Yesterday I wrote that living in Israel for Jews (especially Jews who have a steady income) is like flying business class, or like being in an airport club, that “membership has its privileges”. That may have left the reader with the impression that this is the only reason I like being here. That’s not the case.
I cannot deny that despite all my misgivings about the state of Israel, its past, present, and immediate future, I like being here. In fact, I really like being here. Here’s why:
I like Israelis, and I don’t mean just Israeli Jews. There is something about Israel that makes this place feel like a small town. I would say shtetl but that’s too Jewish. There is a national character, an Israeliness that, like every Israeli, I both criticize and celebrate. When traveling abroad I always run into Israelis, everywhere. There is a freshness, a newness to this place that reflects some sort of innate optimism. Maybe some of that is Jewish, but it’s not just that. How can the Palestinians not be optimistic – they have survived their ongoing Nakbah, and their community, and the world’s recognition of its aspirations, is growing.
Second, I have lived here for so long that it has become home to me. Not so much as a Jew – as a Jew home is where my community and shul are – but as somebody who became an Israeli citizen many years ago. It’s because Israel is home to me that I view Israelis as family, and I like family. Families get into arguments, but family is family. And when my family screws up, it pains me, but it’s also my responsibility.
Third, it’s hard to be a Jew here, real hard, and that’s part of what makes life interesting, especially for somebody like me, who is a very Jewish Jew. Pace A. B. Yehoshua, I can’t think of any place in the world where it is harder to be a Jew than in Israel. Here’s an example: When I was growing up, I used to listen to the Christian fundamentalists on Sunday religion shows. As a privileged suburban Jewish liberal I used to think that Judaism was more rational, more liberal a religion that Christianity. I suffered from the same moral chauvinism that many tribalists feel about their own tribe. It’s only when I came to Israel and learned that whatever craziness gentiles had, Jews also had it in spades, and that whatever bigotry the Southern (and Northern) whites had in the past, some Jews also had it. Only in Israel did I realize that my feelings of moral superiority were misplaced. I learned that Judaism was a lot more than the lofty sentiments of “Pentateuch” with Rabbi Hertz’s commentary (or any book written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and that my people continued to commit sins in the name of “Jewish survival” or “Judaism” just as folks from other religions did it (and that includes the religion of nationalism and secularism.) I suppose I could have learned the same thing growing up in some neighborhoods in New York, but only in Israel did I meet those folks for the first time.
Of course, that doesn’t sound like a reason to love Israel, no more than you love a persistent pain. Perhaps it’s better to say that I am grateful for the difficulties of being a Jew here because of its impact on my moral smugness.
There’s a final reason why I love Israel. I still have faith that it can become a decent, even inspiring society, and I say that because of my faith in humanity and my familiarity with Israelis. I can envision a truly liberal democracy, a state of all its citizens, where all Israelis learn about and celebrate the two major national cultures and the many religious cultures here. I can envision an Israel that grows ups, that admits its responsibility for the ongoing Nakbah, that invites Palestinians to build with Israeli Jews a just society, that tries to make amends, an Israel that bears a special responsibility for the welfare and the flourishing of the Palestinian people. As I have said before, the Palestinians were the collateral damage, not the intended damage, of the Zionist enterprise, and so Israelis, primarily Israeli Jews, have a collective and historical relationship towards the Palestinians and their national aspirations. Hakarat ha-het – recognizing the sin of responsibility for the ongoing Nakbah– is the first step in the process of repentance. A just society can be built here, and that should be the primary task of Jews in the twenty-first century, especially those Jews for whom Israel is a special place. It may take decades and generations, but I believe it can come.
So, yes, that is a dream, and I realize that for some of my coreligionists it is a nightmare, that they would rather continue living according to the blessing of Esau – “by the sword” -- for the sake of political power, privilege, dominion, “Jewish pride.” It will always be easier for tribalists to live like Simeon and Levi than like Jacob.
But I still have faith that things can be different and that ultimately, whatever political arrangement, which means little to me, these two peoples can flourish together. They are certainly not going away.
Anyway, that’s my dream, and I haven’t given up on it.