Ha-Matzav - The Situation

Ha-Matzav - The Situation
Yom Kippur 2001 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

"Do you get it now?" writes Clyde Haberman, the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem. "Do you get it now? It is a question that many Israelis wanted to ask yesterday of America and the rest of the finger-pointing world. Not in a smart-alecky manner. Not to say, `We told you so.' Do you get it now? You can't avoid the question," Haberman concludes, "when you have seen the human wreckage caused by suicide bombs that go off with sickening frequency. You ask it because Jerusalem offers a glimpse of what New York may become Jerusalem points the way."

To understand Israel today, you needn't be a New York Times correspondent. Just flag down any taxi, and ask the driver his opinion of "ha matzav the situation." Israeli cab drivers know everything. "Milchama!" he'll tell you immediately, "there's going to be a war. There has to be a war. Power is the only language they understand. Once they know we're strong, they will respect us. Then there can be peace." 

Then he shifts gears, figuratively and literally. "But what happens after the war? Do we want to govern all those Palestinians? Were things any better when we did? Eh," he shakes his head, "maybe we have to talk after all. Negotiate some sort of separation. Give them what they want, and they'll give us peace."

Then he switches again, "But talk to them? After what they did? Can we talk to them? Eh. I don't know."

Israelis are a pragmatic people. They have a national genius for finding clever solutions to difficult problems. And they have a very low tolerance for irresolution. In the old days, everyone had a solution. The Right had its solution. The Left had its solution. And they would fill the cafes all night arguing. Now, no one knows what to do. And it's driving them crazy. 

My family and I spent the summer in Israel. I participated in a seminar at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Twenty rabbis from North America -- Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, men and women, learned together, shared our interpretations of the Jewish tradition, debated our visions of Jewish life. The environment within the Institute was so open and collegial, we were written up in Haaretz, Israel's major newspaper. The reporter wanted to know why American rabbis get along so well, while Israeli rabbis can't talk to one another. What do we know that they don't? Within the Institute, there was passionate dialogue in an atmosphere of deep mutual respect. Inside, it was calm, deferential, polite. As soon as we left, and entered Jerusalem, we could feel the anxiety, the depression. 

They are weary. After fifty-three years of struggle, it's enough already. Three generations of Israelis have been raised under war. And there is no end in sight. 

They are frightened. This war isn't fought far away. We walked down the Tayelet, the beach-walk in Tel Aviv, one warm evening after supper, and at the southern end, quite by accident, we came across the burned out shell of the Dolphinarium disco. Just as you tuck the knowledge of these horrors away into some guarded place in your mind, the locus of repression, you imagine that the place must be somewhere else in some special terror district. But it's right here, in this most public and festive of places, guarded only by a small stone marker with the names of the victims. 

"They're killing our children," a cab driver tells me, "everyday, a few more. And do you know what's the worst part we're getting used to it. It's becoming normal. When that happens, eebadnu et ha-medina we've lost the State, we've lost Israel." 

There is a sense that, along with war, everything in Israel is falling apart. The collapse of a wedding hall in Jerusalem kills 29 people. The ensuing investigation reveals that the same slip-shod construction methods were used in dozens of schools around in the country. The country is running out of water. Three years of drought have brought the level of the Kinneret, Israel's main water source, to its lowest ever. There is red line, below which it is unsafe to draw water without pulling salt water and agricultural chemicals into the aquifer layers. So, every two weeks during the summer, they just repainted the red line a little lower. And then one day in mid-July, the water supply for the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area reeked of ammonia and was undrinkable until the whole water system could be flushed. 

They feel abandoned by an America that counselled, until last week, restrain in the face of terror, by the world's finger-pointing, and by us, by America's Jews. The thousands of tourists who crowd the streets and sites were reduced to a trickle. It was uncanny, we had all of Masada to ourselves. All over Israel I wore bright, Hawaiian shirts and spoke Hebrew loudly in my obnoxious American accent. As I explained to my instructors, so that they'll know there's at least one American tourist in the country. 

Most of all, Israel is bitter and disillusioned. For a moment in history, Israel allowed itself to believe that peace was possible, that peace was near. Now that dream has dissolved. Scholars will evaluate what happened at Camp David, and why peace fell apart. Whether it was Clinton's pressure, or Barak's arrogance, or Arafat's fear the story is complex. But the broad consensus in Israel holds that Barak offered everything, including much of Jerusalem, and was rewarded with an Intefada. 

