As the security situation has calmed or as we have just gotten used to a different level of risk the tourism industry has begun to recover. If last summer we hosted a handful of small groups of Jewish teen tourists for our Jewish-Arab encounter program, this July we serviced 1,000 visitors, in 30 groups. With this return and with the increased attention to Israel education in North America in the wake of the past few years of disconnection, it is interesting to consider just what Israel means to Diaspora Jews.
In 1869, Mark Twain went on a group tour of Europe and the middle east. His insightful and often hilarious travelogue was published as The Innocents Abroad. One of the themes that recurs frequently in his description of Palestine is the dissonance between myth and reality. For example:
When I was a boy I somehow got the impression that the Jordan was four thousand miles long and thirty-five miles wide. It is only ninety miles long, and not any wider than Broadway in New York. There is the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea neither of them twenty miles long or thirteen wide. And yet when I was in Sunday school I thought they were sixty thousand miles in diameter. Travel and experience mar the grandest pictures and rob us of the most cherished traditions of our boyhood. Well, let them go. I have already seen the empire of King Solomon diminish to the size of the state of Pennsylvania; I suppose I can bear the reduction of the seas and the river.
I first came to Israel on the Eisendrath exchange program in high school; I still remember my disappointment to discover that the teenagers preferred the twist to the hora, Paul Anka to the classic Israeli folksongs I had learned at Union Institute Camp (only later did I learn that all of those classic folksongs were modern compositions). Like Mark Twain, I knew Israel from Sunday school. In his case, the curriculum had been Bible and romantic Christian commentaries; in my case, it had been romantic Zionism, as my teachers sought to use Israel to inject authenticity, relevance, and romance into a curriculum that seemed to have lost its center of gravity.
Until about 1900, Israel was for Jews everywhere the sum total of the images of the Bible and the midrashim and commentaries. The reality was what we read and interpreted and imagined: a land of milk and honey, where we once lived as a prosperous, sovereign nation and would some day again; the scenery for the dramas that defined our national identity; the landscape and climate that determined our religious calendar. Then, along came humanism, secular nationalism, Zionism and not long afterwards, jet travel and television and then, globalization. Now, the reality is reality, as seen on TV. We see Israel not through the eyes of the biblical narrator or of the rabbis of the Mishnah, but through the CNNs lens or in the printouts of our own digital cameras. And while we may not be as versed in the texts as our forefathers were, we know enough to share Mark Twains feeling of dissonance. Somehow, close-up contact with the reality of Israel undermines the deeper, spiritual reality of the Jews traditional knowledge of the land, and the result is a feeling of disappointment, let-down, dis-enchantment.
The difficult question that faces us as educators - or as concerned Jews who think of ourselves as Zionists is how can we accomplish re-enchantment? How can we rebuild our own attachment to Eretz Yisrael in a way that is authentically linked to the spiritual side of our Jewish identity and not just as solidarity? What should we be studying, and how?
Mark Twain wrote: Palestine is no more of this workday world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition it is dreamland. Zionism came to counter this feeling, to make the dream a reality. Our challenge now is to put the dream back into the reality.