From a chapter in the book, "What Israel Means to Me: By 80 Prominent Writers, Performers, Scholars, Politicians, and Journalists," edited by Alan Dershowitz (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).
I was born in Tel Aviv, in 1936, and, quite naturally, my feelings toward Israel are suffused with the love, pride, memories, music and aromas that nourish and sustain all natives of any
Yet, remarkably, as the years pass, I discover that these same feelings towards Israel are echoed by people everywhere, including many who have never set foot in that country.
My family's love affair with Israel begins in 1924, when my grandfather, a textile merchant and devout Chassid in the town of Ostrowietz, Poland, decided to realize his life dream and immigrate to the land of the Bible.
Family lore has it that my grandfather was assaulted one day by a Polish peasant with an iron bar shouting: "Dirty Jew!"; he crawled home then, wiped his blood and announced to his wife and four children: "Start packing! We are going home!"
In the weeks that followed, he sold all his possessions, and, teaming with 25 other families, he bought a piece of sandy land about seven kilometers to the northeast of Jaffa. That land was near an Arab village called "Ibn Abrak," described by the newspaper Haaretz (July 1924) as "a few mud-walled huts surrounded by a few scattered trees."
The Arab real-estate broker in Jaffa had probably no inkling why a group of seemingly educated Jews, some with business experience, would pay so dearly for a piece of arid land, situated far from any water source, which even the hardy residents of Ibn Abrak found to be uninhabitable.
But the 26 Chassidic families knew exactly what they were buying -- Ibn Abrak was the site of the ancient city of Bnai-Brak, well known in the biblical and rabbinic days, the town where Rabbi Akiva made his home and established his great yeshiva.
The sages say that it was to Bnai-Brak that Rabbi Akiva applies the famous verse: "Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue. (Sanhedrin. 32b)"
The vision of reviving the spirit of that ancient site of learning was well worth the exorbitant price the broker demanded, the dusty winds, the merciless sun, the lack of water, and all the daily hardships that pioneering agricultural life entailed.
My father was 14 when his family arrived at Bnai-Brak in 1924, and whenever he reminisced about that early period of hardship, he always referred to it as the "rebuilding of Bnai-Brak," as if he and my grandfather had been there before, with Poland and the whole saga of the Jewish Diaspora merely an unpleasant nightmare.
We, the children who grew up in Bnai-Brak, had not the slightest doubt that we had been there before. Every Passover, when our family's reading of the haggadah reached the well-known story of the five rabbis who were sitting in Bnai-Brak, reciting the story of the Exodus, my grandfather would stop the reading, look everyone in the eye, issue one of his rare mysterious smiles, and continue with emphasis: "She'Hayu Mesubin b'Bnai Brak...." The message was clear: "We never really left home!"
A short distance from our school, there were two steep hills that almost touched each other. The older boys told us that the two hills once were one, and got separated when Bar Kochba -- the heroic figure who led a futile Jewish rebellion against Rome in the second century C.E.. -- rode through them on his famous lion, causing the gully between.
We had no doubt that it was only a matter of time before we would find Bar Kochba's burial place; we needed only to dig deep enough into these hills -- which we did enthusiastically for hours and hours. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before the earth all around us would ooze and unravel the mysteries of our historic infancy.
It was this cultural incubator that shaped my childhood -- an intoxicating enthusiasm of homecoming and nation rebuilding.
Those who say that this sort of culture no longer inspires youth in our generation are mistaken. Seventy-eight years after my grandfather first set foot in Bnai-Brak, in a desolate shed in Karachi, Pakistan, his great-grandson, Daniel Pearl, stood before his captors-murderers and said: "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish," then, looking straight at the eye of evil, he added one last sentence: "Back in the town of Bnai-Brak there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town." Was a page of history ever chanted with a greater pride? Was a more gentle love song ever sung to a homeward-bound founder of a new town?
My mother's story was different, yet still driven by the same forces of history. A resident of Kielz, Poland, she applied for immigration in 1935, when anti-Semitic intimidation reached unbearable proportions. Hitler came to power two years earlier, his threats were broadcast all over Europe, the handwriting was on the wall and masses of Polish Jews applied for immigration to their biblical homeland -- Palestine. Ironically, the Brits were bending to Arab pressure to stop Jewish immigration, and my mother's hopes of leaving Poland before the storm fell at the mercy of a political controversy that has not been settled to this very day.