The irrationality of the situation, the hatred, touches an old Jewish nerve. It suggest that the situation is no longer political but existential, no longer diplomatic but metaphysical. It raises an old Jewish fear -- that for Jews the world is an endless nightmare, irrational, intolerant, absurd and hateful. Once again, we find ourselves in Galut, in exile, helpless inhabitants of a world beyond our powers to control. Once again, we find ourselves impotent -- unable even to defend our children. This was precisely the condition that Zionism was supposed to cure. The irony of this is so bitter, it elicits strong emotions rage, fear, depression, despair. 

Once, I got into a cab and asked by question about "ha matzav What do you think of the situation?" Shhhh, the driver says. He turns up the tape deck and the cab fills with a soothing instrumental. After a few minutes, he explains, "people come to my cab to get away for a little while. Sometimes they don't even want to go anywhere. Nice, no?"

We sat at Shabbat lunch at the home of one my instructors at the Institute, an important Israeli rabbi and scholar. And, like every other conversation, we found ourselves talking about ha-matzav, the situation. As we're talking in supposedly dispassionate terms about diplomacy, fundamentalism, terrorism, I notice that the whole time, he's staring at his fourteen year-old son. And so is his wife. He doesn't take his eyes off the boy until we change the subject. In four years, that youngster will be drafted into the Army, as are all Israeli eighteen year-olds. And the culture among boys is that he'll request placement in a combat unit -- special forces, if he has the aptitude. That reality casts a shadow on every aspect of the family's life, as it does on the life of every Israeli family. 

This is not just a crisis about Palestinians. Israel has survived terrorist bombings before. They've survived long stretches of political tension and economic hardship, the collapse of tourism, the hypocrisy of the UN, the skewed partiality of the world press. This is not only a crisis about Palestinians, it is a crisis within the soul of Israel. 

The hardest part of the crisis, for most Israeli families, is that another generation of their children must grow up to be warriors. 

And worst still, they can't explain to themselves why. Why are we here, in this dangerous place? For what do we sacrifice our children? Why struggle in Tel Aviv when you can live a perfectly comfortable life in Vancouver?

Their parents, their grandparents, steeped in Jewish history and culture, could recite the Zionist story a story that rooted Israel and its struggle in the ancient struggles of the Jewish people. They owned a story that inspired loyal self-sacrifice and courage. They worshipped heroes who gave up everything for their people, for their land, for their freedom. Passionately, they told of Trumpeldor, the Shomer, the guardian, who died defending the Upper Gallil from Arab marauders, and on his lips his dying words, "Tov lamut b'ad artzaynu, It's good to die for our land." But their children and grandchildren -- products of a cynical, secular, post-modern, global consumer culture their children only roll their eyes at these corny tales. The children have no connection with Jewish history, no roots in Jewish culture, no notion of Jewish identity. They speak Hebrew, but have no language to express a Jewish narrative that makes sense of what's being demanded of them.

Eebadnu et ha medina, we're losing Israel. Not because of Palestinian terror or geo-politics or Islamic fundamentalism. We're losing Israel, because we've lost the story of why Israel exists.

From the beginning, Zionism and the State of Israel it created proffer an ambivalence toward Judaism. It was both a homecoming and a rebellion. On the one hand, Israel represents the fulfillment of 2000 years of Jewish dreams and prayers, lihiot am hofshi b'artaynu, to be a free people in our own land. On the other hand, Zionism promised to make of us a normal people a people unburdened of the weight of 2000 years of history and legacy. A people whose life can revolve around the mall and a favorite basketball team without being someone's symbol.

Zionism consciously told a new story. It perceived Judaism as a sickness that locked the Jew into centuries of powerlessness and suffering. To save the Jewish people, Zionism saw the need to rebel and liberate the Jew from Judaism and its culture of passivity. It liberated the Jew from Yiddish, the language of weakness and replaced it with a resurrected Biblical Hebrew. It liberated the Jew from religious rituals celebrating passivity, martyrdom and impotence. Today, if you ask kids from Tel Aviv what they do on Yom Kippur, they'll tell you with much excitement that on Yom Kippur, the municipality closes the Ayalon Freeway and thousands of Tel Avivians ride their bicycles up and down the length of the freeway. 

