chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left brand cancel-circle search youtube-icon facebook-icon twitter-icon


A Country Still Desperate to Believe

June 14, 2012

When Prof. Asa Kasher, Israel Prize laureate and author of the IDF’s ethical code, delivered the Shalem Center’s annual Zalman Bernstein Memorial Lecture earlier this week, one of the first questions from the audience was from a young woman studying at a posthigh school, pre-army program in Aderet.

“You spoke of how the singing of Hatikva still moves you,” she said, “and it moves me as well. But it doesn’t move everyone. What role do you believe the government ought to have in instilling a sense of Zionist passion in a younger generation of Israelis?” OK, she didn’t phrase it precisely that way, but that was what she wanted to know. Her question, I thought, was important because it was a reminder that we’ve got a hungry young generation here. They’re desperate to believe that by virtue of their living here, they’re part of something important, even majestic. Does anyone else still believe what she does, she wanted to know? One can understand why she’s asking.

Whatever you think our policy toward thousands of illegal Sudanese refugees ought to be, there’s no denying that images of Jewish immigration police rounding up helpless refugees is a distressing one. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be discomfited, not to wonder if a country created by people who had nowhere else to go 60-something years ago couldn’t have dealt with this better.

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Does the fact that this is a Jewish country not have anything to say about this, many young Israelis are asking.

Compare this government’s silence to the story that Yehuda Avner recounts (in his extraordinary book, The Prime Ministers) of Golda Meir telling her charges in the Foreign Ministry, shortly after she was appointed foreign minister, that reaching out to the countries of Africa would be a top priority.

When they looked at her quizzically, she pulled out a copy of Herzl’s Altneuland and read them this passage: “There is still one question arising out of the disaster of the nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured, and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different…  Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my own people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

LIFE IS different here than it was when Herzl penned those words in 1902. And it’s more complicated than it was when Golda was foreign minister. But why has no one mentioned Altneuland as the police fan out across the country picking up refugees who once thought of the Jews and their country as a beacon of freedom, as a haven. It may well be that we can’t accommodate them all; but have we no shame? Do we not believe in anything anymore? Not even ourselves and our history? As if that wasn’t sufficient, that young woman from Aderet and her companions awoke on Tuesday morning to newspaper accounts of how anti-Zionist haredim (ultra- Orthodox) defaced memorials at Yad Vashem with graffiti reading: “Thank you Hitler for the wonderful Holocaust you arranged for us.  Thanks only to you we got a state from the UN. [signed] World Zionist Mafia.”

Does our government still believe in this country? Will it have the courage to find a way to kick out – forever – the people who spray-painted those horrific words and those who encouraged them? Or are the Sudanese the only ones we’ll figure out a way to expel? Is nothing sacred here anymore? It’s a sad day when young people feel a need to ask.

Stuck at Hadassah University Medical Center over Shavuot and the Shabbat that followed (I was staying with someone who was ill), I found myself in the famed Chagall Windows synagogue. There was but one synagogue for all of us, a motley crew who would, under normal circumstances, never choose to pray together. Haredim and religious-Zionist types. Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Healthy people visiting the ill, and sick people with IVs on poles that they wheeled with them as they were called to the Torah. Religious doctors with phones and pens and secular people who, you could see, just wanted to be in shul at that moment.

Lo and behold, it turns out that all of these people can actually pray together. We don’t usually have to, but when there’s no choice, it can be done. It was actually very moving.

With one exception, though. When we got to the point at which the prayer for the State of Israel was to be said, it suddenly became clear that the rabbi wasn’t going to recite it, and neither was the cantor. So someone in khaki pants, a white shirt, and a crocheted kippa stepped forward and recited it. Some of the assembled responded “Amen”; others just stared at the floor.

“Really?” I found myself wondering. Even here? These people are witness to the real miracle of Israeli life in one of the great healing centers of the world, and even here, someone had to step to the front and “insert” the prayer for the State of Israel into the liturgy?

ONE CAN easily understand why that young woman chose to ask the question that she did. Who around here believes in what? Which brings us to Masada, where the Israeli Opera performedCarmen this week. It was one of those incredible extravaganzas, impeccably organized and beautifully performed.  A whole series of magical moments.

Immediately before the overture, the “theater” went dark. From somewhere, a sonorous voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Hatikva.”

Instantaneously, the entire mountain of Masada was lit up, and spontaneously, without instruction, 7,000 people rose, stood silently, and then sang Hatikva just a bit faster than the orchestra was playing it.

Three and a half hours later, as thousands of exhausted, dehydrated and utterly thrilled people exited, you could hear them talking.

And you could see it on the Facebook chatter the next day. They’d loved the opera. But what they would never forget, they said, was Hatikva. Given what happened on that mountain 2,000 years ago, the sight of thousands of Jews gathered again, to listen to music, wrapped in confidence and security, was the boost that we all needed.

Amazing, I thought. That young woman is not alone. Most of us are desperate to live in a place that believes in itself. Israelis should not have to head to the sweltering desert to listen to Bizet just to be reminded how deep run the reservoirs of our belief. There are moments, every day, when the leadership of this country could act – and speak – as though it did.

When we expel the Sudanese, is it just because the police can’t control riots in Tel Aviv, or is it because we have a Jewish vision for what this country should be and how it should act? Will we hear anyone say anything about that? When parasites deface Yad Vashem, do we believe in this country enough to rid ourselves of them? When Israelis gather together in iconic synagogues, must the prayer for the State of Israel be an appendage?

Yes, we need to respond to that young woman. Yes, we still believe that Zionism is about the transformation and ennobling of the Jewish people. Yes, we believe that sovereignty leads to responsibility, and yes, reasonability means articulating our basic philosophical and ideological commitments.

Yes, we need to say. And then we need to start acting like we mean it.


Sign up to receive
Daniel Gordis' email dispatches