I recently read the argument the Arabs used in that debate, as published in the Arabic newspaper, Carmel: "We know that Jewish immigration can proceed without dispossessing a single Arab from his land. This is obvious. And this is precisely what we object to. We simply do not want to peacefully turn into a minority, and European Jews should understand why." The counterargument of the Jewish leadership was equally compelling: "This sort of morality is morality of cannibalism, not one of the civilized world, for it dictates that the homeless must forever remain homeless; we beg merely for a small fraction of this vast piece of land" (paraphrased from Zev Jabotinsky's 1937 "Medinah Ivrit").
But the British sided with the stronger, allowing a trickle of only 15,000 immigration certificates per year. My mother could not wait and paid a huge sum to a cousin who had an immigration certificate to arrange a fictitious marriage that would later be annulled. Fortunately, her father intervened and she found a better prospect -- my father -- a sun-tanned young Palestinian in summer suit, who was searching the towns of Poland for a refined European bride. Her parents, her brother and her sister were not so lucky. Stranded by the British-Arab blockade, they perished in the Holocaust, with 6 million other victims.
I once asked my mother how she felt when she arrived. "I came to Israel in the eve of Chanukah, 1935," she said. "The first day after my arrival, I went up to the roof, and I could not believe my eyes -- how deeply blue the sky was, compared with the gray sky that I left behind in Poland. I was breathless!
"Then I met a neighbor, a teacher, who invited me to visit her kindergarten. There I experienced one of the happiest days in my life. Scores of children were standing there loudly singing Chanukah songs, in Hebrew, as if this was the most natural thing to do, as if they had been singing those songs for hundreds of years."
"Why the wonder?" I asked. "Didn't your family celebrate Chanukah in Poland?"
"Not exactly," she said. "Yes, we lit the candles, but it was in a dark corner, with my father whispering the blessing and mumbling "Maoz Tzur" quietly. You see, the neighbors were goyim, and he did not feel comfortable advertising that we celebrated a Jewish holiday. And here I come and suddenly find these toddlers singing 'Maccabee Gibbor!' in full volume, and in the open courtyard."
Just a few months ago, as I was preparing for a Muslim-Jewish dialogue, I read that the Palestinians have decided to view themselves as descendants of the Canaanite tribes conquered by Joshua. I couldn't help but imagine how lonely it must be for a Palestinian boy not to be able to sing "Canaanite-Gibbor" in the language of his ancestors, not to have Canaanite role models after which to name songs, towns and holidays and, more lonely yet, to be taught by teachers who had never heard of his Canaanite ancestors when they went to kindergarten. At that point, I understood the root cause of the Palestinian tragedy: underestimating how indigenous those children were in Bnai-Brak, singing Maccabee-Gibbor before my ecstatic mother.
The relation between Jews and the Land of Israel is an issue that has surfaced quite often in my recent dialogues with Muslims and, admittedly, it evokes some fundamental questions that I have not seen answered with sufficient clarity.
Muslims find it almost impossible to understand why American Jews, the foremost champions against the politicization of religion, identify so strongly with a specific political entity other than one's own country, i.e., the State of Israel. A Pakistani journalist who attended a memorial service for my son in a Jewish school in Maryland commented that he could not possibly imagine a school in Pakistan where students would salute the Saudi flag the way students in that Jewish school saluted the Israeli flag.
One immediate explanation for this emotional connection is, of course, that Jews are concerned for the safety and physical survival of the beleaguered 5.5 million Jews now living in Israel, many of whom are directly related to American Jews. Another, less obvious, answer lies on the latent insecurity that Jews everywhere feel in the Diaspora, for whom the knowledge of Israel's sovereignty provides a psychological security blanket.
Still, these answers do not explain how an emotional identification with a political entity could become so embedded in the spiritual life of synagogues, prayers, and day schools half a world away. The answer here touches on the distinct nature of the Jewish identity and escapes the standard measures by which other religions are defined.
Jewishness, owed to its unique and turbulent history, is more than just a religion. For a Jew, ancestry, religion, history, country, culture, tradition, nationhood and ethnicity are inseparably interrelated. Historical narratives and the ancient landscape in which they unfolded are as much part of the Jewish experience as are any specific beliefs in deity or the hereafter.
