May 3, 2011
Why Israel Matters
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“We are usually told, by way of compliment by well-meaning friends, that the Jews are an excellent leaven for a non-Jewish society. We are told sometimes, in a different form, that the Jews are the salt of the earth and contribute this salinity to the non-Jewish society . . . But my experience is that this is a sort of double-edged or left-handed compliment. One can stand a certain amount of salt but if the concentration of salt increases beyond the right proportion, then the soup or the dish, with the salt, goes down the sink. That has happened to the Jewish people very often. They have acted as salt and then were poured out, poured away.”
Most Jews who have come to Israel fall into this category. Unwanted and persecuted elsewhere, they have poured into Israel from the DP camps, from Arab lands, from the former Soviet Union. By contrast, American-born Jews — whose solid understanding of democratic values would greatly benefit Israeli society — have overwhelmingly failed to come here, if understandably so. One heroic exception was Judah Magnes, the first California-born rabbi. Ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he made aliyah in 1923 and became the first president of the Hebrew University. In September 1929, he wrote to Weizmann:
“A Jewish Home in Palestine built up on bayonets and oppression is not worth having, even though it succeed, whereas the very attempt to build it up peacefully, cooperatively, with understanding, education, and good will, is worth a great deal, even though the attempt should fail. The question is, do we want to conquer Palestine now as Joshua did in his day — with fire and sword? Or do we want to take cognizance of Jewish religious development since Joshua — our Prophets, Psalmists and Rabbis, and repeat the words: ‘Not by might, and not by violence, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.’ ”
How timely and uplifting, and essential. On the other hand, how quaint can you get — with Iran shipping arms to Gaza and Lebanon and Lord knows where else? The way the Middle East roils in 2011, maybe the Territorialists had it right after all, and we’d be better off in our own quiet patch of the South Pacific. Forget it: The Jews have yearned only for Jerusalem, and Zionism has no traction, no meaning, without the Land of Israel, be it ever so encumbered. By the same token, for some Jews, Zionism has little meaning without the Temple Mount and Hebron. This is one reason, but not the only one, that the Zionist project is so precarious — or so exciting, take your pick — at this time in history. For some American Jews, however, it is neither. For some, it is a nuisance that has little to do with them. If you ask me, they are kidding themselves. But then again, I am biased: I am a Zionist.
Each autumn on Sukkot, according to tradition, we Jews are visited in the sukkah by the ushpizin, mystical guests, seven biblical figures from Abraham to King David, who come to confer their blessing as we sit in temporary lodgings and muse on the fragility of life. Every spring, as I celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, I feel the presence of modern-day ushpizin, our Zionist forefathers, serious thinkers from Pinsker to Herzl to Magnes. Their vision and wisdom gain special urgency this year, as our precious, sovereign Jewish home, established a mere 63 years ago, still struggles for its legitimate place among the nations.
Stuart Schoffman, a columnist and translator, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.
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