In his classic story, The Sermon, Haim Hazaz imagines Yudka, the little Jew, who rises to his feet at a kibbutz meeting to announce: "I am opposed to Jewish history!" When his comrades suggest that he go to the university if he wants to discuss history, he refuses to be silenced. For his question, he explains, has everything to do with why we're here: "I am opposed to Jewish historybecause we didn't make our own history, the goyim made it for us. Just as they used to put out our candles, milk our cows and light our stoves on Sabbath, so they made our history for us to suit themselves, and we took it from them as it came. Jewish history is so dull, so uninteresting. It has no glory or action, no heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning and wailing wretches always begging for mercy. I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors' shame? I would just say to them: `Boys, from the day we were driven out from our land, we've been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football!" Yudka concludes his oration: "Zionism and Judaism are not the same. They are two very different things entirely, maybe even opposed to one another. When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist." 

In place of the ancient Jewish narrative, Zionism told a new story celebrating Jewish strength and self-sufficiency. This narrative has empowered Israel to accomplish miracles. To settle a hostile land against overwhelming odds. To achieve remarkable economic prosperity and power. To rescue and absorb millions of refugees, from Arab lands, from Ethiopia, from the Soviet Union. Genuine miracles. Many of us were raised on this narrative. Stories of Israeli heroism were an important part of our upbringing. But now this great Zionist narrative has been challenged.

Beginning in the late 1980's a group of young Israeli historians began exploring newly opened government archives and documents. Their research called into question some of the basic historical myths of Israel's beginnings. Who is responsible, for example, for the problem of Palestinian refugees? I remember being taught that when the UN declared the partition of the Palestine, in 1947, it called for two states west of the Jordan one Jewish and one Arab. The leaders of Jewish Palestine accepted this proposal. The Arabs rejected it and promptly invaded. The Arabs living in Jewish Palestine, according to the story I was taught, were ordered by the invading Arab armies to leave their homes and prepare to return once the Jews were pushed into the sea. At the very most, they left in fear of the approaching battle. Jews never dispossessed Arabs. That's not like us. We are a moral people. 

In 1988, a young Israeli historian, Benny Morris, of Ben Gurion University, published a study which arrived at a different conclusion. Many Arabs indeed fled on the orders of the invading Arab armies. Many fled simply out of fear. And some were pushed out by Jews. Arab villages were destroyed. Arab families who had held land for centuries were summarily expelled. Atrocities were committed. We weren't always moral heroes. We were also moral monsters. We weren't always victims of terror and injustice. We were also perpetrators. We took power and it corrupted us. We share responsibility for the problem's origin and by implication, we share responsibility for its solution. 

Once the national myths are subjected to critical examination, much of Israel's national identity is opened to question. What was it in our national character that allowed us to carry out such moral atrocities? Tel Aviv University philosophy professor, Adi Ofir, editor of an influential journal, Theory and Criticism, argues that it was a flaw in Zionism itself. Zionism, for all its protestations to the contrary, perpetuated an image of the Jew as victim. And bearing the moral license of a victim, Israel dispossessed an indigenous population of innocent Palestinians, and inflicted a brutal occupation upon them while at the same time maintaining an air of moral superiority. 

Zionism promised to create a state at once both Jewish and democratic. But this is contradictory. If Israel is to be a normal state, it must give up Zionism and relinquish its identity as a Jewish state. In a truly humanistic democracy, he argues, culture, religion, and nationality, must be separated from statehood. Israel must become, not a Jewish state, but a democratic state of all its citizens. Can you imagine an Israel stripped of all things Jewish? He can. That's his dream. In the name of humanistic democracy, the Law of Return must be eliminated. It is undemocratic and discriminatory to allow Jews wishing to immigrate to their homeland in Israel without offering the same right to Palestinians. Israel's flag must be changed because it is undemocratic and discriminatory to have a national flag bearing a religious symbol. It is undemocratic and discriminatory to sing a national anthem that expresses the aspirations of only one portion of the country's citizenry and leaves out the rest. 

