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April 19, 2014 | 19th Nisan 5774

Israel Engagement

Galilee Diary #263
December 11, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

The North American Coalition for Israel Engagement is a project of the Jewish Agency, to help communities respond creatively to the perceived decline of "Israel engagement" among North American Jews. In this context, our center has been involved for the past year in preparing teachers in Jewish schools in the US to integrate the teaching of Israel more fully into their work. Over the past generation, at least, it seems that "teaching Israel" has come to mean teaching the Israel side in the conflict with the Arabs; we have reduced Israel to the realm of current events, with the main focus on how to respond to attacks on Israel's policies or even on its right to exist. When we go beyond this, it tends to be in the direction of teaching "good news:" Israel's high tech prowess, the ingathering of persecuted Jews, etc. – or our philanthropic obligations, from planting trees to transporting immigrants. These efforts are important if not indispensable, but I believe that they are insufficient as a foundation for building a deep and lasting "engagement" with Israel. If our children's exposure to Israel is limited to a unit in middle-school social studies, a party on Yom Ha'atzma'ut, and a constant campaign of exhortations to solidarity, we shouldn't be surprised that Israel is not exactly central to their Jewish identity.

So, what is to be done?
It may be (though it may not be) that in the battle for world public opinion, the proper response to anti-Israel propaganda is for us to come up with more sophisticated propaganda on our side. But in the battle for the hearts of our own next generation, I believe that that is not enough. Our goal is not just to "save" our own children from being swept away by anti-Israel sentiments, but rather to help them build a Jewish identity in which the land of Israel – its landscapes and its history – and the state of Israel and its culture are central elements.

I believe that serious effort must be devoted to reconstructing the kind of Israel engagement that characterized Jewish life before there was a modern state of Israel. In earlier times, Jews lived, parallel to their mundane lives throughout the Diaspora, a virtual existence in Israel through the holidays with their agricultural themes, through the words of Bible and rabbinic literature – studied constantly, over and over - describing the natural landscape and geographical divisions of the land, through the liturgy with its constant references to our past – and our future – in Israel. Israel was an important part of who we were as Jews, though it didn't even exist as a state. Zionism, it turns out, helped undermine this spiritual connection to Israel. It sought not only to translate the virtual Israel into a real one, by converting our portable, spiritualized homeland into a modern, secular nation-state; it also argued that the restoration of a real state would make our tradition, and the nostalgia/longing for Israel that was a central part of it, obsolete - leaving us, in the Diaspora, ironically, with… units in middle-school social studies, a party on Yom Ha'atzma'ut, and a constant campaign of exhortations to solidarity.

In the next several entries of Galilee Diary, I will offer some examples of how "teaching Israel" can be made a part of everything we teach in the Jewish school.

In Numbers 13-14, Moses sends representatives of the tribes to spy out the promised land. While they are extremely impressed with the beauty and productivity of the land, all except Caleb and Joshua are overwhelmed with fear of the obstacles to our obtaining it, and they incite the people to question the whole enterprise of leaving Egypt. God is not amused (14:28-31):

Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘I will do to you just as you have urged Me. In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you who were recorded in your various lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me, not one shall enter the land in which I swore to settle you – save Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. Your children who, you said, would be carried off – these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected…’

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