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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

Teaching Israel V


Galilee Diary #327, March 4, 2007  


Marc J. Rosenstein


              Next year in Jerusalem!

                        -conclusion of the Passover Haggadah

In 586 BCE the First Temple was destroyed, along with the last remnants of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael.  Apparently much of the elite was exiled to Babylonia, as a means of preventing rebellion in the occupied territory.  Merely fifty years later, the Babylonian empire was overwhelmed by the Persians, and the new ruler, Cyrus, seems to have been some kind of a religious pluralist, who gave the Jews permission to return and rebuild the Temple (but not, of course, political sovereignty!).  It seems that in just that short time, the Jews had put down roots in Mesopotamia (from where, remember, Abraham had emigrated long before), and the decision to pick up and return to Eretz Yisrael was not easy.  Some, apparently mostly priests and Levites and chiefs of clans, heeded the call.  But many did not: “All their neighbors supported them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with livestock, and with precious objects…” (Ezra 1:6), and thus was the Israel Emergency Campaign born.  It wasn’t easy, as there were hostile locals, and problems of motivation and funding, but finally the foundation of a Temple was laid (it would take another 20 years to finish a modest structure), and “Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the old men who had seen the first house, wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this house.  Many others shouted joyously at the top of their voices.” (Ezra 3:12) 


In the first decades after 1948 Jews around the world wept and cheered on Yom Ha’atzma’ut, for they remembered Jewish life before 1948, and the miraculous rebirth and ingathering moved them to the depths of their souls.  


However, as the generations pass and the immediate memories fade, there is less weeping and less cheering, and there are more and more Jews who feel indifferent to or even alienated from the state.  To those who don’t remember what it was like not to have a state, to those who missed the drama of the creation of the state, Israel is just a historical fact, a reality that is sometimes less than inspiring.  We can (and do) invest significant resources in trying to jump-start engagement with Israel on the part of the generations with no memories: everything from guilt trips to free trips to Israeli rock concerts to anti-Palestinian-propaganda training programs.   We teach Israel as a social-justice challenge, as a Jewish Disneyland, as an answer to the Holocaust, as a high-tech miracle populated by beleaguered (of course) Jewish geniuses.  And sometimes these methods work, and some kids are “turned on” to Israel, and sometimes this connection actually brings them to a deeper Jewish identity.


I can’t avoid the feeling, however, that we are building on sand.  The Zionist movement was built, originally, on centuries of Jewish engagement with Israel, an engagement that operated on the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels – in the calendar, in the customs of mourning for exile, in the landscape and climate that are familiar to anyone studying classical Jewish texts.  Today, not only do we not remember life before the state of Israel, we also don’t remember what it was like for the memory of our ancient tie to Israel to be central in our Jewish identity.


We can continue to stick on solidarity band-aids.  But to stanch the hemorrhage we need systemic treatment.  We have to reexamine all of our curriculum, we have to look into our own consciousness as teachers: Israel cannot be relegated to just another discipline in a crowded schedule.  We must realize that we are always teaching our relationship to Israel, just as we are always teaching our relationship to God and to the Jewish people – everything is grounded in the land: the patriarchs’ wanderings, the meaning of Pesach, the satire of Purim, the definition of utopia, the landscape that defined our unique and complex identity as religion/nation.  Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing.  But Judaism without an organic link to Israel – the geographical and historical reality - is incomplete, up in the air.

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