After almost 2,000 years, the Jews have re-established a state in Israel. To be more precise, a state that is approximately 80 percent Jewish was created. Balancing its Jewish character with fair treatment of all Israeli citizens is an ongoing challenge. The values of (group) loyalty and fairness are in tension, if not directly contradictory.
The central biblical heroes, Avraham and Moshe, represent these two cardinal principles. Avraham is singled out because he not only demonstrates commitment to God’s path of justice and charity, but is transmitting these values to his descendants. The Jewish people are chosen because they will deal fairly with others.
At the critical moment when the Jews have sinned with the golden calf, Moshe defends them to God, although they are not deserving. He turns down the offer to start a new people to replace them. His loyalty to the Jewish people is paramount. At the same time, he does not absolve them of responsibility for what they had done.
Judaism is a religion that monitors behavior primarily between Jews, and between man and God. Jews have greater responsibility for each other than they do for non-Jews. Yet the Jewish mission is to transform the world and sanctify God’s name.
In a classic comment in the “Kuzari” of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, after the Jewish scholar points out the contradiction between the lofty religious principles of Christianity and Islam and how their adherents actually treated others when they were in control, the king asks the scholar why he is so sure that in a Jewish-run country it will be any different. At that point the question was theoretical. In Israel, it is real.
Israel faces threats to its survival which affect its ability to be generous to others. Yet it is proud of the difference between the treatment of Jews in Arab countries and the rights of Arabs in Israel. Whether this is sufficient justification for all examples of discrimination is questionable.
Loyalty is critical for a group’s survival and is even more so for the Jewish people who have suffered throughout history from anti-Semitism. The State of Israel was established in the shadow of the incalculable horrors of the Holocaust. Yet, in significant ways, loyalty to a group also has negative consequences. Bad behavior within the group will be excused. Group loyalty has become the justification for coverups. It prevents needed self-criticism out of concern to not give ammunition to the group’s enemies.
Finding a proper balance between loyalty and fairness is a difficult challenge. Is the goal for Jews to have our own country to become a normal people, as some Zionist thinkers wrote, or to become a model nation? This distinction exists for both secular Jewish nationalism and for religious Jewish nationalism.
For the religious, representing eternal Jewish values that will lead to a transformed world is a great burden. Unfortunately, it is not clear that many are even concerned about the question. Both on individual and collective levels, behavior that reflects badly on religious Jews in the eyes of the world is dismissed as insignificant. Criticism is deflected as stemming from anti-Semitism, even when coming from those who have treated Jews fairly, or, for that matter, from other Jews.
As in every case of balancing between values there will be inevitable compromise. Since being fair is being just, it is appropriate to lean in that direction. We should not be satisfied by favorable comparisons with neighboring countries. If we properly understand the demands of Judaism we must strive for the higher standard of Avraham and Moshe.
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.