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The Challenge of Israel

by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold on the occasion of Yom HaAtzmaut 5769

During the mid-eighties I spent four months in Israel as part of my Sabbatical leave. It was a deeply moving experience: I had not been there since I was a student at the Hebrew University during the academic year of ’55-’56.

During the first four weeks in Israel, I read several papers a day and talked to everyone willing to converse with me until I got a sense of life in Israel, including the problems. What helped me was my fluency in Hebrew. People feel complimented when they see that you have taken the trouble to learn their language.

My conversations often turned into arguments: It usually began with the question “How do you like it here?” When I would say how much I enjoyed being in Israel, came the invitation, “Why don’t you come to live here?” An invitation with a challenge. But I welcomed the arguments because they provided me with the opportunity to voice my opinions. In classical Zionist thought, there is Zion, or Israel and Galut-Exile. In Israel, Jews live by right and are at home, and in Galut they live by sufferance or tolerance and are strangers. Though Israeli officials now refer to those of us who live outside of Israel as Diaspora – the old ideas have persisted.

Most Israelis are either from Europe or from the Arab countries. Their experience of living in a non-Jewish society ranges from the tolerable to the disastrous. Israelis tend to view us who live in America as enjoying a period of grace comparable to the Jews of Germany before Hitler, and the assertion that American Jewry is a unique chapter in Jewish history they see as a delusion.

It is difficult to argue with deeply held beliefs, but I feel that it is important that we understand each other and so when I am asked the question, “Why do you continue to live in the Diaspora when you can live at home in Israel?” I go into a lengthy historical explanation that the Diaspora, being 2,700 years old, has, with all of its problems, become a normal part of Jewish existence.

“Perhaps”, I say, “we have become a people of multiple modes of existence. The fact is that since the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel in 721, before the Christian era, and deported its population, from that time on we have been a people of Diaspora.” As against that, our existence as a sovereign nation-state amounts to no more than 500 years, and that already includes the Maccabean period, and I would end up with the question, “Don’t you think that after 2,700 years of existence the Diaspora has earned the right to be recognized as a stable aspect of Jewish life, alongside the ideal existence in a sovereign nation-state?”

My proposal seems too outrageous to them and they answer “What? After the Holocaust you have the temerity to view the Diaspora as a stable element of the House of Israel?” Now I’m on the defensive, and I go on to explain the obvious, namely, that neither of us has guarantees, that in our long history, the nation-state was destroyed three times, and that the Bar Kochba rebellion, the last bid for sovereignty before Zionism, ended in a holocaust. My friend is a bit annoyed but willing to concede that sovereignty may not guarantee survival, but it certainly provides the most favorable conditions in which Jewish life, in all of its forms, can flourish.

And, seeing that he has scored, he presses his point once again: “Why would a person like you, who obviously cares about the quality of Jewish life, choose to remain in an environment which leads to assimilation?” I demur and speak about the new vitality we are experiencing here, and as evidence, I cite the hundreds of courses in Judaica that are offered in universities throughout America; the numerous day schools sponsored by Conservative, Orthodox and Reform congregations; the growing network of havurot; and cap the argument with my own experience here at Harvard, citing a ten-fold growth in participation over 25 years in a community with a stable population. I describe our Kol Nidre services attended by 1,500 people; my friend is impressed.

More, he is pleased to hear of such vitality in the Diaspora, but after a moment of reflection he comes back; his doubts are not assuaged. “In the best of circumstances, you, in America, have to spend your time and energy to achieve bare minimums for what we, by virtue of living here, are assured of naturally. Take, for instance, Hebrew: at most, your children learn enough of it to be able to read the prayers. They may even reach a vague understanding of what they are saying. For us, Hebrew is a given. It is as natural to us as English is to you; but more importantly, it is the key that opens the sources of our traditions.”

Most American Jews I’ve met have not convinced me that they give as much thought to Judaism as they do to our political survival here. Too many of them have left me with the feeling that their Jewishness consists, to a large degree, of identification with Israel and anger over the Holocaust.”

My friend has finally gotten me on the defensive, and I conclude by saying, “Yes, there is a price for living in a pluralistic society where we run the dangers of assimilation and dilution, but is living in a nation-state free of disadvantages? What of tendencies towards chauvinism and religious fanaticism? What of the need to use force to control the Palestinian population? I feel that I almost evened the score and I know that our last arguments have touched on sensitive spots, and so I conclude with a plea: “Our tradition has helped us cope with new situations as they arose. It will also help us cope with the seeming contradiction of multiple forms of Jewish existence. Our house, the House of Israel, has many parts to it, in which you have a central role. We need each other and we should continue in creative tension. Perhaps,” I say, “we should think of the House of Israel as a Jewish Commonwealth, which may describe our relationship more fruitfully than in the old terms of Galut–Zion.

On my way home, I continue to think about his searching questions: How are we coping with the challenge of our environment? Do we have the tenacity to swim against the stream? Has not modernity and our wish to accommodate ourselves reduced the time and energy we give to our tradition? Is it not true that most American Jews are barely literate Jewishly? I did not lie when I described the signs of vitality, but what about the large percentage of young Jews who, at least for the time being, have taken a leave of absence from the House of Israel? And I thought, yes, it is true that 1,500 people attend our Kol Nidre services, but it is equally true that Succot, the great thanksgiving festival that comes only four days later, has all but ceased to be a holiday for most American Jews.

By the time my visit was coming to an end, I had perceived an Israel beyond conflicts and problems, an Israel united by a love for its history, its traditions, and the land of Israel; a love so great that it enables them to endure all adversities and problems. I had gotten the sense of a basic satisfaction flowing from the feeling of living at last in the midst of their own people.

When I reflect on what I experienced in Israel, I realize that the conflicts of religion, ethnicity, and politics are a painful but healthy development resulting from having absorbed within one generation an influx of immigrants twice the size of its own population. As the different sections of Israeli population gain in strength and vie with each other, the more likely it is that a pluralistic orientation of “live and let live” will prevail. For what unites them is not only stronger but also more permanent than the particular interests over which they contend with each other. As the Jewish tradition continues to gain strength it will be a cohesive force not only to unite Israelis, but also the various parts of the House of Israel with each other.

In ancient times, during the second Jewish commonwealth, Jews from the Diaspora made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They came from Rome, Babylon, and Alexandria to spend the festivals there. They were occasions for inspiration and strengthening of mutual bonds. I think it is time we reinstate these pilgrimages. In retrospect, I view my trip as just such a pilgrimage. On my first evening in Israel, as I was approaching the hills of Jerusalem, I suddenly began to recite Psalm 122, the Psalm of the Pilgrims:

“I was happy when I was told we are going to the House of the Lord. Our feet stood at your gates, O Jerusalem.”

I once knew psalms by heart and the occasion brought this psalm out of the recesses of my memory, and as we drove I went on reciting,

“Jerusalem, which is built like a city of many parts, there tribes made pilgrimages, the tribes of the Lord.”

Saying these words, I had the feeling of being one with countless pilgrims in our long history, climbing to the mountain of the Lord. And I went on reciting,

“There stood the thrones of justice, the thrones of the House of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be tranquil.”

The tranquility of the pilgrims was inextricably linked with the welfare of Jerusalem. And I concluded the psalm,

“For the sake of my friends and brethren, I pray for your well-being; for the sake of the House of the Lord our God I seek your good.”

When I left, this psalm became my prayer.