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Jewish Journal

The Greatest Gift

By Stuart Schoffman

by Stuart Schoffman

May 4, 2000 | 8:00 pm

During the Passover holiday I went on a picnic with family and friends. My brother and his boy were visiting from Los Angeles, and five carloads of parents and children made for Park Britannia, a scenic spot 40 minutes southwest of Jerusalem, via a sliver of Palestinian territory and then a lovely road through Emek Ha'elah, the verdant valley where David, we are told, slew Goliath. I told my nephew to look real hard and maybe he could spot the rock that felled the giant Philistine. He's only 7, but he wasn't buying.

We feasted on tuna salad and matzah, debated whether it was okay for Ashkenazim to eat kitniyot (legumes) on Passover -- my view being, if Rabbi Ovadia Yosef can do it, who am I to do otherwise? -- and then took a walk through the remarkable olive grove of Ajur, home to some of the oldest and gnarliest olive trees you'll ever see. Wildflowers decorated the hillside, storks glided overhead. Several of the trees, hollowed over the centuries by the elements, were filled with rocks to keep them from collapsing. My brother, an artist, recorded the timeless landscape with a sepia crayon.

Who planted the olive trees? A sign at the trail head, courtesy of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), told us in Hebrew and English that "farmers" cultivated these trees, which are now tended by an Israeli youth group. And who were these "farmers" -- Crusaders, Turks, Zionist pioneers? For all the sign says, they might be olive-growers from Mars. The fact that they were Palestinian Arabs, who fled the now nonexistent village of Ajur in 1948, never to return, is not part of the JNF's narrative of reclaiming the barren Jewish homeland and making the desert bloom.

To learn what happened to Ajur and hundreds of other vanished Arab villages, you might turn to a masterful book just published by the University of California Press called "Sacred Landscape." The author, Meron Benvenisti, is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a well-known Israeli gadfly who airs his iconoclastic views in a regular column in Ha'Aretz. Benvenisti doesn't reject the Jewish claim to Palestine -- far from it. He also assigns the Palestinians an ample share of blame for the national disaster they suffered in 1948. But he also insists that attention be paid to the Palestinian story and to the historical landscape of the Land of Israel before it was reinvented by Zionism.

Voices like Benvenisti's are controversial in Israel, to say the least (not to mention among American Jews). In 1998, the 22-part documentary series "Tekumah" ("Rebirth") aired by Israeli Television to mark Israel's 50th birthday, provoked a storm of local criticism for its warts-and-all account of Israel's founding. Similarly, when it became known last summer that the Education Ministry had approved junior high school texts that include a "revisionist" view of the 1948 War, the airwaves and op-ed pages were filled with dire warnings that instilling guilt feelings in Israeli youth would undermine the morale essential to defending the country against its enemies. It's a reasonable worry, to be sure, but along with many other Israelis, I believe that we are mature enough as a nation to cultivate a sense of empathy with the Palestinians and to resist demonizing them. Whether the Palestinians are equally ready in return is, of course, another question, which lies at the heart of the problem.

Still, we push on with the Oslo peace process -- we have no reasonable alternative. And one day soon the Palestinians will proclaim their independence. When Israel took that step in 1948, the Palestinians took notes; now they're doing it. It's inevitable, and by now most Israelis realize that. The world will recognize their new state, whose borders and relationship with Israel remain to be negotiated. Like all countries, it will have a capital, possibly in Abu Dis, an Arab village just east of Jerusalem that Prime Minister Barak, as I write these lines, is planning to hand over to the Palestinians along with two others, Azzariye and Suwahara. Barak's political opponents say the handover will have a domino effect leading to the division of Jerusalem and God knows what other dire consequences. I'm willing to wager that not one outraged Israeli in a hundred could find Abu Dis without a map, but as it goes around here, so it will continue to go.

As Benvenisti points out, the Six-Day War conveniently shifted the moral battleground from the country as a whole to the West Bank, enabling Israeli peaceniks to shed any responsibility for ruined villages like Ajur -- of whose 600 houses only three survive, one of which is home to chamber-music concerts at Moshav Agur -- and instead righteously demand that Israel return the West Bank to the Palestinians.

