January 21, 2019

Sometimes Israel really does feel like the center of the earth

On the final night of Passover, I sat with my relatives in a tiny but warm apartment in Haifa, 11 of us packed tightly around a table in a sort of French-Israeli-American melting pot of a family reunion. A few days later, some of us went to a cemetery outside Jerusalem, where we honored the unveiling of the headstone of my late brother, Aaron, who in February, at 34, passed away after his battle with cancer. In his final days he made clear his wish to be buried in Israel. He’d wanted to make aliyah in life, but as God would have it, his ascent was in death.

Where else but Israel would any Jew nearing death opt to be buried other than in his home country?

Our trip pleasantly overlapped with the Passover vacation of many of my French cousins from Paris and Toulouse. The ones who still live in France (from my grandparents’ generation) came to visit their children who’d left two or three decades ago, and who, from afar, watch with concern but not necessarily surprise the flagrant and violent anti-Semitism in recent years in France — both parents and children spoke sadly of the pervasive hatred of Jews and Israel among too much of French Muslim society.

The ominous news reports, most of my cousins said, are more or less representative of the reality.

Dinner conversation eventually found its way to the Holocaust, and how my late grandmother, Edna, lived with my cousin Anna in Paris after Auschwitz, and how after Edna told Anna’s mother what she’d experienced there, Anna’s mother fell into a deep, deep depression, and how Edna left the relative comfort of Paris after six months to live in the newborn State of Israel. And so on.

Over Passover meals, where relatives ranged from 22 months to 89 years and the countries represented were the three most central today for Jews worldwide — Israel, America and France — it was impossible not to feel Israel as somehow a personal and ancestral Rome — where all roads lead.

Passover celebrates the Exodus, but it practices ingathering — seder tables everywhere, every year, bring Jews together from all over the world. And when the ingathering is in the center of the Jewish world, in Israel, rather than, say, La Jolla, it feels … different — like you are in the center not only of the Jewish story, but in some ways of the human story, which also places enormous importance on the land of Israel (see: Christianity and Islam).

Centeredness is an idea that may have replaced the idea of chosenness in the modern Jewish psyche. One notion of the Jews being “chosen” is that the Jewish people are tasked with bringing ethical monotheism to everyone else — a noble, even revolutionary idea in human history, but one that isn’t really championed today by any large subset of Jews.

In place of the chosenness narrative, Jews today seem more comfortable with the idea of centeredness — the Jewish people, and their homeland Israel, as one of the central characters, if not the central character, in the unfolding of history and humanity’s story. Many Jewish texts and thinkers speak of Israel as the center of the world and of civilization — geographically, historically and geopolitically.

Proponents of this view of Jewish and Israel centeredness point to the outsized impact of such a tiny percentage of the world population — scientific, medical, technological, cultural — just look at the makeup of the Nobel Prize recipients.

That the tiny country of Israel plays such a central role in geopolitics — its elections probably receive media attention second only to those in the United States — further confirms this belief that there’s something … weird … about the Jewish people’s role in the world.

The disproportionate impact Jews, Israelis and Israel have on the world says something. Not that they should view themselves in any type of self-aggrandizing fashion. Just that there’s something to the idea that Jews and their country have a role in history past, present and future that’s irrefutably disproportionate to their numbers.

After this most recent trip, this centeredness idea feels personal as well as global — the idea of Israel playing a central role in the personal lives of Jews; not for every Jew and perhaps not even for most — but for many.

When you’ve experienced a flight packed with hundreds of excited American and Canadian Jews of all ages immigrating to Israel, as I did last summer, when major newspapers and magazines write about the Jews of Europe living with one foot out the door, when your phone’s news updates so often include Israel, Iran and Netanyahu, and when your family’s journey, its circle of life and death revolves around Israel, sometimes it really does feel like Israel is the center of the Earth.