June 7, 2021

On the night of 15 April, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, in events reported by the New York Times correspondent Patrick Kingsley, a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, brushed the attendants aside and proceeded to cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast prayers to the faithful. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin was delivering a speech at the Western Wall, lying just below the mosque, and officials worried that the prayers would drown it out.

The act, shocking and brazen even in this bare description, set in motion the series of events culminating in widespread riots inside Israel and a recurrence of the armed conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Disconnecting the loudspeakers was a way to show who the real rulers are, not only in Jerusalem but in the Temple Mount itself. By making it clear that Jewish voices should take precedence, it was a way to put Muslims and Arabs in their proper place.

For a long time, the leading religious authorities in Israel ruled that Jews should not enter the gates of the Mount. There is no way for Jews to purify themselves to enter the sacred square, no way to rebuild the Temple, which is a task best left to God. He alone can send the Messiah, in a future for which the faithful should wait and pray. Shortly after the passage of the Protection of Holy Places Law in 1967, Israel’s then religious affairs minister Zerach Warhaftig said that the Third Temple has to be built by God. The Temple Mount was the property of Israel by biblical right, but the Muslim sites would be preserved. “This makes me happy,” he added, “because we can avoid a conflict with the Muslim religion.”

Unless, as Gershom Gorenberg once put it, the future is now. Unless the waiting is over; unless history is drawing to its climax. The events of 15 April show that the question can no longer be evaded. Jewish sovereignty is now everywhere visible on the Temple Mount.

The road to the Mount has an iron logic and it remains unclear what force could stop it. Liberalism, perhaps, since its strictures separating politics from religion could preserve the religious realm as a purely spiritual aspiration. But liberalism is something that Israel has defeated. It is hardly a coincidence that illiberal thinkers such as Leo Strauss learned their political philosophy in the school of Zionism, since every line of Theodor Herzl is proof of the fact that liberalism failed to solve the Jewish question in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The liberal state could not promise European Jews anything resembling safety or dignity, it failed at the most basic task of ensuring their physical survival — but Herzl went much farther. Liberalism meant for the Jews the very real danger of spiritual no less than physical death. Only in an independent Jewish state could the Jews fully pursue the paths opened by Judaism; only in Israel could they regain their inner wholeness, their own character, free of the fear of making oneself different. Here we can detect the germ of the idea of Israel as a civilisation state, even if Herzl was on this point a very imperfect guide.

The stopping point on the route to a temple and a monarchical government — the restoration of the House of David — remains elusive. If the tradition of the halakha, the body of religious laws, expressed an attitude of distance and sanctity towards the Temple Mount, ethnic nationalism stands for a markedly different goal: the holy site as a totem expressing the ultimate sovereignty over the Land of Israel.

And, as Tomer Persico wrote, who better than Naftali Bennett to serve as a salient model for the shift of the centre of gravity of the Zionist movement from halakha to sovereignty? This probable new prime minister represents a hardline nationalism that leaves religion a few steps behind. “We will consult with rabbis, but we make the decisions in the political arena,” he declared soon after taking over conservative political party The Jewish Home.

History is the struggle to realise a myth in reality, but we now know that the world remains polytheistic. There are many opposing myths struggling for realisation and therefore many opposing ends to history.For the Jewish people, sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and not liberalism, is the logical conclusion to its collective history. At the same time, that moment is also an end, the end of Jewish history, and it is in this context that the many strictures against bringing it about must be understood. In an essay first published in 1959, “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism”, Gershom Scholem worried whether Jewish history would be able to endure the entry into the concrete realm of power without perishing in the crisis of its Messianic claim.

For the Israeli radical right, the inability or unwillingness to take complete control over the Temple Mount is an obvious symptom of a diminished or mutilated sovereignty. Commentators such as Yair Wallach unwittingly add fuel to the fire when they stress that the Muslim sites and the ongoing Palestinian presence above the Western Wall constitute a challenge far more significant than the secular power of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. The latter also has a clear understanding of these facts and does not miss any opportunity to associate itself with the defence of the Islamic sites on the Haram, as happened again in the latest Gaza war.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that liberals, both in Israel and outside, prefer to appeal to the Jewish tradition of sanctity and distance as a vaguely Rawlsian argument by which to get Jewish conservatives to agree to a general framework of religious tolerance and coexistence. For Rawls, the political conception of justice was the great overlap between different ways of life, but each group has its own reasons to support that conception. A religious group may support the principles of freedom and equality because they are dictated by religious doctrine, while artists and intellectuals arrive at them from the point of view of the eccentric individual. Similarly, liberal commentators have argued that Israel should stop short of bringing the Jewish state back to life for reasons intrinsic to the Jewish tradition itself.

