Let’s pray !

Confronted with the illiberal temptations of the Netanyahu government, how can we sort out the criticisms of Israel that aim to find a solution by recalling what was the main intention of this state and those that aim to destroy it ? And, in particular, how can the criticism from Jews in the Diaspora, especially from Europe, free itself from its inhibitions and fears of being misused in order to assert its singular position?


David Ben Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948


We are caught off guard. Do we now have to join the critics of the State of Israel in the wrong way because we have to criticize the policies of its government in the right way? 

Unity in criticism is an irresistible, embarrassing and ultimately dangerous slope. This dilemma has been with us for many years, but it is exacerbated by the direction of the new government to an unprecedented degree.

The dividing line between right and wrong criticism is blurred, depending on circumstances, analyses and sensitivities. A more reliable criterion lies in the intention behind the criticism. The division between criticism that wants to rectify and that which wants to destroy seems a good criterion. We know this, sometimes intuitively, and yet it does not help us because intentions are less often openly declared than imputed. But if this criterion is valid, it is only valid from the factuality of the existence of the State of Israel. Before, the object was only a virtuality. Since there was nothing to destroy or rectify, all investments, however contradictory, could legitimately clash. The factuality of the State of Israel changes the situation as soon as it is imposed on everyone.

Here, realism must dictate conduct. Moreover, the Jews, throughout their history, have always been realistic. Exile forces realism. They recognized the authority of the foreign king, since  his power was factual, and imposed itself on the Jews residing in the area where his authority was effectively exercised. This is why the Jews also always entered into active relations with the supreme power, begging it to protect them and to consider them sufficiently to guarantee them acceptable conditions of existence. This constraint led the Jews to pray to God, their king, the absolute ruler, to grant his favour to the territorial ruler, as a way of attesting their inseparable loyalty to the foreign king and the king of kings. And as soon as the power of the prince became state power, as soon as it became stable, centralized and formalized, this demonstration of loyalty was ritualized in a Jewish prayer for the kingdom, recited in the synagogues on the Sabbath.

The prayer for the state, although it varies according to place and time, invariably borrows the typical formula “ha-noten techu’a” in which God is prayed to grant the kingdom salvation, peace, and a long reign – the king being designated as the one who protects, assures the tranquillity and prosperity of the Jews. This element of the liturgy has two sources: Jeremiah (29:7) advises Israel to seek “the prosperity of the city to which you are exiled and pray to God for it, for on its prosperity will depend your own”; in the face of Roman occupation, Rabbi Khanina in Pirkei Avoth (3:2) advises to pray “for the prosperity of the government [of Rome], for without the fear of its authority the people would devour one another alive”. The first source lays the foundation for the political existence of the Jews in exile by linking their fate to that of the country in which they reside, while the second acts on the Jews’ interest in living in a world regulated by authority rather than in a state of warfare of all against all. On these floating bases, the prayer for the State crystallised in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the Ashkenazi and Sephardic world, before becoming standardised and spreading to the sidurim of Jewish communities when the centralised State power of monarchies, republics and empires was consolidated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This prayer has two recipients, which are ultimately one: God, to whom the prayer is addressed, and the object of that prayer, the sovereign who rules over his domain. Similarly, the effects of the prayer for the State – whether heard, misheard, or ignored – are jointly attributable to them. Jews will pray for Isabel the Catholic, the Kaiser, the Crown Government, the French Monarchy and Republic, or the Communist Party of the USSR.

But underneath this apparent continuity, the arrival of popular sovereignty and the emancipation of the Jews in Europe marked a break. As soon as the Jews became citizens of a State that was no longer external to them, as soon as they were nationalised, the prayer for the State changed, even if the ritual formula remained. Whereas in the past the prayer was an anxious request associated with the feverish expectation of a positive reaction, and sometimes a simple hope, it is now only a testimony of a loyalty which in the past had to be continuously reiterated and which, now that the Jews are integrated into the nation, is definitively recorded. To pray for the State is, in short, to pray for the popular sovereign, for the nation of which the Jews are an integral part, and therefore to pray for oneself – a circulation which alone sums up the extent to which political modernity disrupts the general relationship of the Jews to the power which is henceforth also theirs. It is only in times of uncertainty, when doubt arises, when the state takes on the features of the foreign state, when the nation-state betrays its own ideal, that prayer regains its former tone.

