The State of Israel and the Psychology of Jewish Identity

We all have our myths, the various paradigms we feel the need to hold on to in order to make our lives more bearable and keep our sense of self worth intact. People or ideas that threaten these myths are invariably seen as dangerous, or even deranged, and if the myths are widely held, then views that question this received wisdom are seldom listened to and often rejected with violence.

The relationship between Jewish identity and the State of Israel is one of these widely held myths. There is now almost universal acceptance of the “truth” that belief in Zionism is synonymous with being Jewish and that opposition to the Zionist project is typically anti-Semitic.

This identification between Judaism and the State is a recent phenomenon, at least when looked at within the context of Jewish history and exile (Galut). Until the end of WWII the majority of Orthodox Jews were opposed to the Gentile nationalism of Zionism, which was, and still is, a secular European political philosophy, rather than a creed based upon the Torah (Divine Law).

The cornerstone of Zionism is the notion that the Jews should be “a nation among nations” with the Torah as their religion, but on a voluntary basis. Zionists believe the Jews should look to the State for their protection and that they should play a full and equal part in world affairs no different from Americans or Englishmen. It is only through the existence of a Jewish nation state that Jews can finally reach safety.

In marked contrast to this nationalist view of Judaism, the original character and identity of the Jewish People (Klal Yisroel) is one that does not mirror modern views on what constitute nations or people. According to traditional Jewish belief, the Jewish People are a people apart, the result of a separate act of Creation by God. It was only when God gave them His Torah that the Children of Israel came into being. The Jews existed as a people before they had a land of their own and they continued to exist in exile because their nature as a people was based exclusively on the Torah. Without the Torah, the Jewish People cease to exist.

What is clear is that the original Torah view of Israel and Judaism is diametrically opposed to Zionism, and the myths created by the champions of the State of Israel. They are completely different worldviews. For the traditional Torah Jew, and for most Orthodox Jews prior to WWII, the Jews were exiled by God from the Holy Land after they had sinned, and they were consequently forbidden to act against this Divine decree of exile. Although Jews could live in the Holy Land and in other parts of the world, they had to reside as peaceful citizens of non-Jewish states while they awaited the spiritual messianic redemption promised by the Creator. This redemption is not one that could come by the hands of man, but is God given. Consequently, to assume that the current Israeli State is part of, or a precursor to, this redemption, is in effect usurping God’s position and authority and replacing it with the authority of politicians and soldiers.

Given that the Zionist project is in opposition to traditional Torah Jewish belief, how has it managed to become the defining mechanism of Jewish identity for both Jews and non-Jews alike?

Belief in the State has for many Jews replaced Torah observance, a phenomenon that accelerated following the horrific events of World War II and the subsequent establishment of the Israeli State. Since then, the existence of the State has become a psychological necessity because it provides secular Jews with an identity, which traditional Judaism can no longer give due to their lack of Torah observance. For many Jews, God failed the Jewish people during the dark days of the 1930s and 40s so they now look to the State for both physical and psychological protection and fulfillment.

For those non-religious or “cultural” Jews struggling for an identity, alignment with the State of Israel allows them to feel less guilty about rejecting their religious practices. They can still tell themselves that they are good Jews because they support Israel and collect money for Jewish charities and Israeli organisations. Because they cannot reconcile tradition Torah observance with their place in the “modern” world, they have substituted the “modern” state of Israel for the Torah. To make this work, they also need to convince the rest of the world that Israel and Judaism are synonymous, a view that now has widespread acceptance, amongst friends and foes alike. This all becomes self-perpetuating, as we see with the regular condemnation of critical comments about Israel as being anti-Semitic, thereby reinforcing in the population at large the view that the State of Israel and the Jewish People are one and the same. So even for non-Jews, criticism of Israel is criticism of Judaism itself.

The situation with religious Zionism is more complicated and the existence of many Orthodox groups that actively support the current State is often used as evidence of its Divine destiny, that it is part of “the dawn of redemption”. Although there are many reasons why Orthodox Jews might support the State, or even see it as part of the Divine Plan, I think again what underlies this association is often the same motivation that encourages secular or cultural Jews to align themselves with Zionism.

Psychological identification between the people and the State was what the early Zionist leaders were really looking for and it is truly what they have achieved, even amongst those who see the Torah as their guide. The so-called “modern” way of looking at the world, even amongst Rabbis and Jewish scholars is to see the State structure as “normal”. If you are a religious American Jew steeped in a culture where the State and its entities are so much a part of your life it is an easy step to accepting the existence of the State of Israel as being equally “normal”. This is especially true for Americans who as taxpayers to the US State, are also bankrolling Israel. This modern statist mentality is evident in the Orthodox settlers of the Occupied Territories, many of whom have arrived there from the United States.

People have a wonderful ability to compartmentalise their internal life and a capacity to hold many contradictory beliefs, however illogical. For those Jews whose parents and grandparents lived in the ghettos of Eastern Europe one can see how the relief of escape from a life of exclusion and persecution, to one providing an equal measure of power with non-Jews either as the nation state of Israel or indeed within various other nation states has proved very attractive for most Jews, religious or not.

Within the context of how we life now, it is hard to imagine the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, who is firmly Orthodox, and a noted scholar, feeling psychologically comfortable with the notion of remaining separate and excluded from the affairs of State. Nor can one imagine him ever questioning the legitimacy of the Israeli State, despite his scholarship and knowledge of the Torah. He is now part of the political and religious establishment both here in Britain and in Israel whereas other Orthodox Jews who oppose the Zionist State such as the Satmar in Williamsburg USA and the Netueri Karta movement are viewed as outcasts and extremists.

Most Jews, religious or otherwise, have very little knowledge of the issues surrounding the existence of Israel and the promise of redemption. Indeed, most of them would probably be shocked to read the views of the Neturi Karta or of the hundreds of Orthodox Rabbis who vehemently opposed Zionism during the last century. So, as the years go by the anti-Zionist teachings from the likes of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, Reb Yehoishea Dzikover and many others will remain untaught by Zionist educators and ultimately forgotten by “mainstream” Orthodox and secular Jews.

Zionists wanted to change the nature of Judaism from a ghettoised and persecuted minority with a strong religious identity based on the Torah to a proud and “normal” nation-State that could compete on equal footing with other world powers. What was so self-evident to Jews in the past was that Judaism did not need Zionism and an Israeli State in order to exist, because its very essence is the Torah. Despite all the horrific trials and tribulations the Jews have suffered, Jews will continue to exist because they are the special creation of God.

The State of Israel has no part in this. It is not the solution to Jewish suffering or the means of Jewish salvation. Indeed, even on a secular level, if recent history is anything to go by, the State has singularly failed to protect Jews from attack and death. But it uses this failure to reinforce its power and bring the Jewish People further away from their original Torah standards. Not looking to God for protection, they seek instead the favours, patronage and protection of a State like any other group or nation, happy to reject the sacred for the mundane.

And has it been worth it? Is this what Jews have been waiting for more than 2,000 years to unfold? Did Jews through the centuries suffer and die for their Faith so that the Jewish People could find redemption through cabinet meetings, political rallies, automatic weapons and helicopter gun-ships? Is the destruction of Palestinian homes and the killing of innocents a reflection of the teachings of the Sefer Zohar and the Tanya? Is this what the Torah observance has come to?

The battle in Palestine today is not about terrorism or protecting Jews. It is rather the story of a loss of faith and the psychological need of many Jews to replace their failed allegiance to the Divine with something else: a new golden calf called the State of Israel.

Richard Morrissey is based in London and is a contemplative therapist. His web site is located at He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from the United Kingdom.