The literature on Jewish self-hate is vast; not so the literature on Jewish self-love.
Max Weber once proposed that oppressed peoples develop a “theodicy of disprivilege,” a way of explaining to themselves (and compensating for) their persecution, and that the most common such theodicies rely on the assertion by the oppressed of their superior moral virtue. After all, the others hate unreasonably, while we, the innocent, harm no one.
The sense of moral advantage was and remains to this day a prominent aspect of Jewish self-understanding, but it peaked back in 1967, when, on the eve of the Six Day War, all the world saw embattled Israel as Good and bellicose Egypt and Syria as Evil. Since then, we’ve learned – reluctantly – that the fact of Jewishness does not provide immunity against either folly or felony. We’ve learned, reluctantly, that power does indeed tend to corrupt, a lesson our earlier impotence had blocked us from knowing up close.
What has Israel meant to America’s Jews? It has revolutionized our sense of Jewish possibility. We can, after all, be soldiers and farmers, we can be hustlers and hard-hats, we can, for better and for worse, be “normal.” Once, we yearned for the day when there would be in (then) Palestine a Jewish jail, with a Jewish guard on the outside and a Jewish prisoner on the inside. At the same time, however, we yearned for a Zion that would be a light unto the nations.
We wanted normalcy, and we also wanted exceptionalism.
For a while, exceptionalism seemed victorious: The immigrants were absorbed, and the deserts did bloom, and the citizen-soldiers acted with noteworthy restraint.
Now, normalcy is in the ascendant. Consumerism is in the center ring, bracketed on the one side by messianic fundamentalism (religious and national) and on the other, nearly in the shadows, by a secular messianism that seems increasingly a charming anachronism.