April 26, 2007
Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2007: What Israel means to me
Web Extra: Judea Pearl on Charlie Rose
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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?"