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Od Lo Avda Tikvateynu--Israel, Zionism & US

Rosh Hashana 1997, 5758 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Once upon a time there was a people with no place in the world: No country that was home, no haven that was safe.

In the East, they were kept as convenient scapegoats to distract the peasantry from a harsh and corrupt regime, from endless starvation and want. Whipped into a frenzy by local preachers with cries of "Christ Killer," and with the cooperation of the police, mobs of peasants periodically stormed their villages and towns murdering, raping, pillaging.

In the West, a much more subtle game was played out. A door called Emancipation was opened, welcoming them to participate as equals in liberal society. But as soon as they tried, a second, invisible door, called Anti-Semitism slammed in their faces. In an age of burning nationalisms, it didn't even help to convert to Christianity. If one was not a Frenchmen, a German, an Austrian, one had no place.

"Being elsewhere," wrote the Catholic scholar Charles Peguy, "is the great vice, the great secret virtue, and the great vocation of this people." What does it mean to reside in the world of "elsewhere," without a place in the world? What does it do to the soul, what does it do to a culture, to be constantly excluded, prejudged, castigated, scapegoated, accused, demonized?

On August 29, 1897, one hundred years ago, Theodore Herzl ascended the rostrum of the Municipal Auditorium in Basel, Switzerland, and called the First Zionist Congress to order beginning the process that gave birth to the State of Israel, and answering the condition of Jewish placelessness.

In the hindsight of history, events take on a air of inevitability. We see God's Providential Hand guiding us. It is difficult to recollect just how precarious, how doubtful, the entire Zionist enterprise was -- beginning with this First Congress.

Herzl was as assimilated a Jew as you could find in Europe. The day before the conference was to start, he was invited to visit a local synagogue where they offered him an aliyah. It was the first time since childhood, he'd stepped into a shul and had to memorize the Torah blessings in transliteration because he could neither read nor understand Hebrew.

Born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest, educated in law in Vienna, he was popular writer for Vienna Neue Freie Presse -- a liberal paper edited by a group of equally assimilated Jews. He was sent by the paper to Paris in 1891 where he produced a series of articles on French anti-Semitism, climaxing in his coverage of the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in 1894.

That there was anti-Semitism in Vienna, Herzl understood. Vienna was a religiously and culturally conservative environment. But he expected to find something different in France. For France represented itself as the heir to the Revolution's tradition of Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. No where were Jews more integrated into cultural, intellectual life, into business and government than France. And no one reflected that integration better than Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was the symbol of the Jew who had made it -- rising to the rank of Captain in the French Army and serving on the General Staff. In 1894, Dreyfus was falsely accused of selling secrets to France's enemies, and in 1895 was publicly humiliated -- the scapegoat for the inept French military. What shocked Herzl was that the crowds in Paris did not shout "Death to Dreyfus" but rather "Death to the Jews!"

Herzl realized that the promise of the 19th century was a lie. In manners, in politics, in culture, Jews became more German than the Germans, more French than the French, they relinquished every last shred of their own faith and culture, and still, Europe would never let them in. Emancipation and Enlightenment were illusions. In 1896, he published his conclusions as a pamphlet entitled, "The Jewish State". The only way for Europe's Jews is out, he argued, to a state of our own.

This statement made Herzl a pariah. Suddenly, he was terribly alone. Zionism was not a popular movement, particularly in Western and Central Europe. At home in Vienna, among the assimilated and emancipated Jews of his circle, Herzl was laughed at and mocked -- his editors tried to block the publication of his pamphlet, he was called the "Jewish Jules Verne." The suggestion that Jews could have, or should have, a state of their own was as outrageous as a journey to the moon. The Orthodox condemned him for usurping God's place in bringing redemption to the Jewish people. The Reform condemned him for a asserting a crude, primitive Jewish nationalism that embarrassed their rational religion and threatened their place in European society. The Jewish socialist movements condemned him for his narrow, particularistic fixation on the Jews, and neglecting the plight of all working people. Only a handful of Jews shared Herzl's dream.

There was no idea in "The Jewish State" that had not already been articulated elsewhere. Herzl's genius was not in conceiving the idea, but in moving it to action. It is one of many ironies of this story that it would take a thoroughly assimilated Jew like Herzl, a Jew untainted with the traditional Jewish skepticism toward Messianic visions, a Jew with his grasp of European politics -- to bring the Zionist dream to reality.