This meta-religious characterization of Jews entails an unparalleled intellectual connection to the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jewish history. While this connection bears some resemblance to that which Muslims feel toward Mecca and Christians toward Jerusalem, it is more intensified by national ties because, unlike Islam and Christianity, the Jewish religion was not written with the intention of being transported to other nations or other lands. (Proselytizing is discouraged in Judaism). It was written exclusively for the Jewish nation, and meant to be practiced specifically in the land where this nation was born and shaped.
For example, a third of the Mishna makes sense only in the context of the land of the bible. Establishing a residence in that land is said to be "equivalent to all other mitsvot in the Torah put together" (Sifri, 53). The daily prayers, likewise, have reminded Jews three times each day, for two millennia, of their inevitable return, as a sovereign nation, to that biblical land.
As a result, the collective memories and aspirations of the Jewish people today are expressed in language and imagery that are utterly dependent on this one land. To take away that land from the consciousness of a Jew would be like taking away one of the five books of Moses, or ripping away the story of Bnai-Brak from my grandfather's Haggadah -- the landscape has become the scripture. Clearly, these memories and aspirations do not negate nor diminish ties and aspirations that other people have to that landscape -- shared nativity is not uncommon in the history of nations.
A related question arises from the claim for "Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state." "Why Jewish?" ask Israel's antagonists. "Isn't the notion of religious state anachronistic in modern times? Do you really mean to shape Israel after theocracies like Iran or Pakistan, which favor members of one faith over others?"
Of course not!
It is unthinkable that Israel, one of the most secular societies in the world, would aspire to religious exclusiveness. The confusion arises from the coarseness of language and the failure of the word "Jewish" to distinguish the various aspects the Jewish identity. One might more aptly say that Israel does not seek to be a "religious Jewish state" but, rather, a "national Jewish state" with a "national Jew" being an individual who, by choice, identifies with the collective history and destiny of a group of individuals who call themselves "Jews" (see "I Am Jewish," 2004).
In contrast to the religious interpretation of a "Jewish state," the status of Israel as a "national Jewish state" is perfectly compatible with modern standards, no different, for example, from the status of Spain as a national Spanish state, where holidays and textbooks commemorate milestones of Spanish, not Portuguese, history, and where streets are named after Spanish, not French, writers.
Indeed, when early Zionists talked about Judenstaat, they had in mind a state for "national Jews" not "religious Jews." It is highly important to recall that Theodore Herzl was a secular Jew, as were the majority of the delegates to the Zionist congresses. Moreover, so are the majority of Israelis today who define their Jewishness as a national affiliation -- a commitment to shared history and shared destiny -- not as a matter of religious faith.
Yes, Israel is a land of paradoxes, redefinitions or, more precisely, a land of dynamic contrasts.
My home town of Bnai-Brak, now a bustling replica of an extremely Orthodox, Eastern European shtetl, is situated amongst totally secular neighborhoods, in which May 1st International Workers Day is celebrated with school ceremonies and marching bands. At the same time, it is not uncommon to find youth groups in Marxist-leaning kibbutzim engaging in a nightlong trance of Chassidic melodies.
This marvelous blending of an intense clinging to the past with an innovative, indeed revolutionary and optimistic outlook to the future, is the essence of what Israel means to me.
The optimists among us say that the world will never abandon Israel, because civilization cannot afford to dispose of such an innovative project, one where the noblest aspirations of mankind have been brought together to develop and cross-pollinate side be side.
Pessimists tell us that the fate of Israel is the fate of civilization itself, and the latter does not look very promising.
As a proud descendant of a stubborn tribe of survivors, I take the optimistic side.
True, the world may not fully appreciate the importance of noble projects, and may appear to belittle the miracle of creating a vibrant democracy and a center of arts and science from the few mud-walled huts that my grandfather found 80 years ago.
But I am nevertheless convinced that, deep below all the criticism and the rhetoric, it is the heroic example of Israel's struggle and progress that currently fuels the will of civilization to survive.
Judea Pearl is a professor of computer science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. He is co-editor of "I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
Judea Pearl on Charlie Rose May 3, 2007
Click here for a video of a speech Judea Pearl gave in South Beach two weeks ago. Courtesy PBS WPBT2