Power corrupts. But so too does powerlessness. The narrative of powerlessness, of perpetual helpless victimhood, corrupts moral vision. In his cover story, Rabbi Wolpe does a masterful job of diffusing the political arguments of Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism. But he does not address the fundamental and disconcerting questions at the heart of Beinart’s concern: How has the narrative of victimhood warped contemporary Zionism and American Jewish identity? How has it distorted our collective discourse? What new narratives are made possible by sovereignty in Israel and political power in the US? And what shall we do with all our power? Like the Wicked Son of the Haggadah, Beinart is castigated, but his question goes unanswered.
The apposition of Rabbi Wolpe and Peter Beinart echoes an old controversy: At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Theodor Herzl stood at the rostrum in all his messianic glory and moved the conference with a stirring opening address. Vicious anti-Semitism, he declared, is a permanent feature of European culture. Jews will never live in safety until they gain power, construct a state of their own, and take responsibility for their own political destiny. Far in the back of the hall sat the curmudgeon, Ahad Ha-Am, scribbling in his notebooks. Beware of statehood, he wrote, for power and its emblems are a drug that will distract us from the critical work of rebuilding Jewish culture and twist the Jewish spirit. What we need most, Ahad Ha-Am declared, is not a state for Jews or a state of Jews, what we need is a truly Jewish state.