Herzl understood that the way to realize a Jewish state was to move the vision out of the small circles and coffee houses and journals of the few Zionist intellectuals, and into the public political arena. The real purpose of the First Zionist Congress was to change the image of the Jew in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of the Jewish people themselves. Show the world that Jews could organize themselves into a world-political movement; show the world that Jews had an unquenchable national will to statehood; entice the world into negotiations for the rights to Palestine. That 208 delegates showed up was gratifying. That 26 corespondents from newspapers across Europe arrived to cover the story was sensational. That the President of Switzerland and the Chairman of the International Red Cross arrived to give greetings was more than Herzl could have asked for.

But it was all a bluff. Herzl showed up in Basel four days before the conference carrying his own bag. He was penniless and powerless. He represented no one but his own Messianic passions.

His associates had arranged for a huge beer hall to house the Congress's assembly. Herzl needed to create a different image for his incipient movement, and so he rushed out to rent the Municipal Auditorium. As delegates began arriving, in the rumpled attire of Polish Jews, he realized again that this was the wrong image. He rented every frock coat and ascot in Basel. And over the protests of the delegates, he ordered that black formal attire, white neckties, white gloves and black top hats be worn by all who attended the opening session.

Finally, on August 29th, with his mother sitting on the dais behind him, Herzl called the First Zionist Congress to order and led the delegates in the bracha of Shehechiyanu. He wrote of that moment in his personal diary: "At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it." He was off only by nine months. May, 1948, the State of Israel was established. Herzl, however, died in 1904, only seven years after the first Congress, exhausted by his efforts to bring the vision to reality.

The first time I went to Israel to study, mom told me to call my grandparents to say good-bye.
-- Bubby, I'm leaving tomorrow for Israel, I'll be there for a year.
-- You're going to Israel? You're really going there?
-- Yes, I'll be at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I'm going to study Jewish philosophy.
-- You'll be in Yerushalayim? At a Hebrew University? The courses are in Hebrew?
-- Yes, all in Hebrew. With kids from all over the world.
-- Kids from all over the world, studying in a Hebrew University in Jerusalem? Oy, mashiachzeit! The Messiah has come.

For my Bubby, as for most Jews of her generation, Jerusalem was not a real place. It was a prayer at the end the Pesach Seder. But always L'shana Haba, next year. Elsewhere. In another reality to be dreamed of, but never reached. And here, her eldest grandson going to study Jewish philosophy, in Jerusalem, in a Jewish university, in Hebrew, with students from Argentina and Sweden, Morocco and France.

Bubby recognized Mashiachzeit when she saw it. The trouble is that so many of us don't. So frustrated with a peace process bogged down. So disheartened by constant terrorism. So disillusioned by the divisions among Jews and the indecency of fundamentalist ultra-Orthodoxy. So disappointed in an Israel that exercises power without conscience, policy without vision. So discouraged by an Israel that seems to relish the worst of American consumer culture, the flourishing of McIsrael. Or perhaps, so accustomed, so bored, with the reality of Israel. We forgotten the miracles that we have seen. Ain baal ha-nes makir b'niso. The Talmud warns: one who experiences a miracle rarely knows the miracle.

And saddest of all, this strain of amnesia is most virulent in Israel. "As we mark the centenary of Zionism," writes the Jerusalem Post, "post Zionism has become Israel's more prominent ideology." What is post-Zionism? It is a movement to rethink the national identity of Israel and its fundamental values.

Post-Zionism suggests that Israel think of itself as a pluralistic democracy, like the United States, and no longer as a Jewish state. Israel, it asserts, is not responsible to the Jewish people, nor accountable to Jewish tradition or Jewish ethics. Like America, it exists to provide for the life, liberty and happiness of its citizens. Post Zionism would have Israelis asserts: We are not Jews, we are people of this land whose fundamental loyalty is not with the Diaspora over there, not with Jews the world over, but with the people who live here in this region with whom we should promptly make peace and form cultural and economic alliances.

There is an initiative, for example, to change the Israeli national anthem. Hatikva declares the dream of the nefesh yehudi, the Jewish soul. But 20% of the population are Israeli Arabs, and why should they be excluded from the national experience?

There is a movement in contemporary Israel to debunk national myths and tear down national heroes. Zionism, it is asserted, in its willful ignorance of people already living on this land, people with their own rights and their own culture, is ultimately a form of European colonial imperialist invasion imposing its will on an underdeveloped indigenous populace. Israel, born in this "original sin," was never really peace-loving; Israel consistently missed or avoided opportunities for peace; it has been an oppressive power, regularly inflicting injustice on hapless Arabs and relying solely on force to maintain its existence.