The nation-state is thus theirs, it is the state of the nationalised Jews, but not the state of the Jews. So what about the Jews who leave Europe to assemble in Palestine under the impulse of political Zionism in order to form a majority Jewish society and to govern itself? Whether it had ossified in Western Europe or remained alive in the East, these Jews saw the traditional prayer for the kingdom as a deplorable sign of submission, of alienation, the mark of the old world they were leaving. But with the birth of the State of Israel came the incongruous appearance of a sovereign associated with the Jewish name, rendering the prayer for the foreign state obsolete, this time not tendentiously but absolutely. The prayer for the nation-state was already obsolete, in the sense that it was a form inherited from the relationship of the Jews to the foreign state which had become the nation-state of the Jews as well. Yet the Shoah attested to how abruptly the nation-state can degenerate into a foreign state, not indifferent to the Jews but hostile, and ultimately criminal. And with the birth of the State of Israel, a state appears that definitively closes the possibility that the gap through which doubt creeps, widens. The opening of a gap, the definitive cauterisation of the fault line, is the tension within which we must still move today.

In Europe, prayer for the state will be deeply affected. But for Jews nationalised in a state dedicated to Jews, the institution of prayer for the state logically lost its purpose. Since for those of them, in the minority, attached to tradition, the abandonment of an old custom is troublesome, they sought its recycling rather than its abolition. The “Prayer for the State of Israel” was born out of this inclination and was made public when it was published in Ha’aretz on 20 September 1948. Written shortly after the Declaration of the State’s Independence on 14 May, it begins as follows: “Our Father in heaven, rock and redeemer of Israel, blessed is the State of Israel, the first manifestation of the approach of redemption.” For a long time it was not known who wrote it: the Hebrew writer Shai Agnon, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 for his work, or Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1921 to 1936, then of Mandatory Palestine and finally of the State of Israel until his death in 1959. It is now known that it was Rabbi Herzog, grandfather of the leader of the Labour opposition in the Knesset a short time ago and currently President of the State of Israel, who composed the poem, submitted it to his friend Agnon who at most touched up the copy here and there. This recent discovery gives the prayer a rabbinic seal, to the relief of religious Zionists.

The prayer for the State of Israel thus firmly links the state to the motif of redemption, in contrast to the Declaration of the State, which discreetly evokes God by concealing him under the biblical image of the rock (sela), but makes the birth of the State of Israel a historical moment in which the Jews assembled in Palestine endowed themselves with a modern, democratic, liberal state, open to the immigration of the Jews of the world, which joins the family of nations. Was the prayer for the State of Israel then simply an adaptation of the religious sector to the emergence of the State of Israel or was it thought of as a counterpart, a corrective, or even an alternative to the Declaration? The fact that the prayer for the State of Israel also ends with the word “rock” indicates that its writer probably had the Declaration of Independence in mind, even if the poetic style common to both documents could be a sign of their contemporaneity. But this does not change the fact that while the Declaration records the overthrow of the foreign kingdom by Jews to form a political entity of their own, the prayer for the State of Israel asserts that this state marks the way to the final redemption as a step willed by God. And while the Declaration assures that the government of the new State of Israel will work for the equality of all its resident-citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, in all spheres of their existence, the prayer for the State of Israel makes it the vehicle of a providential story and expresses the hope that God will inspire the government of the State in that direction.

