry are to be opposed, ignored and protested. Loyalty to the state, to the common good of society, is completely secondary to the personal preferences and demands of the individual.

Econophone As is true of much of the waves of current ideas and culture, this new militant, anti-state attitude began in the United States. It was a result of the failed Vietnam War and the concomitant creation of fanatic single-issue groups and people. Thus in America, the issues of abortion, environmental considerations, and gun control have all become questions of personal "freedom" versus the "good of society." There are those who literally demand their right to drill a hole in the floor under their seat in the national boat and they have much support for their suicidal wish in the Western world. Modern man has passed from the destructive extreme nationalism of the twentieth century to the eventually equally destructive self-interest and egoism of the twenty-first century.

This attitude has not skipped over Israeli society. The destructive labor strikes that regularly punish Israeli society, tourism, exports, education and other vital sectors of our societal life, are but a reflection of this single-issue, self-interest, only-what's-good-for-me behavior of the individual citizen. The soldier who did not come to the aid of his fallen comrade and then says that he is justified in behaving so because of his objections to the continued Israeli presence in Lebanon, the undermining of Israeli governmental policy by Jewish groups in the Diaspora who know better than we do what is good for us, the avoidance of taking the general public good of all of Israeli society into account by many of our political leaders in their statements and public behavior, create a climate that corrodes the very foundations of our national being. Post-Zionism, the current darling non-philosophy of the Israeli avante-garde intelligentsia, sees nothing positive in the Jewish past that created this country.

TrakdataInstead it decries the "racism" of the Jewish presence here and is far more merciful and understanding regarding the position of those who still proclaim their intent to destroy us than it is of those who wish to retain the Jewish character and historical right of Israel. The Post-Zionists have rejected the ideals and ideas of the past Jewish century. They are entitled to do so, but their substitution of selfish nihilism and Jewish self-hatred as the ethos of our time is hardly an encouraging development.

The truth is that the task of the democratic form of government is to create a balance between the interests and demands of the state and general society and the rights and freedoms of the individual. The United States of America, the world's leading democracy, has struggled with this issue for over two centuries and has not yet found the perfect solution to this problem. It would therefore be unreasonable to expect that the State of Israel, constantly under the gun militarily, diplomatically and economically, should achieve that perfect balance between state and individual in its first half-century.

Nevertheless, we should be wary of extremes that always becloud the picture. At one and the same time, Israel needs less governmental interference in our private lives, fewer commissions and ministries, a slimmer and more efficient bureaucracy and it also requires more national loyalty and greater consideration by individual citizens of the requirements of the national welfare. We need the perfect combination of national responsibility and individual freedom to realize the potential of our society and citizenry. That is a worthy goal to aim for.

Judaism deliberately blurred the line between national responsibilities and individual freedom of choice. Since Judaism is a faith of commandments that emanate from Divine authority, all human behavior inherently had no contradictions or tension since both national behavior and personal actions and choices were dictated by the authority of commandments - of mitzvot.

But again, since Judaism itself has been relegated by many of the moderns to the bygone past, a secular Jewish society is now left without eternal means and unchanging norms by which to regulate the relationship between society and the individual. Thus we vacillate between deifying the army to despising it, between glorifying the state and denigrating it, between being selfless for society's good at personal sacrifice and being selfish and uncaring for the general good as long as it is beneficial for me.

To prosper, we must therefore struggle to escape the swing of the pendulum and achieve the necessary healthy balance between state and citizen that will allow us progress and general satisfaction.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He resides in Jerusalem. You may contact Rabbi Wein by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2000, Rabbi Berel Wein