Only a colossal case of historical amnesia -- the spiritual breakdown of national identity -- could compose such a formulation. When a nation loses its independence, its sovereignty, its land, it goes into Exile. But Exile can be tolerated. When a nation loses its myths, its stories, its memories, its heroes, it suffocates and dies. This year, on this hundredth anniversary, we must resuscitate Zionism or we will lose Israel. We must recollect the stories, recall the heroes, celebrate Zionism's accomplishments, confess its failures, because the spiritual defense of the nation's story is as critical to its survival as the physical defense of its borders. You can blow up a bomb on Ben Yehuda Street and destroy young lives. But you can forget who Ben Yehuda was, neglect to teach his vision and passion to your children, and you destroy the soul of a nation, corrode its identity, and cripple its will to survive.

This is not about the peace process. Peace will come. If not tomorrow, as the song goes, then the day after. It's not about the bombings. They too will pass. It's not about Netanyahu or Arafat, Madeline Albright or Dennis Ross. It is about recovering our sense of why Israel was created, and how we are attached to it; about what difference it has made in our lives, and what it might yet touch in the souls of our children. It is about recovering the sense of wonder at Israel's existence and the miracle that we, of all the generations of the Jewish people, were here to witness the return of our people to its homeland.

We are a people who know deeply the anguish of placelessness. Zionism sought to recover a Jewish place. But "place" has many meanings. At that First Zionist Congress there were at least three men who each brought a different idea of what it meant to establish a place for the Jewish people in the world.

Theodore Herzl thought of "place" in terms of geo-political territory. "Zionism," he proclaimed, "seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured, home in Palestine." What unites Jews, in Herzl's mind, is neither faith nor culture, but the condition of anti-Semitism which is an inevitable and indelible part of European culture. He could not have been more prescient.

Even Herzl could not have imagined that Europe would rise up and literally deny Jews a place in the world. The greatest failure of Zionism was its inability to save the Jews of Europe from Hitler. And its greatest achievement was the fact that Israel became home to more survivors and refugees of the Holocaust than all the other countries of the world combined. This was Herzl's dream: Israel as haven -- to Jews from Europe, North Africa and Iraq, from Yemen, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

Herzl's closest associate at the first Zionist Congress was Max Nordau. Like Herzl, Nordau was born in Budapest and received an education in German culture. Nordau wrote for the leading German newspaper in Budapest, completed a medical degree, and settled in Paris, where he practiced as a psychiatrist while contributing articles to leading German intellectual journals. In 1883, his book, Conventional Lies of Civilization -- a blistering attack on contemporary culture and religion -- went through 73 editions in a dozen languages and earned him a worldwide reputation. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that following Herzl's conversion to Zionism, friends sent him to Nordau for psychoanalysis. After a few hours of talking, Nordau extended a hand to his patient, "If you're crazy," he said, "then I'm crazy too." It was Nordau's electrifying address to the First Zionist Congress that was its most memorable moment.

"The western Jew has bread," he began, "but man does not live by bread alone. The life of the western Jew is no longer endangered by the enmity of the mob, but bodily wounds are not the only ones that cause pain, and from which one may bleed to death." For Nordau, "place" means something much deeper than simply territory. Place is psychological -- a sense of belonging in the world, of being at home. The ghetto gave Jews a sense of place. Whatever the world did to him, however the world assaulted her, they could always return to the community of the ghetto to be reminded that they were God's Chosen People. But the Jew who had been Emancipated, the Jew who had left the ghetto to enter Christian European society, had neither the comfort of the ghetto, nor the equality promised by Emancipation. In Nordau's wonderful phrase: "The Jews says naively, 'I am a human being and I regard nothing human as alien.' The answer he meets is: 'Softly, your rights as a man must be enjoyed cautiously; you lack true honor, a sense of duty, morality, patriotism, idealism. We must, therefore, keep you from all vocations which require these qualities.'"

Soon, the Jew, striving to find a place in European society, internalizes this diagnosis. He concludes, "There is something wrong with me." The ultimate loss of place takes place in the inner person. "The emancipated Jew," declared Nordau, "is insecure in his relations with his fellow man, timid with strangers, and suspicious even of the secret feelings of his friends...He fears that his character might be recognized as Jewish, and he never has the satisfaction of revealing himself...He has become a cripple within, and a counterfeit person without, so like everything unreal, he is ridiculous and hateful to all."

We were on a family camping trip on our way up to Sequoia National Park. We stopped in some town to pick up a few items from the market. My son was at the end of the aisle, when he spotted a jar of gefilte fish on the shelf. He turned, waved his hands and screamed at top of his lungs, "Look Dad, Jewish food, they've got Jewish food, gefilte fish!" I respond automatically, instinctively, before any rationality could intervene: "Shhhhh! Don't let them know who we are! Don't let them know we're here!" The father who fears being too visible for the anti-Semites lurking in this Safeway supermarket. The son who feels he's home even on edges of civilization. Nordau was right, place is an inner experience.