This attitude is known as post-Zionism. In truth, post-Zionist ideology is the business of a very small group of academics and intellectuals. But as a way of thinking, it has had an enormous impact on Israeli culture. Post-Zionism is very strong on Israel's university campuses. Its themes have found frequent expression on talk shows, to which Israelis are addicted, and through art, music, literature, film and theater. Now the textbooks used in Israel's high schools bear much of this sort of thinking. Robbed of its national myths, its national heroes, its national story, it becomes much more difficult for much of Israel to explain itself.

For much of Israel, but not for all. There is still a segment of Israeli society that is openly and proudly Zionist, nationalist, and Jewish. 

After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel saw the beginning of a new nationalist religious fundamentalist movement. This movement views Israel and its struggles as a Messianic process leading to true redemption. It believes that the land of Israel possesses mystical significance, it is uniquely sacred, and was promised by God to the Jewish people. Likewise, it holds that the Jewish people is unique. Jews are not meant to live like other nations, nor to live among other nations. The isolation and castigation of the Jewish people by the nations of the earth is an expression of divine will so that Jews may live a holy life and fulfill the will of God. 

There is nothing wrong with these beliefs. They have, in fact, found support among a broad spectrum of Israelis. But there is an extreme wing of this movement which has translated this Messianism into religiously-endorsed chauvenism, xenophobia, hatred and violence. Thus, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, holder of the prestigious Israel Prize in Halachic Studies, argues that non-Jews should be forbidden to live in Jerusalem, and that "we should have driven all the goyim away from Jerusalem and purified it completely." Other rabbis equate the Arabs with the Biblical Amalek, against whom Israel is commanded to carry out a war of genocide. In an 1994 article entitled, "Halachic Clarification into the Matter of Killing a Goy," Rabbi Ido Elba of Kiryat Arba, the religious community adjacent to Hebron, argues that killing a non-Jew does not violate the commandment of "Thou shall not kill." Moreover, he concludes, if the victim is an Arab, and if he can be killed without endangering the life of the murderer, the murder is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. This was the movement that incited Baruch Goldstein to enter a mosque on Purim in 1994, and machine gun to death dozens of Moslem worshippers. And this was the movement that eulogized him as a national martyr, erecting an impressive monument on his grave. This is the movement that declared that anyone who surrenders parts of Israel must be labeled a traitor and dealt with accordingly. This was the movement that created Yigal Amir, the murderer of Yitzchak Rabin. 

Following the assassination, Amir explained himself to his police interrogators: "I would not have done all that I did were it not for my religious obligation to defend the Land of Israel from the traitor, Yitzchak Rabin, as explained by numerous rabbis who fear for the fate of the land of Israel and the Jewish people. I did it for God, people and country." Yigal Amir is in jail. But the rabbis who taught him, the movement that nurtured him, the ideology that motivated him is still very much alive and active in Israel. And worst still is that this movement has virtually co-opted the language and symbols of traditional Zionism. 

Imagine the young Israeli who believed, up until a year ago, that the long and painful struggle for Israel's survival was over. Peace was near. The new Middle East was about to be born. Suddenly, all that has disappeared. Like his father and his uncles, he too will likely spend a lifetime fighting just to be, just to defend his home. And he asks himself why. Why should he go and fight? He doesn't own the ancient Jewish narratives that brought his grandfathers and grandmothers from Europe to Israel. At college, professors with post-Zionist leanings will tell him that his heroes are false, his Zionist stories untrue and immoral, that his homeland is a racist, colonialist, imperialist state. And if he musters the resolve to declare that he is a Jew, that he loves his homeland and he carries on the Zionist dream, he sounds to himself and to others suspiciously like those genocidal fundamentalists, like Yigal Amir who also loves God, people and country. 

He asks, why? What shall we tell him? We'd better have an answer, and a good one. Because a society can be destroyed from the inside just as surely as from the outside. 

The Talmud teaches: Ain baal ha-nes makeer b'neeso. You can't see a miracle as it's happening. Israel is a miracle. It is a miracle to return home after 2000 years of Jewish homelessness. For 2000 years, Jews, running for their lives, finished every Seder, every Yom Kippur, with the prayer, Bashana ha-ba-ah b'yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem. Only in the context of that unique Jewish memory of exile and hopelessness does Israel make any sense. 

But most Israeli kids don't have those memories. Yudka won. The founders of Israel believed there was little to learn from Jewish history. They were embarrassed by Jewish history, so it was excised from the national curriculum and consciousness. 

