Jewish Unity: My Wish for ‘E Pluribus Junum’
In 1776, three American founding fathers were tasked with choosing a national symbol. John Adams chose Hercules. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson preferred variations on Moses and the Exodus. None won out. In 1782, the choice was made for the bald eagle, and the Latin phrase e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) was inscribed on the Great Seal of the original 13 colonies that were still in search of national unity.
Later, in 1956, during the Cold War against “godless communism,” the motto became: “In God We Trust.”
What about Israel? In my view, the modern Jewish state — renewed and transformed by immigration but with an underpinning of religious (and irreligious) beliefs — has come to look more and more like the United States on a smaller scale. But the Jewish search for unity amidst diversity has much deeper roots.
Ancient Jewish history evolved, often violently, from unified military rule by Joshua; to divided government under the tribal Elders; to monarchic government culminating in Zedekiah, who was taken as a captive, blinded and in chains, to Babylon in 597 BCE.
This was followed by four centuries of hybrid foreign-native rule, with a priestly elite having to satisfy Persian, Hellenistic Egyptian, and Greek overlords. Royal government only returned with Judah Maccabee’s successful revolt inaugurating the Hasmonean Dynasty, which emphasized national consolidation and lasted until Herod.
Under the Herodian kings and then direct Roman rule, Jewish disunity deepened until the disastrous Jewish war of 67-70 CE. Then the center of gravity of Jewish life shifted from Judea to Rome and its provinces, where the next century’s unsuccessful anti-Roman revolt broke out.
Arguably, the most creative and enduring period of Jewish governance began in 70 CE when, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai escaped from the Roman siege of Jerusalem — smuggled out in a coffin — to resurrect a new academy of learning in Yavneh. During almost two millennia of rabbinic Judaism, loyalty to Jewish law, not political sovereignty, was combined with grassroots synagogue governance together with rule-making by Qahals of councils, abolished by Czar Nicholas in 1844 but reinstated in Eastern Europe and in New York City from 1908 to 1922.
Rabbinic Judaism fused an extremely conservative attitude toward non-Jewish authorities — “the law of the land is the law” — with extraordinary imagination and flexibility in rewriting Jewish rules for self-government.
The failure of Sabbatai Zevi’s 17th-century movement to restore the Jewish kingdom shook up rabbinic Judaism, and opened the door to “the Jewish Enlightenment.” Then came the secular revolutionary movements, starting with the American and French Revolutions and modern Zionism, which changed the Jewish political landscape.
Zionism’s post-Holocaust success in creating a new Jewish state has revived all at once the crises of governance that have challenged the Jews for millennia: foreign invasion, national political disunity, diversity along religious and cultural lines, immigrant assimilation, and now Israel-Diaspora tensions. Welcome to the 21st century!
The one new wrinkle is the widening schism between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora in the US. Today there are new restive Diaspora political movements like Peace Now, Jewish Voice for Peace, and IfNotNow that seem more interested in toppling Israel’s governing structure than defending it from threats abroad.
Rather than wealth, health, or longer life, my wish is for Jewish unity: E Pluribus Junum!
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press. 2015).