It was Israel that gave Jews permission to come out of the closet as Jews. And I remember the moment. In 1967, the Six Day War. We contemplated for weeks what would happen if... Would it be another Holocaust? Jews slaughtered, their blood staining the Mediterranean. We listened to the measured, impassioned logic of Abba Eban trying in vain to call upon the conscience of the world, the powers of law, of reason, of international diplomacy and order. And then the war began and in a flash, it all turned around.

Hafachta mispedi l'mechol li, writes the Psalmist, My grief is transformed into dancing. In a flash, it was over. An astonishing victory. There was a rally that Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl. 60,000 people showed up. They crowded the Bowl and the parking lot outside. We were there. 60,000 people sang Hatikva. And then every Hollywood star I knew got up on the stage, announced that they were Jewish and proclaimed their solidarity with Israel. All of a sudden, in the city of Los Angeles, and all across the world, it was cool to be Jewish. This is the fulfillment of Max Nordau's dream.

So we've succeeded. We've come home to Israel. We've come home to ourselves. While anti-Semitism is certainly not dead, there is no Jewish community today anywhere in the world that is in imminent danger of physical extinction. With the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union, the vast majority of Jews today live, either in Israel, or as citizens of large, pluralistic democracies. Again, my Bubby would say "Mashiachzeit!"

But there is a very real threat to Jewish existence today, a threat that's not physical but cultural. As someone clever put it: The non-Jewish world no longer wants to kill us, now they want to kiss us. The Jewish question of the 19th century was how to fit in. The Jewish question of the 21st century is how to remain distinct.
A culture survives when it provides its children with a compelling interpretation of their life's purpose. And Judaism will endures so long as we can articulate for our children a powerful, beautiful, compelling Jewish understanding of life -- its purpose, its meaning, the values that make life worthwhile, the pursuits that bring satisfaction and sanctity.

In the Diaspora, we do this as individuals, as families, as small voluntary communities, in a larger, pluralistic culture. We speak about our own search for meaning, our own ethical struggles, the way in which we, as individuals, find life wisdom in Judaism.

Israel offers a different perspective. Israel presents a us with the unique opportunity to seek a Jewish understanding of life, not as individuals, but as a normative public. This is an ancient idea -- Judaism doesn't live in a book. We are an embodied spirituality. To be fully realized, Judaism requires a real political community -- a community that governs itself, making the trivial and momentous decisions for the lives of its citizens. A community where the law of the land expresses Jewish values and is enforced by Jewish police officers, and adjudicated by Jewish judges. A community where the language of the land is Hebrew -- spoken not only by rabbis and scholars, but by comedians, politicians, sports casters, and rock stars. A community where public policy and Jewish heart, where pragmatics and rahmonis find some meeting point. Such a community becomes the supreme test and the supreme expression of the Jewish spirit.

This was the central perception of a man who sat stewing in the back of the first Zionist Congress. He understood, perhaps deeper than anyone else, the true meaning of Jewish place. His name was Asher Tzvi Ginsberg, and he wrote under the pen name, Ahad Ha-Am, one of the people.

Unlike Herzl and Nordau, Ahad Ha-Am was an eastern Jew. He was born in the Ukraine and received a traditional Hasidic education. A celebrated talmudic scholar even in his youth, his interests moved to the texts of Jewish philosophy and then to secular writers where he discovered Zionism.

For Ahad Ha-Am, the placelessness of the Jewish people is neither of matter of territory nor psychology, but of culture. Instead of place, instead of real life, instead of a real living culture, for the last two thousand years, Jews have only had a book. What so many Jews take as a badge of honor he decries in the angriest prophetic terms: "A people of the book, is a slave to the book. It has surrendered its whole soul to the written word. The book ceases to be what it should be, a source of ever-new inspiration and moral strength; on the contrary, its function in life is to weaken and finally to crush all spontaneity of action and emotion, till men become incapable of responding to life without its permission and approval. The people stagnates...the book stagnates."

Galut ha-nefesh the wasting away of the Jewish soul was the problem that Ahad Ha-am's Zionism came to answer. "It is not only Jews who have to come out of the ghetto," he wrote following the first Zionist Congress in 1897, "Judaism has to come out, too." Zionism is not only about saving Jews, but saving Judaism. Judaism can only be saved by Jews returning to real life in a real land where their culture will again become real. Ahad Ha-am foresaw a renaissance of the Jewish spirit that would serve to revitalize all the Jewish communities of the Diaspora.