Who knows this history? Who holds these memories? We do. We, the Jews of Diaspora know the story of Jewish history that has been hidden from young Israelis. We know the long history of Jewish pain, powerlessness and persecution. That's why we take news about Israel so personally That's why we get all teary-eyed at the sound of Hatikva, Israel's national anthem. We can recognize the miracle that is Israel. So it's time to reorganize and reorient our relationship. Israel needs Diaspora Jews, just as we need Israel. Together, we face the same problem of making sense of Jewish life. 

My meshuganeh idea: The world Jewish community has established a remarkable program called, Birthrite Israel which entitles every Jewish young person a trip to Israel for free. In the past three years more than 22,000 kids have gone. It's a remarkable gift to the Jewish people. But it is incomplete. Just as American and Canadian Jewish kids need to see Israel, to renew and strength their connection with Judaism and the Jewish people, we need to bring Israeli Jewish kids here for exactly the same purpose: to renew their Jewish souls.

In Israel, stepping into a synagogue, even putting on a kippah, is a highly political act. So most Israelis never do. Until they come here, to the Diaspora. Most Israelis never think of themselves as Jews until they come here, to the Diaspora. And until they come here, they won't understand why Israel was created and why it must be defended. We have something precious to contribute, to reintroduce, into the national story. We can give them back their history. 

And they have something remarkable to give us. They can show us the future: Israel is not only the culmination of Jewish history, it is something radically new in the life of the Jewish people. You have to go there to understand this. In our cultural context, Judaism is restricted to the private spiritual lives of individuals and families, to the religious life of the synagogue, to the cultural life of institutions like JCC and Federation. In Israel, the public sphere becomes Jewish. Here, I worry about building a kosher Sukkah, about kashering the house for Passover, about my personal teshuva. In Israel, we worry about erecting a kosher policy of national defense, about kashering the natural environment, about national teshuva. In the vision of my teacher, David Hartman: Israel becomes a Messianic society because it "exposes the Jewish people and the Torah to the test of reality. The Jewish society that we build in Israel has to validate the claim made in the Jewish tradition regarding how a Torah way of life creates a holy community [that] the Torah is truly capable of sanctifying every aspect of human reality, [that] it is capable of giving new moral and spiritual dimension to a nation's politics"

My second meshuganeh idea: Pilgrimage. In ancient times, everyone went, at least once in a lifetime, if not once in a year. For all our noise, 72% of American Jews have never been to Israel. I know you've got tickets for Mammoth or for Maui. Those are nice vacations. But if you want to be touched as a Jew, if you want to be changed as a human being, then you must go to Israel. If being a Jew is part of your personal story, then being in Israel must be part of your experience. This is an opportunity we have waited for, prayed for, dreamed of, for 2000 years. 

The greatest of Israeli authors, Shai Agnon, related a fable about a little boy and his old father, who together tended a goat. Each day, the goat would wander off, only to return each evening, its udders filled with the sweetest of milk. The boy wished to know where the goat went and on what grass it grazed, to give such extraordinarily sweet milk, so he tied a string to the goat's tail and followed. Over hills and through forests they went, until they descended into a dark cave. Down a long, winding path the goat led the boy. Finally, they emerged into the light. The boy recognized at once that he had entered into a new world, a world of lush hillsides and warm sunshine. Stopping a passerby, he inquired, and was told, "This is the land of Israel!" Elated by this discovery, the boy took pen and paper in hand, and wrote a note to his father. "Follow the goat," he instructed, "and join me here in the Eretz Yisrael." Tucking the note into the ear of the goat, he sent goat back, back to the old country, to his father. 

Meanwhile, the father had grown worried at the boy's disappearance. When the goat returned without the boy, he grew distraught. He took the goat to the schochet, the town butcher, and had it slaughtered. And only then, did the note drop from the animal's ear. 

From that day, concluded Agnon, the mouth of the magical cave was covered and no one knows the way to the marvelous Land of Israel. 

Until now. Now the way is open. And the need is great. This year, before it's too late, you need to follow the voice within that implores you to go and visit Israel. And don't forget to wear a loud Hawaiian shirt so they'll know they're not alone in the world.


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Date: 
Sunday, April 26, 2015 - 12:30pm