Eretz Yisrael is not something apart from the soul of the Jewish people; it is no mere national possession, serving as a means of unifying our people and buttressing its material, or even its spiritual survival. Eretz Israel is part of the very essence of our nationhood; it is bound organically to its very life and inner being. Human reason, even at its most sublime, cannot begin to understand the unique holiness of Eretz Yisrael.
-Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
It is hard not to see among North American Jews, in recent years, a certain degree of disengagement from Israel. It is not clear what is cause and what is effect, but the difficult years of the second intifada seem to coincide with a rise in a spiritual as opposed to national emphasis in Jewish life. As often happens, we look to our schools for. We feel we have to do a better job of fostering Israel engagement in the young generation. (This common plaint, that the older generation has messed up so we have to teach the young to build a better world, always makes me smile: just who is it who is educating this new generation? Just how are we, who are responsible for the status quo, supposed to educate them to be different from us?) This implantation of Israel engagement is now a project of the Jewish Agency, and we here at Makom ba-Galil are involved in a couple of projects to train teachers and develop materials.
It turns out, of course, that defining the goals of our efforts is not a simple task. Just what do we want to implant? What do we mean by engagement? There are a number of possible answers, from sublime to ridiculous (though clearly, there are Jews who think that what is sublime to me is really ridiculous, and vice versa):
A love for the physical land of Israel
A commitment to making aliyah
Involvement in public support for the policies of the state of Israel
A commitment to helping Israel by means of constructive criticism
Philanthropic support of Israel
A commitment to infusing Diaspora Jewish life with Israeli culture
An awareness of the significance of Israeli geography, climate, and language for Jewish religion
A knowledge of Hebrew
And the discussion gets more complicated when we factor in the particular life stories of the teachers being trained. For example, what do we do about the Israeli teacher who has emigrated to North America, teaching aliyah? Or the teacher with no knowledge of Hebrew, teaching that Israel is the cultural center of the Jewish people? Or the teacher who has never visited Israel teaching love for the land? Or the teacher assigned to teach solidarity when she herself harbors serious doubts about Israels policies. Not that these are wrong or impossible just that they raise interesting dilemmas about what it is we are really teaching.
It seems to me that it is a mistake to put all of our emphasis on the current events aspect of Israel, to assume that Israel engagement means only or even primarily learning about and involvement with 20th century Israel. What we have lost along the way is the deep, traditional, spiritual and emotional connection to Israel through the calendar, the Bible narrative, and rabbinic law and lore. The pre-20th century Jew lived simultaneously in Minsk/Omaha/Casablanca and in Eretz Yisrael. The creative tension between these two existences, one real and one virtual, kept us who we were, enriched and uplifted our lives in Exile, and was the basis of the hope that ultimately gave rise to Zionism. That, I think, is the Israel engagement that we are challenged, today, to reconstruct.