A curmudgeon by character, Ahad Ha-am grumbled at Herzl's vision. Herzl's book was called the Judenstaat, literally, "A state for the Jews". Such a place -- a country where Jews live -- might be created, as Herzl proposed, instantly, by a diplomatic fiat. What we really need, Ahad Ha-am argued was not a Judenstaat, but a Judischer Staat, not a state for the Jews, but a genuinely Jewish state -- a state representing the deepest values and commitments of Jewish culture. And that will not be created by diplomacy. Nor will it come into being instantly. It will take generations to evolve. It took a thousand years to create France. It took nine hundred years to create England. Fifty years is only a beginning.

But it was more than Herzl's time table that Ahad Ha-am objected to. He worried about the whole business of political statehood. Such a project, he wrote, "is apt to seduce us from loyalty to our own inner spirit, and to generate in us a tendency to find the path of glory in the attainment of material power and political dominion, thus breaking the thread that unites us with the past and undermining our historical foundation."

At the heart of both Herzl and Nordau's vision is the idea that Jews take power. But power is both a blessing and a curse. Power means security. Power means freedom. Power means the dignity to defend one's family, to determine one's destiny. Especially in the shadow of the Holocaust and all the generations of Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability -- power is a source of pride. But power can blind the eyes and turn the heart. Power becomes a narcotic indulged for its own sake. Can Jews take power without repressing or relinquishing their ethics, without losing their identity?

In Herzl's vision, there is no alternative to taking power. In Ahad Ha-Am's mind, power seduces, corrupts, distracts, and ultimately, will betray the essence of Judaism. This dialectic is the great unanswered question of Zionism. What happens when Jewish ethics meet the real world of power? What happens when Ahad Ha-am's idealism meets Herzl's reality? This year is also the tenth anniversary of the Intifada -- when we saw ourselves, for the first time, as bullies, as brutalizers. Security? Absolutely the first consideration. But what is the moral, the spiritual cost of occupation, of domination, of conquest, of this exercise of power? What has it done to the soul of Israel?

Ahad Ha-am was a philosophical idealist, who believed in the spirit of the Jewish people; a spirit that would flower once planted in the soil of Eretz Yisrael. But real people come with baggage. And after two thousand years of placelessness, Jews come with lots of baggage. Chauvinism, intolerance, fundamentalism, rage, self-pity, self-righteousness. What happens when these, brought from the dark side of the Jewish spirit, find their expression in real culture of Israel? After all, Yigal Amir, is also Israel.

And finally, what if Ahad Ha-am is wrong. After all Zionism offered the Jewish people two visions: a renewal of Judaism, or an escape from Judaism. A recent study found that two thirds of students in secular Israeli high schools were hostile to any form of Jewish studies. You can live in Israel, but still be in Galut, in Exile. You can live in Israel and still suffer placelessness -- 21st Century placenessness represented by a global, polyglot, consumer culture of MTV, MacDonalds, Toys R Us, Netscape and the Gap.

These are the questions that keep Zionist up at night. Because the real goal and purpose of the state of Israel is not just to provide a place for the body of the Jewish people, but to provide for the Jewish soul. Not just a state where Jews can live, but a Jewish state.

This is why I want my children to know Israel, to love Israel, to support Israel. Ki mitzion tetze Torah, u'dvar Adonai m'yerushalaim. Because living in Diaspora as an individual Jew, I cannot fully articulate the Jewish message. Only in a Jewish place, where Jewish values confront every corner of life, of power, can the Jewish message, the Jewish understanding of life, be fully articulated.

Peace will come to Israel. And the burden of absorbing massive waves of immigration will subside. In the next century, Israeli life will become normal. And then the important spiritual fact will no longer simply be the existence of Israel, but the content, the quality of Jewish life in Israel. Will Israel be a state where Jews live, or will it, in fact, become a Jewish state? For this we will work. For this we will pray.

An hour or so before the opening session of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Herzl asked his aide, David Wolffsohn, to create a banner for the hall's entrance. A stranger to Basel, Wolffsohn had no idea where to go to find such a thing. He ran through the boulevards of the city, scouring the shops, to find a suitable emblem, but found nothing appropriate. Exhausted and frustrated, he entered a small synagogue to rest a moment. And there he saw his emblem. He took a large blue and white tallis, removed the fringes, and with a fountain pen, inscribed a Magen David in the center. Thus, was Israel's flag born. A country whose flag is a tallis, and whose anthem is a prayer of hope, is worthy of our best hopes and highest expectations, it is worthy of our children's love.

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Sat, October 24 2020 6 Cheshvan 5781