[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
by Shimon Peres
The Jewish People feels very much at home in the 21st century. It is a century of constant renewal, innovation and evolution. And it is my definite belief that what characterizes Jews above all is dissatisfaction. If I ever saw a totally satisfied Jew, I would be very surprised. From our early days, we rejected ignorance and postponed satisfaction. Jewish children are taught to question everything and the habit is never lost. It is that ongoing quest for betterment which has made us a people of research, a people of demand, a people of questions, a people of Tikkun Olam, never content with the world as it is and always believing and striving to improve it.
This aspiration for betterment resides today in the State of Israel, homeland of the Jews. It was a long road indeed until the Jewish People had a land and law of their own. The promised land was not exactly a promising land from a material point of view. As we settled into the land, planting seeds and building roads, we also undertook to create a just society of freedom and democracy. And until today, our people, leaders and friends around the world are devoted to supporting Israel’s progress in security, prosperity and democracy.
One of the ongoing struggles we are faced with is maintaining the balance between two core values: Israel as a Jewish State and Israel as a democratic one. While upholding Israel’s status as the homeland for the Jewish People, we must never forget to ensure that the minorities within Israel feel at home, making the State of Israel a homeland not only to the Jewish People, but to freedom and democracy. In this delicate balancing act, we attempt to harmonize between the particular and the universal.
This challenge is worthy of our undivided strength and efforts. We must strive to convey its urgency and its significance to the real protagonists of the story of the Jewish People – our children. The future of Zionism depends on Israel’s success in appealing to young Jews around the world.
The traditional paradigm, which bases our collective Jewish identity on a common history and shared threats, has become obsolete. Most young Jews across the world do not define their Jewish identity through fear and antisemitism.
Zionism envisions a confident Jew, building a homeland of light, justice, liberty and peace. The intention was to leave our national traumas behind and replace them with hope.
Over the years, many Israelis expected the Diaspora mainly to contribute funds to Israel without taking any interest in the challenges these communities faced. That is not the way to build a profound, long-lasting relationship. The connection between Israel and world Jewry, stemming from historic values and facing modern demands, must be based on dialogues between people. Our relationship should be that of a family. The State of Israel should unite us, not divide us.
We must formulate a vision for the future, which will unite us. A vision for the future of the Jewish people in the new age, in a modern and global world. A vision which stems from our heritage and carries us into the future, as old as the Ten Commandments and as daring as modern technology.
I believe that the distinction of the Jewish People is not only its existence against all odds. It is rather what our people make of their existence. Our choice out of all the temptations was to select the most difficult one, the most uncommon one, the moral choice.
In Egypt our people began their Exodus towards freedom. At Mount Sinai they became a nation. There at the top of the mountain Moses became the greatest lawmaker of the time. In ten basic commandments, he handed humanity guidelines for a just society. His laws were and still are a revolt against the conventions of his time – against slavery, against discrimination, against murder, against lying.
As I wonder what Judaism’s most significant contribution to the world has been, I am convinced that the global and ethical justification for Jewish continuity goes far beyond our fight for survival. In my eyes, the answer lies in the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam – bettering the world.
Jewish culture and philosophy are known for their endless quests, never satisfied with what has been learned and achieved. This quality has made Judaism one of the greatest contributors to the betterment of the world throughout the ages.
Tikkun Olam encompasses the three foundations of our vision – morality, knowledge and peace. These three components constitute the firm basis upon which the Jewish People has stood and endured throughout history
Morality – Jews have always been exceptionally involved in idealistic movements aspiring to right the wrongs of the world. We have to continue to provide the moral call in our daily lives as a nation and as a state, understanding that acting with morality is not only the right thing to do but also the highest level of wisdom.
Knowledge – The Jewish People, with a positively disproportional number of Nobel Prize winners, built a modern state which has become an endless source of start-up companies and approved patents, must continue striving to better the world through science and technology.
Peace – Peace is mentioned more in Jewish scripture than any other concept. God himself is described as “He who makes peace in his high places and shall make peace for us”. Peace is not merely a practical or diplomatic solution to guarantee the security and prosperity of the Jewish people; it is a Jewish and universal moral obligation. Peace in the eyes of the Jewish tradition is not just a matter of life and death, but it is a matter of moral life and immoral life. As one strives not only to live but to live well, it is our duty to try not just to exist but to live rightly, morally. The difference between war and peace in our tradition is not just a physical difference but a spiritual one, as it is said “not by power nor by strength but by spirit.”
Our legacy – morality, knowledge and peace – should be our agenda for today. This vision shall guide us, encourage us in difficult times, so that we may never despair in the trials which we will encounter. And so, with an eye on the horizon, let us join forces to tackle today’s demands – building a just society, ensuring the safety of our citizens, encouraging scientific research and development. We have overcome obstacles many a time. With courage and determination, we shall not lose hope and will face these challenges head on. Dissatisfaction has led us thus far and I am fully confident that it will carry us to new heights in the never-ending quest for Tikkun Olam.