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The Honey and the Sting

There’s a background music to Jewish life, if you listen for it. It’s a ubiquitous melodic phrase that’s heard at weddings in Haifa and bar mitzvahs in Houston. It’s played to phone callers put on hold by synagogues and office suites in Toronto and Tel Aviv.

The precise tune changes from decade to decade, sometimes from year to year. It’s usually an Israeli pop tune; which one you hear depends on shifting musical tastes and shifts in the worldwide Jewish communal mood. There was a time when it was the soaring imagery of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”). For a time it was the impatient “Machar” — the vision of peace that “will come tomorrow.” For a while it was the saucy, confident “Le-Shana Ha-Ba’a” (“You’ll see how good it will be next year!”).

This year, as Israelis and their friends around the world prepare to mark the 55th anniversary of Jewish statehood, the theme you hear is more down-tempo: “Help me, dear God.”

The phrase is from a 20-year-old pop tune, “The Honey and the Sting” (“Over all these things, please stand guard, dear God: over the honey and the sting, over the bitter and the sweet, over our little baby daughter”), composed by Israel’s unofficial poet laureate, Naomi Shemer. A haunting lament, it’s experienced an extraordinary, worldwide wave of new popularity in the last year or two. The reason is that it perfectly captures our mood right now. No more soaring visions of peace, prosperity or ancient glory restored. Just let me live another day. Please.

This wasn’t what the founders of Zionism had in mind when they began a century ago to envision Jewish statehood. Like the visionaries of that other 19th-century dream of transformation, socialism, the early Zionists imagined that humans could change their fate and remake history through acts of collective will. Both movements were sweeping in their ambitions, veering at times into messianic delusions that the end of days was nigh.

The promise was soaring. The crash is profound. Sovereign statehood was supposed to offer Jews a normal life of the sort they had never known in Diaspora. After a half-century things seem to have turned out backwards: Statehood has given rise to a Jewish community unique in its physical vulnerability. Israel was supposed to make Jews safe; instead it is to a considerable degree the Jews who keep Israel safe, through their financial and political support.

Lately the signs are even worse than that. Zionism was supposed to be the answer to the 2,000-year scourge of antisemitism. It now appears, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes in our Forward Forum on Page 9, that Zionism is in the cross-hairs of an entirely new strain of antisemitism that has burst onto the world stage like some mystery virus in the last two and a half years. A wave of virulent hatred has arisen, different from past hatreds, directed at Zionism and Israel and Jews all over the world as its agents.

It sounds grim, and it is. But images of doom, like images of redemption, have a way of running away with themselves and distorting our vision of reality. Zionism was never going to bring the messianic era, and anti-Zionism is not about to bring the end of the world. Israel has managed to provide a haven for millions of homeless Jews, and today, for all its troubles, it is still a smallish but thriving country where mothers still raise healthy children and scientists are curing diseases. The threat from Israel’s enemies, for its part, is considerable but not mortal. If it seems in the last two and a half years to have taken on alarming new dimensions, that is because something happened two and a half years ago. Peace talks collapsed and a violent intifada was launched. Things spun out of control, and they have not yet been made right. They will be, and things will seem better, until they get bad again. That is the way of the world.

If we have learned anything from the drama of Zionism, it is this: History twists and turns, but it does not end. Soaring dreams can bring crashing disappointments. But modest dreams can bring modest satisfactions. Jerusalem still shimmers, and life will be better tomorrow than it is today. Bitter and sweet: That should be enough.

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