To continue our discussion of existentialism, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Zionism: While sometimes philosophers can stretch sentence-length discoveries into whole books and careers, the simple existentialist credo of “Existence precedes essence” in fact packs many vital ideas into just three words.
Arguments for a God-given immortal soul often claim there is a human essence (the soul) that precedes our coming into physical existence and subsequently outlives us. As an “essence,” this entity defines who or what we are: it remains fixed and unchanging, even as certain of our features (our size, our shape, our hair, etc.) change.
A brief visit to a college campus today will also introduce you to many secular alternatives for pre-existing essences that allegedly define us, such as race, gender, or the culture and society into which we were born. In calling these “essences,” again, one is suggesting that these traits fix and determine who or what we are.
The existentialist credo, to the contrary, rejects such fixed essences. It holds instead that we have full freedom to choose who or what we are, regardless of any of our predetermined traits (mystical, genetic, or societal). Our existence comes first; we subsequently are free to define ourselves after. So when Martin Luther King asked that a man be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, he was actually making an existentialist statement — insisting we treat each human being as an existing agent defined by freely-made individual choices (which make up his character), rather than by essences he was born with (such as skin color).
You can see what a powerful argument this idea offers against bigotry, since defining human beings by essences such as race and gender is not just morally wrong, but robs people of their most important freedom — the freedom ultimately to choose the meaning of their own existence.
Insisting that pre-existing essences do not define us does not mean doing away with all distinctions and backgrounds. You can, for example, take pride in your ethnic, cultural or religious heritage and even choose to define many elements of your character around such factors. In fact, building on tradition offers a powerful platform for existential transformation, far better than tearing down the world and starting from scratch.
The most successful recent example of this phenomenon is Zionism, a movement which led to not just the establishment of a homeland but the (re-)creation of a people. Clearly there are historical precedents and religious arguments for Jews living in their own nation. But the ultimate success of Zionism came from its ability to create meaning for living Jews, rather than relying on the history and faith of dead ones.
If you want to see the staggering power that derives from choosing lives of meaning and purpose, you need only look at the miracle of a people who were at death’s door in 1945 establishing and defending their own state just three years later. And in the seven decades since, the small state that these people created has taken in millions of exiles, made the desert bloom, defeated powerful enemies again and again, and built a world-class economy from the brains and determination of citizens who are free not just externally (politically), but internally (existentially).
Stories that Israelis are among the happiest people on earth can be confusing for those living in more peaceful lands, who wonder how anyone could be happy living under constant threat of annihilation. What they miss is that the need to defend one’s homeland — while also building it — provides meaning to many Israelis, sweeping away existential angst (anxiety), leading to happiness. In contrast, those who inherited the societies in which they dwell (rather than created them) might not live in fear of physical destruction, but still live in terror that they (or we!) are living inauthentic lives, lives devoid of self-created meaning (which most of us do, at least by existentialist standards).
Claims that Israel would be a “light unto nations” is often derided by foes, but also questioned by friends who wonder if it set the Jewish state up to live by impossible moral standards demanded of no one else. But in an age when so many are blaming their failure on factors outside personal control (such as accidents of birth, economic forces, or faceless political actors) and turning to religious or political dogma to avoid responsibility for their own decisions and lives (leading to chaos, and even genocide), Israel does provide the world a shining example of an alternative way to live.
That example is not of a morally perfect people or state, nor of a utopia that allows one to live life without sorrow or compromise. Rather, it is a demonstration of what all people can achieve once they embrace their freedom and accept the frightening but awesome responsibility of using that freedom to take full responsibility for their own lives.