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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

Teaching Israel III


Galilee Diary #325, February 18, 2007  

Marc J. Rosenstein


Palestine is no more of this workday world.  It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dreamland.

      -Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad


Yet, even so, in the material sense the eye of man can distinguish no difference between the land of Israel and any other land; only he who has achieved faith in its holiness can discern a slight difference…

      -Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav


If you enter “myths and facts” into an internet search engine, you’ll be flooded with hundreds of pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli websites, each claiming to separate “facts” from “myths,” where  “myths” means “lies told by the other side to bolster their moral claims.”  However, when we talk about myth in the realm of Jewish education and Israel engagement, I think we need to be careful to stay away from this simplistic and polemical understanding of the word.  The more relevant, and classical, definition of myth is a story, the characters and events in which teach us something about our basic beliefs about humanity and the world.  Truth or falsity is not really relevant.  The creation myth in Genesis may or not be accurate in its physics and its biology; however, what it comes to teach us about the order of the universe and our place in it is unaffected by physics; I don’t know if Abraham’s argument with God over Sodom and Gemorrah really happened as described – but it is a myth from which I am unwilling to part for what it tells me about the relationship among God, humanity, and justice.  Of course, in the case of ancient myths, the dilemma is easier, because objective truth is often beyond our reach, so we don’t have to argue about it.


But what about modern myths?  It’s one thing to say that I can live simultaneously with the creation myth of Genesis and with the findings of paleontologists, that suggest that the world as we know it came to be in quite a different way.  It’s another to say that I can live simultaneously with the myth of Jewish sensitivity to injustice and the findings of social scientists that suggest there is an inordinate amount of corruption and exploitation in Israeli society today.  I find that people’s gut reactions to this dissonance fall into two categories: 


a) debunk the myth: let’s face it, Jews are no better, morally, than anyone else, and it’s not fair to expect them to be.  Therefore, why should we be surprised or disappointed by the foibles of the Jewish state?  There were Jewish gangsters in Poland and in America; there have been Jewish rapists since the Bible – how is it fair to hold Israel to a higher standard?   A myth is only a myth.  There wasn’t really a flood that destroyed the world, and there isn’t really such a thing as “Jewish values.”


b)  deny the reality: Face facts: Jews are smarter and more moral than others.  How else can we explain Israel’s huge advances in medical care and technology – and all those Palestinian patients at Hadassah Hospital?  Of course there are bad apples, but on the whole, Israel is a kinder, gentler society, one big family where people really look out for each other, where you’ll never be left uninvited for Shabbat or struggling to change a flat tire by yourself.  The headlines on corruption and the statistics on trafficking in women give a distorted picture of the reality of life here.


I believe there is a third option, which I prefer: as with the creation myth, I understand the myth of Jewish moral superiority not as scientific truth, but as a story that comes to teach me something: morality is not genetic; it is commanded.  We can’t assume that Israel will automatically be a better place than other nations – we have to make it so – we have to keep the myth in view on the horizon to which we are striving to arrive.  I am unwilling to give up the myth of being an ideal state – and I am unable to deny the reality that we’re not.  The task of Israel education is somehow to convey to our students the challenge of living in the gap, often painful but sometimes exhilarating, between the myth and reality.

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