The perils of do-it-yourself history
There exists a mentality, even among some who should know better, like the respected popular historian Rabbi Berel Wein, that any one of us can, and even should, second-guess the attitudes and decisions of Torah luminaries of the past.
In that thinking, for instance, the opposition of many Gedolim in the 1930s and 1940s to the establishment of a Jewish state was a regrettable mistake. After all, the cavalier thinking goes, a state was in the end established, and in many ways it flourishes; so the Gedolim who opposed it must have been wrong. And we should acknowledge their error and impress it upon our children with a nationalistic commemoration of the day on which Israel declared her independence.
None of us, however, can possibly know what the world would be like today had Israel not come into being. What would have happened to the European survivors of the Holocaust who moved to Israel? Would they have languished in the ruins of Europe and eventually disappeared instead? Rebuilt their communities? Emigrated to the West? Would Eretz Yisrael have remained a British mandate, become a part of Jordan, morphed into a new Arab state? Would Jews have been barred from their homeland, tolerated by those overseeing it, or perhaps welcomed by them to live there in peace? Would there have been more Jewish casualties than the tens of thousands killed in wars and terrorist attacks since Israel’s inception, or fewer? Is the physical danger today to the millions of Jews in their homeland lesser or greater?
Would the widespread anti-Semitism that masquerades as anti-Zionism have asserted itself just as strongly as now? (A recent ADL survey revealed that Jews are hated by 87% to 93% of the populaces of North Africa and Middle East, and that the most widely held stereotype about Jews is that they “are more loyal to Israel” than their own countries.) Or would Jew-hatred have been undermined or attenuated by the lack of a sufficiently “sanitized” mask?
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, of course. Neither, though, just as obviously, does anyone else, no matter how wise he may be or conversant with the facts of history. For we are dealing here not with history but with retroactive prophecy. And that’s something no one alive possesses.
Yet some people, understandably uncomfortable with even theoretically imagining an Israel-less world, sermonize as if they do know the unknowable, as if the very fact that a state of Israel exists means that those who opposed its establishment were misguided.
Please don’t misunderstand. Every sane and sensitive Jew today supports Israel’s security needs, and appreciates the fact that we can freely live in or visit our homeland; and that the state and its armed forces seek to protect all within the country’s borders.
We are makir tov for the good that previous governments in Israel have in fact provided Klal Yisrael, the support it has given its religious communities, yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and mosdos chessed.
None of that, though, need come along with an abandonment of respect for great leaders of Klal Yisrael who felt that a different path to Jewish recovery from the Holocaust would have been wiser. Many of those leaders, of course, once Israel became a reality, “recalculated,” as our GPSs do at times, and accepted the state, even counseled participation in its political process. But they were adjusting to developments, not recanting their judgments, which were based on their perception that a secular state would, at one point or another, seek to adversely affect its religious citizens. A perception, it should be noted, that has been borne out by numerous policies and actions, from yaldei Teiman and yaldei Teheran to the agenda of the Lapids, père et fils.
The Gedolim who lived during the Holocaust, too, have been subjected to retroactive prophets’ harsh judgment. Those who counseled Jews to remain in Europe, in the hope that political and military developments would take a different turn than they tragically did are blithely second-guessed. Here, too, none of us can know with surety the “what-ifs?” or even the “whys?”
Not to mention that Gedolim are wise men, not prophets. Their guidance in each generation, which the Torah itself admonishes us to heed, does not assure us of any particular outcome. It is based, though, on their sublime connection to Torah, and thus must be of paramount importance to us. It’s odd how few would think of disparaging an expert doctor or lawyer whose best advice, following the prescribed protocol, led to a place the patient or client didn’t envision. Even if the outcome was unhappy, one would say, the advisors did their job. When it comes Gedolim, though, some wax judgmental and condescending.
And it’s not an armchair issue. There are implications to disparaging the decisions of the true Jewish leaders of the past. It sets the stage for what, in our contemporary self-centered, blog-sodden and audaciously opinionated world, recalls the true prophet’s phrase “each man acting according to what is right in his own eyes.”
And the navi is not lauding that state of affairs.