Jewish Journal


February 15, 2001

Symbol of All Hopes

Why more Jews don't return to Israel.


About 20 years ago the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua wrote an essay called "Exile as a Neurotic Solution," in which he endeavored to explain why so many Diaspora Jews, for many centuries and in our own day, have avoided coming to live in the Land of Israel.

In 537 B.C.E., wrote Yehoshua, when the Persian ruler Cyrus decreed that Jews who had been exiled to Babylon earlier in the century could return to Zion, many, primarily members of the "upper strata," didn't. By the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., he observed, one-third of the Jewish people lived outside of the Holy Land. For nearly two millennia thereafter, until the dawn of Zionism, "the Jewish people did not make one serious or significant effort to return to Eretz Yisrael and restore its lost independence. This people, with the resourcefulness, flexibility and cunning to reach almost every point on the face of the earth -- from the Atlas Mountains to the Indian Desert, from Tierra del Fuego to the Siberian steppes -- did not make one real effort to come back and settle in Eretz Yisrael. Further, the Jews settled in masses in every country around the Mediterranean basin except Eretz Yisrael. In their wanderings the Jews circled around and about the Land, drawn to it, yet fearing it."

Only when the fear of anti-Semitism in the Diaspora exceeded the fear of the Land, Yehoshua continued, did Zionism prevail, but of course only among a minority of Jews. Since the establishment of the State, the overwhelming majority of Jews who have come here to live have been refugees from persecution. The reason, Yehoshua mused, must lie with "the same common factors that deterred Jews from coming for hundreds of years." What did they fear? Was it the inability to make a living in Israel? This cannot be the case, winked Yehoshua, for if it were true it would lend credence to the contention of anti-Semites (he cited Karl Marx) that Jews care only about money. Or can it be, Yehoshua went on, "fear of the security situation"? "This theory too," he wrote, "explains the excuse rather than the essence. One only has to see how Jews flock to Israel when it is threatened, and the way that Jewish students fight to get on planes to take them straight to war, to realize that this theory is not true either." (As much as I esteem Yehoshua, I do not believe he has the gift of prophecy; and yet he might as well have been writing about the solidarity missions and legions of Birthright students who have defied the official State Department travel advisories and come to Israel at the height of the current intifada.)

What, then, is the core reason for the perpetuation of exile? After all, Jews endlessly dream of and pray for the return to Zion, but they stay in galut (exile). Why has this, over the ages, been so? Yehoshua, who has long been fond of psychological interpretation, likened the situation to the neurotic behavior of a bachelor who constantly proclaims his desire to marry and have children but forever finds ways to avoid doing so. There is something in marriage that he fears. What is the deep-seated anxiety among the Jews that prevents them from returning to the Land?

The answer, for Yehoshua, lies in the inherent conflict between the religious and national components of Judaism. In the Diaspora, the power of Jewish religious authorities was limited to the community; but a sovereign Israel, from the standpoint of Jewish Orthodoxy, must necessarily be a theocracy. Thus the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who was indisputably alive when Yehoshua wrote about him) stayed away from Israel because the restoration of Jewish sovereignty would compel him to coerce all Jews here to observe halacha. "In the golah one can preach, cajole, educate or persuade, but in a totally Jewish ambiance there comes a moment of truth, and at that moment the choice must be either religious or secular. Life in the golah postpones that moment of truth. It is as if the people senses how dangerous is its conflict with itself and therefore tries to put off the conditions of full sovereign life which can exist in Eretz Yisrael." Staying in exile, in short, avoids confronting the harsh implications of sovereignty, the necessity to fully come to terms with the clash between political priorities and religious ones.

Yehoshua's argument is highly debatable, of course, which is surely what the author intended. Yet his emphasis upon the intrinsic conflict between the spiritual and national aspects of Judaism is at least as germane today as it was a generation ago. I flashed back to this essay while standing amid approximately a quarter million of my fellow Jews in front of the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. The occasion, of course, was the enormously impressive rally in support of an undivided Jerusalem, initiated by Israeli politicians Ehud Olmert and Natan Sharansky, funded by American Jews, and billed as a strictly nonpolitical event, the imminent elections notwithstanding.

Speaker after speaker invoked the Psalms, the biblical prophets, the traditional prayer book: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem..." (A friend of mine told me some years ago that the reason he prefers Tel Aviv is that he can forget about it and his tongue will not cleave to the roof of his mouth.) Prayers for rebuilding Jerusalem are uttered multiple times daily, in the "Amidah" and in the "Birkat Hamazon." Jerusalem is invoked at every Jewish wedding in the Seven Blessings and the breaking of the glass. At the rally, I disagreed with not one word about the sanctity, the primacy, the centrality of Jerusalem. After all, I was raised a religious Zionist and remain one to this day, though I no longer belong to the camp that overwhelmingly, well-nigh homogeneously, dominated the rally. (I saw one bare-headed man, though I imagine there were a few more. I wore a baseball cap with the words "National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.") I recalled a beautiful essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel called "Israel as Memory" (1973), in which he wrote:

"After the destruction of Jerusalem, the city did not simply become a vague memory of the distant past; it continued to live as an inspiration in the hearts and minds of the people. Jerusalem became a central hope, the symbol of all hopes. It became the recurrent theme of our liturgy. Thus even when the minds were not aware of it, the words reminded us, the words cried for restoration of Zion and intensified the link, the attachment."

I don't know why, after Zion was restored, Heschel didn't make aliyah. Nor do I know why Rabbi Soloveitchik didn't, or for that matter Maimonides, who settled next door in Egypt. The decision is personal and many factors are involved, and (unlike Yehoshua) I do not fault anyone, illustrious or anonymous, for his or her choice. But I do know that it is less complicated, as a practical matter, for Jews to preserve the pristine status of Jerusalem as inspiration, hope, symbol and theme when they don't live here. With the establishment of the State, the celestial, ideal, virtual, prayed-for Jerusalem -- Yerushalayim shel maalah -- slammed hard into the workaday, messy, complex Yerushalayim shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem. Upstairs and downstairs, religious and secular were abruptly conjoined, and their fusion is problematic and highly combustible.

Religion is pure, and the spiritual Jerusalem is indeed the eternal and indivisible bedrock of Jewish national and religious dreaming. Politics is impure, and predicated on mundane reality and compromise. Jerusalem will not cease to be the symbol of our highest Jewish aspirations if ever we share sovereignty here with the Palestinians, no more than its religious power was diminished when, as Heschel wrote at the conclusion of his essay, "numerous conquerors invaded the land: Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Kurds, Mongols, Mamelukes, Tartars and Turks." Heschel continued: "But what did these people make of the land? No one built the state or shaped a nation. The land did not respond."

I am a great admirer of the late Rabbi Heschel, who was a brilliant theologian and scholar and a strong advocate of civil rights -- but this last contention, in militant hands, is what can get us in trouble. Whether or not we choose to agree, millions of Palestinians with whom we live in intimate proximity believe they have shaped a nation in this very same land and city. How the new Israeli prime minister chooses to deal with this incontrovertible reality is the central question facing the Jewish people. To invoke, as a political principle, our divine right to this land is a great temptation. But we have come home to a stormy neighborhood, and to veer away from the struggle for peace, to crush the Palestinian uprising with an iron fist, adamantly refuse to compromise on territory, risk a regional conflict -- this is a recipe for disaster.

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