That the State of Israel is the harbinger of Israel’s redemption, however, will be strongly contested from within the religious world. For the Orthodox communities, this state associated with the name Israel is ungodly. Having moved from the yoke of the  foreign state whose protection is hoped-for to an illegitimate state of the Jews, these communities ceased to pray for the state, whatever it might be. At most, they turned to the King of Jordan, the legitimate ruler of the Holy Land, to obtain his permission to get access to the Wailing Wall. But the messianic motif was also sometimes to be resisted by the Zionist-religious movement itself, and more unanimously by Conservative or Consistorial Judaism throughout the world: is the nature of the state that has come into being really pre-messianic, or is the prayer only to express the hope, full of uncertainty, that the state will possess this quality? The prayer for the State of Israel was generally preserved as it was in the synagogues of the Zionist-religious current both inside and outside the State of Israel, while outside it was adopted but often amended, as in the case of the British rabbinate, which corrected “Blessed be the State of Israel” “that it may be the beginning of the redemption”. The sidur in use in American Reform Judaism simply omits the redemption by retaining the phrase “Eternal God, receive our prayers for the peace and security of the State of Israel and its people”.

Two acute problems have always been present here, which the current crisis in Israel intensifies to the point where one wonders if a line has been crossed. The first is related to Jewish politics, which the emergence of the State of Israel logically alters, and the second is related to Israeli politics, which is now polarised. From the point of view of Israeli politics, the two solemn texts, the Declaration of the State and the Prayer for the State, with their very different statuses, could for a long time coexist without clashing. The current extreme polarisation over the very meaning of the state that we are witnessing in Israel today shows that they are now read and lived in their incompatibility. The state looks after the interests of all its inhabitants and guarantees them equal rights, it is also a shelter for the Jews of the world and seeks peace with its neighbours – this is what the Declaration proclaims. The state is the prodrome of the messianic era, as the Zionist-religious synagogue recites, so that only Jews united in their land – people and land here in their strictly halakhic determinations – are swept into the state dynamic. The present crisis is summed up here in its underpinning.

The second problem concerns the policy that we, the Jews of Europe, citizens of our respective states, must pursue in this dangerous situation. It is true that the vast majority of Jews no longer pray in the sense that they do not recite the prayer for the State in the synagogue. But prayer must be taken here in the concrete sense that it has always had, that of an address to the State which is reflected in solemn prayer but which passed through the more effective channels of discreet diplomacy. The birth of the State of Israel had the effect of lightening the burden of this prayer, in the sense that the function of protection was now duplicated, shared de facto between the State of which the Jews are citizens – a State which, in the post-Shoah era, declares its commitment to it – and the State of Israel, whose vocation it is. This vocation would be actualised if the nation-state were to regress to the point of becoming “foreign” to them again, if it were to betray its commitment. In uncertainty, we do pray for the nation-state, so we address ourselves as citizens of the state, we actively participate in what we are part of, but we do not make any demands on the State of Israel, we do not pray to its government, we do not ask it to do anything, we are not citizens of it: we rely on its continued existence.

But if the new government embraces the State of Israel in a messianic policy, with all the consequences that we now clearly perceive, if its government acquiesces to the prayer for the State of Israel that a fringe of its citizens recite, and turns away from the Declaration of Independence, then for us the only thing that remains is the prayer for the nation state. This would put an end to the duplication that fits the current political configuration in Europe. Our prayer for the nation-state would then once again take on an anxious tone. This would be an enormous step backwards, for all of us, for the Jews who have given themselves this state and for this state which is freeing itself from the Jewish experience, which would lose its very foundation by becoming a state alien to the Jews.

So, let us take up the question raised in the introduction: do we have to join the critics of the State of Israel in the wrong way because we have to criticise the policy of its government in the right way?  No, we should not join them, but we should take the risk of being misunderstood, since our criticism is not even aimed at rectifying the State of Israel, but at reminding it of what constitutes it in itself. We must therefore unite with the mass demonstrations opposed to the present government, with all the oppositions which, when they seek a common denominator, achieve it through a date, 1948, a document, the proclamation of the State. Let us pray that the government of the State of Israel will be faithful to its birth certificate. This is precisely the determined meaning of our criticism: let us pray publicly that the State of Israel remains itself. Let us pray that it exists.

Danny Trom

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