Balancing the ideal of a Jewish polity with the canons of justice and democracy is a tricky affair, to be sure. In America, democracy is an axiom. Immigrants unschooled in democratic values imbibe the common creed in the process of their naturalization. Citizenship is granted only after completing a course of study. People who don't get with the program don't become Americans. In Israel, however, no Jewish immigrant has ever had to pass a citizenship test. You qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return and zap, you're an Israeli. Most Israelis derive from countries with no tradition of democracy (or religious pluralism). No surprise, then, that many Israelis have a fuzzy concept of democracy.

A significant number, for example, believe that the full benefits of democracy in Israel should apply only to Jews -- not to the descendants of those people who planted the olive trees in Ajur. And for many Israelis, democracy means the license to wield decisive parliamentary power while at the same time reserving the right to flout the rule of law or shirk civic responsibility. A government commission charged with finding a creative compromise on the thorny issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students has just come up with a pareve proposal that will only marginally increase the number of ultra-Orthodox in the military. The perceived power of the charedim may be the single biggest reason that so many Israelis are, ironically -- indeed tragically -- turned off to Judaism in the very country that was invented in order to preserve and protect it. Of the many fascinating paradoxes of Zionism, this is also the saddest.

This, and not denominational issues, is what world Jewry ought to be most concerned about, if you ask me. The religious pluralism question is slowly working itself out. The Reform and Conservative movements are pressing on with their court cases, seeking to compel the state to accept as Jews non-Orthodox converts who were trained in Israel. (Such converts from abroad are, thanks to a court victory in the late 1980s, recognized under the Law of Return.) The Reform movement has just inaugurated a program to certify physicians -- male and female -- as mohalim (ritual circumcisers), provoking a predictable denunciation from the Orthodox. But the deeper problem goes far beyond the recognition of non-Orthodox institutions. As Israel settles squarely into middle age, it may fairly be asked: How Jewish are Israeli Jews?

In the case of a couple of hundred thousand of our Russian immigrants, the answer is, not at all. Under Jewish law, you're Jewish if your mother is Jewish. Under Israel's Law of Return, one Jewish grandparent -- Hitler's definition of a Jew, and do we dare, goes the reasoning, be less inclusive? -- entitles you and your immediate family to become Israelis, overnight.

In a single decade, the Russian immigrants have created a thriving subculture -- there are some 50 Russian-language newspapers in Israel -- and have leapfrogged economically and professionally over longstanding immigrant groups, notably Jews from Morocco and other Arab lands. This has provoked no small degree of resentment, which is only exacerbated by the Russians' widespread indifference to Jewish tradition, exemplified most gratingly by the proliferation of pork emporia in Israel since their arrival. And with the conversion apparatus still under the control of the right-wing Orthodox, non-Jewish Russians are in no hurry to become Jews.

But the biggest Jewish problem involves the veteran secular community. Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, by scurrilously comparing the left-wing Education Minister Yossi Sarid to Haman and Pharoah, has only reinforced the alienation of secular Israelis from Judaism. But when the rabbi wondered why Sarid, instead of assigning secular students the poetry of Palestinian nationalist Mahmoud Darwish, did not agonize over the fact that these same students were ignorant of the prayer "Shema Yisrael," he had a point. I suspect that the garden-variety Israeli youngster does, in fact, know the difference between "Shema Yisrael" and "Beam Me Up, Scotty," but it may well be that his or her Jewish literacy -- by which I mean a comfortable familiarity with Jewish tradition -- doesn't go much beyond that. Secular Jewish leaders of earlier generations -- Ben-Gurion and Begin, for example -- were steeped in the religious heritage they chose to transmute into something new. That legacy has been all but lost by later generations. At the same time, the insidious, widespread consensus in Israeli society as a whole that right-wing Orthodoxy does, in fact, represent Jewish authenticity minimizes the likelihood that many secular, liberal Israelis will be inclined to reembrace their roots.

It is true that a growing number of secular Israelis are taking up classical Jewish texts in various study groups. But many of these same people retain a strong suspicion of traditional Judaism and of rabbis in particular, and as a result are reluctant to go the next step and become religiously affiliated, even with the non-Orthodox streams.

