Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2007: What Israel means to me
From a chapter in the book, “What Israel Means to Me: By 80 Prominent Writers, Performers, Scholars, Politicians, and Journalists,” edited by Alan Dershowitz (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).
I was born in Tel Aviv, in 1936, and, quite naturally, my feelings toward Israel are suffused with the love, pride, memories, music and aromas that nourish and sustain all natives of any
Yet, remarkably, as the years pass, I discover that these same feelings towards Israel are echoed by people everywhere, including many who have never set foot in that country.
My family’s love affair with Israel begins in 1924, when my grandfather, a textile merchant and devout Chassid in the town of Ostrowietz, Poland, decided to realize his life dream and immigrate to the land of the Bible.
Family lore has it that my grandfather was assaulted one day by a Polish peasant with an iron bar shouting: “Dirty Jew!”; he crawled home then, wiped his blood and announced to his wife and four children: “Start packing! We are going home!”
In the weeks that followed, he sold all his possessions, and, teaming with 25 other families, he bought a piece of sandy land about seven kilometers to the northeast of Jaffa. That land was near an Arab village called “Ibn Abrak,” described by the newspaper Haaretz (July 1924) as “a few mud-walled huts surrounded by a few scattered trees.”
The Arab real-estate broker in Jaffa had probably no inkling why a group of seemingly educated Jews, some with business experience, would pay so dearly for a piece of arid land, situated far from any water source, which even the hardy residents of Ibn Abrak found to be uninhabitable.
But the 26 Chassidic families knew exactly what they were buying — Ibn Abrak was the site of the ancient city of Bnai-Brak, well known in the biblical and rabbinic days, the town where Rabbi Akiva made his home and established his great yeshiva.
The sages say that it was to Bnai-Brak that Rabbi Akiva applies the famous verse: “Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue. (Sanhedrin. 32b)”
The vision of reviving the spirit of that ancient site of learning was well worth the exorbitant price the broker demanded, the dusty winds, the merciless sun, the lack of water, and all the daily hardships that pioneering agricultural life entailed.
My father was 14 when his family arrived at Bnai-Brak in 1924, and whenever he reminisced about that early period of hardship, he always referred to it as the “rebuilding of Bnai-Brak,” as if he and my grandfather had been there before, with Poland and the whole saga of the Jewish Diaspora merely an unpleasant nightmare.
We, the children who grew up in Bnai-Brak, had not the slightest doubt that we had been there before. Every Passover, when our family’s reading of the haggadah reached the well-known story of the five rabbis who were sitting in Bnai-Brak, reciting the story of the Exodus, my grandfather would stop the reading, look everyone in the eye, issue one of his rare mysterious smiles, and continue with emphasis: “She’Hayu Mesubin b’Bnai Brak….” The message was clear: “We never really left home!”
A short distance from our school, there were two steep hills that almost touched each other. The older boys told us that the two hills once were one, and got separated when Bar Kochba — the heroic figure who led a futile Jewish rebellion against Rome in the second century C.E.. — rode through them on his famous lion, causing the gully between.
We had no doubt that it was only a matter of time before we would find Bar Kochba’s burial place; we needed only to dig deep enough into these hills — which we did enthusiastically for hours and hours. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before the earth all around us would ooze and unravel the mysteries of our historic infancy.
It was this cultural incubator that shaped my childhood — an intoxicating enthusiasm of homecoming and nation rebuilding.
Those who say that this sort of culture no longer inspires youth in our generation are mistaken. Seventy-eight years after my grandfather first set foot in Bnai-Brak, in a desolate shed in Karachi, Pakistan, his great-grandson, Daniel Pearl, stood before his captors-murderers and said: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” then, looking straight at the eye of evil, he added one last sentence: “Back in the town of Bnai-Brak there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town.” Was a page of history ever chanted with a greater pride? Was a more gentle love song ever sung to a homeward-bound founder of a new town?
My mother’s story was different, yet still driven by the same forces of history. A resident of Kielz, Poland, she applied for immigration in 1935, when anti-Semitic intimidation reached unbearable proportions. Hitler came to power two years earlier, his threats were broadcast all over Europe, the handwriting was on the wall and masses of Polish Jews applied for immigration to their biblical homeland — Palestine. Ironically, the Brits were bending to Arab pressure to stop Jewish immigration, and my mother’s hopes of leaving Poland before the storm fell at the mercy of a political controversy that has not been settled to this very day.
I recently read the argument the Arabs used in that debate, as published in the Arabic newspaper, Carmel: “We know that Jewish immigration can proceed without dispossessing a single Arab from his land. This is obvious. And this is precisely what we object to. We simply do not want to peacefully turn into a minority, and European Jews should understand why.” The counterargument of the Jewish leadership was equally compelling: “This sort of morality is morality of cannibalism, not one of the civilized world, for it dictates that the homeless must forever remain homeless; we beg merely for a small fraction of this vast piece of land” (paraphrased from Zev Jabotinsky’s 1937 “Medinah Ivrit”).
But the British sided with the stronger, allowing a trickle of only 15,000 immigration certificates per year. My mother could not wait and paid a huge sum to a cousin who had an immigration certificate to arrange a fictitious marriage that would later be annulled. Fortunately, her father intervened and she found a better prospect — my father — a sun-tanned young Palestinian in summer suit, who was searching the towns of Poland for a refined European bride. Her parents, her brother and her sister were not so lucky. Stranded by the British-Arab blockade, they perished in the Holocaust, with 6 million other victims.