December 11, 2019

Travel Machismo

As Israeli-Palestinian violence makes daily life in the Jewish state a living (as opposed to a virtual) nightmare, American Jews are raising the ante on expressions of loyalty. A rabbi recently told me he wants every Jew to travel to Israel this year. A lay leader puts his name on the list for every mission, but breathes a sigh of relief when each is quickly cancelled.

What is behind this travel machismo? There are many crucial ways of helping Israel, including monitoring the secular press, contributing to special relief efforts sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and buying items

But none of these practical actions achieves the point. Jews have an ancient and deep-seated longing for Eretz Yisrael. We feel better when we draw near to Israel, especially in times of need — hers and our own. We try to create that yearning in our children and keep it going, with camp experiences and Israeli visits, during their youth.

What we’re doing, of course, is preparing for the hard times that inevitably do come. During the ’67 and ’73 wars, many American college-age youth moved to Israel out of exactly this same desire to do something that would make real the connection to the land. Some enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces as, I’m sure, some are doing today. This sense of responsibility to the survival of the Jewish state is a social miracle of our people. The suicide bombers ape this desire to have something to live and die for with tragic results.

Professor Lawrence Hoffman has written that we go to Israel as pilgrims, not as tourists. I wish he weren’t right, but it explains the tone of extremism that marks travel machismo today. It is the pilgrim who is going now: The political pilgrim. The spiritual pilgrim. The one who is desperate to draw near, to make real the connection between holy stones and our own fragile bones.

“I give unto you the land of Canaan to be unto you a God,” says the Talmud. Jewish survival is based on a triangle: God needs the land, and we need God. Only a few years ago, in the post-Oslo glow, the Israel tourist office was happy to advertise Israel for nonpilgrims, a place of waterslides, hiking trails and great cuisine. God was only part of the route.

But how many pilgrims can there be? With tourism down 50 percent since 2000, we put travel on our Top 10 things to do to help Israel. We bravely say we are standing by Israel just by showing up. Let’s face it, tourism is a peacetime activity, and we are not at peace.

I’m just as susceptible as the next former USY’er to the lure of travel machismo. Especially now that I have a ticket allowing me to name my date of departure, I am particularly eager to go again. And yet, professional journalistic interests aside, I resist the argument, heard frequently, that any such trip would be (a) brave or (b) helping Israel more than helping me.

Travel machismo puts the emphasis on the wrong crisis, that being the American Jewish crisis of faith that Israel will outlast the current moment. So I stay home and pray that by the time I book my reservation, there will be a speedy restoration of daily life. At that time, I’ll know precisely what to do.

I want to study about how a country moves from peace to war.

I want to put a crumbled note in the Western Wall, praying for my recovery from cancer.

I want to roam Jerusalem and search for spiritual healers who have been known to work miracles in the past.

I want to study with the great teachers of our time at Pardes, at the Hartman Institute and with Avivah Zornberg.

May that day come speedily and soon.