Whether this strategy can succeed is, to avoid all pieties, rather doubtful. As Jewish religious conservatives will readily point out, there is no reason why the Jewish tradition should be made to fit with liberalism rather than the other way around. After all, Judaism is thousands of years old, while liberalism dates back at most two or three centuries.

The contemporary alternatives to liberalism are quite limited in number. There is the Chinese tradition of imperial power. There is Hinduism, the long adventure of Hindu thought, which no one should take for a strictly religious affair. There is Turkey and the bright lights of Turkic, Ottoman and Islamic history woven together in an impossible whole. And there is, of course, Israel and Judaism. These are the best candidates to be considered civilisation-states in our time.

The concept has little to do with size: Israel is small, but Judaism is old and it has grown both inside and outside liberalism, learning from it while remaining fundamentally unconvinced of its final truth. Nor does the civilisation state have anything to do with race or ethnicity, for civilisation is a concept born of the attempt to rise above these biological realities. The civilisation state is an affair of the mind and the heart, the two together. What distinguishes a civilisation-state is its ability to provide an overarching framework for social and political life and therefore a viable or plausible alternative to liberalism, the general framework we are most familiar with.

Now, when people talk about Israel as a civilisation-state they usually mean that the Israeli state represents a specific people and does not aspire to the kind of universality that is common with Western democracies: Israel is the state of the Jewish people. Yoram Hazony wrote a whole book decrying the attempt to transform Israel into a neutral state representing universal values. What he defended instead was a national state, a state representing the Jewish nation, yet a national state is a close cousin of the liberal state. The freedom and autonomy of the individual needs to be guaranteed not only against internal but also external threats, and in the latter sphere, this relies on organising the powers of the nation against other nations. The liberal and national states exist on the same plane. One is turned inward, the other outward. The civilisation-state is a different creature altogether.

If Israel were to become a civilisation-state, its anchor would be the long and manifold Jewish tradition. It would be the state which today represented that tradition in all its aspects. Such a state might well have a territory and a people, but it would not be defined by them. Its essence or core would be the civilisation or way of life it had been tasked to preserve and develop. And of course, Israel as a civilisation state would in my view be able to free itself from the logic of an existential conflict with its Arab citizens or the Palestinians outside its borders. These groups may appear as a threat to the idea of Israel as a nation. They would not be a threat to the historical project of carrying Jewish civilisation into the future. A civilisation state, as opposed to a national state, should be comfortable with the existence of many different cultures and peoples in its midst. Civilisations can learn even from different and opposing civilisations.

Is it surprising that religious Zionism ended up as a hostage to nationalism? Hazony struggled against the drift towards a liberal state in Israel, and he certainly can rejoice in contributing to the demise of liberal ideas in Israel over the last two decades, but what he replaced them with was the typical European nationalism of the 19th century, to which Herzl had already succumbed. Was anything gained with the exchange? The result is the same subordination to foreign intellectual fashions which so enrages Hazony.

According to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the Land of Israel is one unity, an organic entity connected with the Jewish people, so that the people and the land are in complete oneness as a sovereign historical actor — concepts proper to European nationalism. Amid the growing crisis before the 1967 war, Kook addressed his students in a famous speech: “Where is each and every clod of earth? Every last bit, every four cubits of the Land of Israel? Can we forgo even one millimeter of them? God forbid!”

Hazony is correct on one point. The state of the Law of Return, whose flag includes representations of the Star of David and the traditional Jewish prayer shawl is not and will never become a liberal state. There will be no addition of a crescent moon to the Israeli flag and Arab citizens will never feel that the state belongs equally to them. There will be no new constitutional doctrine whereby the state gets reinterpreted at the highest level of abstraction so that it becomes identical with universal dictates of freedom and democracy.

The new coalition government — implausibly spanning the secular far left, a religious Muslim party and religious Jewish parties — cannot change these realities. But the national state is not the only alternative to liberalism. Ben-Gurion once asked: “Can we become a chosen people? Can we become a light unto nations? Is the redemption possible?” Those would seem to be the commandments of a civilisation-state, a state both sustained by and committed to the flowering of a civilisation.