The word charedi means fearful, and the ultra-Orthodox are first of all God-fearing, and also afraid that the secular authorities -- mainly the Supreme Court -- will erode the Jewishness of Israel by awarding further victories to the Reform and Conservative movements. The staunch secularists, for their part, are no less doctrinaire, fearful that the charedim, given their druthers, would turn Israel into a Jewish version of Iran.

But liberal Jews in Israel and elsewhere ought not be put off automatically by the "otherness" of the black-hatted charedim. There's a world of wisdom to be gleaned from the ultra-Orthodox, the chassidim not least. As the great Galician Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787) taught us in his "Prayer before Praying": "May it be given to me to see my neighbor's virtues, not his faults." Such a capability is a gift indeed, one that all Jews are empowered to give themselves, and, God willing, each other.

Yet for many Israelis, finding common ground with their Arab neighbors is easier than bridging the gulf between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Indeed the Jewish state is slowly acknowledging its overdue obligations to its Palestinian citizens, a trend which is likely to continue alongside the evolution of Palestinian autonomy next door. Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, for example, recently ordered that 150 acres of land that had been confiscated by the government from the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Kassem in the aftermath of the 1948 war should, at last, be returned to the village.

In another case, the Jewish village of Katzir, near Hadera, had refused to allow Adel Ka'adan, an Arab citizen of Israel (and a registered nurse working in a Jewish hospital), to buy a lot and build a home, on the grounds that the town was on Jewish Agency land and thus for Jews only. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled a few months ago that the government could not allocate public land for such a purpose, because ethnic discrimination against Israeli citizens is against the law -- a landmark decision. Ruby Rivlin, a leader of the Likud party, declared that the ruling would lead to "the end of Zionism and the end of the Jewish state." But can it really be acceptable, after suffering so much discrimination themselves -- including restrictive covenants in gentile-only American suburbs -- that Jews should continue to inflict such unfairness on fellow Israeli citizens who happen to be Arab?

Of course not. Yet the larger picture is all so terribly confus-ing and anxiety-provoking. Can Jews really afford to let down their guard, take risks for peace? Hasn't our history proven that there's nothing so awful it can't happen? Does not the Passover Haggadah teach us that "in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us?" What about Syria? Lebanon? Iraq? Iran, for pete's sake? So King Abdallah of Jordan wears a baseball cap, so what? And can you trust those Egyptians? And just imagine those rogue Russian scientists in Khazakhstan, selling plutonium to terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

You ask me how I cope, in Israel at 52? I read, I write, I dream, I take my kids on picnics. Wearily, joyfully, hopefully, I seek wisdom from the sages. Listen to the liberating, visionary words of Martin Buber, from his 1942 essay entitled "Hebrew Humanism":

"He who has been reared in our Hebrew biblical humanism ... is not taken in by the hoax of modern national egoism, according to which everything which can be of benefit to one's people must be true and right. ... [T]he Zionist movement must decide either for national egoism or national humanism. If it decides in favor of national egoism, it too will suffer the fate which will soon befall all shallow nationalism, that is, nationalism which does not set the nation a true supernational task. If it decides in favor of Hebrew humanism, it will be strong and effective long after shallow nationalism has lost all meaning and justification, for it will have something to say and to bring to mankind." Amen.


Stuart Schoffman is an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report. His e-mail address is steart@netvision.net.il.

Celebrating Israel

As long as you're out celebrating Mother's Day on May 14, take her to celebrate the Motherland as well at the 52nd Israel Independence Day Festival.

Expected to attract 50,000 people, the day-long celebration at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles will feature musical entertainment (including Yehoram Gaon, the Pini Cohen Band and the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble), a Heritage Pavilion; kiosks offering food, arts and crafts, and Judaica; representatives from dozens of Jewish organizations; and amusement park rides and animals for the younguns. Once again, The Jewish Journal will have a booth at the festival -- feel free to stop by, pick up a paper, and say "hi" to members of our editorial and advertising staff.

In short, 4.8-acres o' fun for the whole family. See you there!

For more information, go to www.Israelfestival.com. -- Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

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