September 22, 2018

Israel with a Side of Goosebumps

Imagine that you are living 400 years after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., and your parents are trying to convince you that the Jewish people must never stop praying to return home to Zion; that we should never lose hope.

I don’t know about you, but I might say something like this: “Hey Mom/Dad, no disrespect, but it’s been four centuries! Can’t we get a hint? This ain’t happening.”

Now, you can replicate that scene 400 years later, and 400 years after that. Indeed, for 1,878 years, one Jewish generation after another had to believe beyond all hope that the Jewish people would one day return to the land of their biblical ancestors. That eternal yearning was grafted into the very prayers and texts that sustained these generations through their nomadic journeys, which often included pogroms and persecution.

Fast forward to our own generation. My grandfather, who had a thriving business selling teas in Casablanca, was a religious man who was well aware of the Jewish yearning to return to the Holy Land. When his large family moved to Israel in the early 1950s, they went through severe hardships. Still, he kissed the ground and said, “I’m never leaving.” Israel for him meant coming home.

If we look at our disappointments in isolation — whether from the right or the left — we won’t feel the soul of Israel.

In our hip and cynical world, there’s little room for this kind of sentimentality. We much prefer hard-nosed analyses, hard-nosed criticism or hard-nosed talking points to promote one side or another. We’re not inclined to incorporate what I call the “goosebumps” of the Israel story.
A more sophisticated term for what I’m talking about is “context.” As Herb Keinon wrote recently in The Jerusalem Post, “Everything needs context. Nothing can be judged fairly if it is seen standing alone, isolated, disconnected from the past, from its surroundings. Nothing. Not a person, definitely not a state.”

Yearning to return home for 19 centuries is emotional context, and it’s easy to overlook. As Keinon writes, “We get so caught up in the daily news — the terrorism, the wars, the corruption — that we lose sight of the bigger picture.”

Keinon concedes that “Sovereignty, independence, running a country, developing an economy, fielding an army and fighting war after war is a messy business” and that “perhaps we haven’t lived up to our own lofty expectations.”

But if we look at our disappointments in isolation — whether from the right or the left — we won’t feel the soul of Israel.

I felt that soul a few weeks ago when I walked out of my Tel Aviv hotel on the morning of Yom HaZikaron. Beachgoers, taxis, pedestrians, security guards and merchants were busy making the urban noises of a bustling and vibrant town. Then, at exactly 11 a.m., a long siren sounded. Everyone froze. Drivers got out of their cars. People stood at attention. For two long minutes, Israelis throughout the country froze in place to honor the more than 25,000 souls who have sacrificed their lives to build and protect the state.

As I reflected on that scene, which overflowed with emotion, I couldn’t help thinking of Jewish activists in the United States who constantly demonstrate against Israel, usually in reaction to how Israel deals with the Palestinians.

These demonstrations have failed to influence Israeli policies. They are utterly devoid of context. They’re disconnected from the past (such as Israeli peace offers that were rejected) or the present (the desire of groups such as Hamas to invade and destroy Israel). In isolation, these protests look more like PR stunts to make protestors feel good about themselves.

Yearning to return home for 19 centuries is emotional context, and it’s easy to overlook. As Herb Keinon writes, “We get so caught up in the daily news — the terrorism, the wars, the corruption — that we lose sight of the bigger picture.”

But they’re missing more than political context; they’re also missing the emotional context of what it means to come home after 1,900 years. When you feel that emotion, the criticism can’t help but be more loving, more measured.

The idea that Jews of more than 100 nationalities can gather in their ancient homeland and create a thriving sovereign state — with all of the blunders and flaws that come with creating any sovereign state — is a miracle that Israel’s critics should keep in mind when they criticize. Not as an afterthought that precedes a “but,” but as a deeply ingrained thought that permeates any fair and nuanced view of the Israel story.

Criticism of Israel goes much farther when it comes from a loving place. When it devolves into bitterness and anger, it’s got nowhere to go but to a choir of like-minded critics. It’s got no chance to open minds, let alone change them.

For too long, critics of Israel in the Jewish community have hidden behind the cliché of “tough love.” But tough love that hides the love is only tough.

We don’t have to tell our kids anymore to keep praying for the return of Jewish sovereignty. We made it. The 1,900-year dream has come true. When you feel those goosebumps, it’s a lot easier to criticize with love, and to make others feel that love.