Sharing in the Miracle: Diaspora Jewry and Israel

Last year the Jewish world marked the one hundredth anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland. This year we have celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. Everywhere we hear such slogans as ” We are one, and Israel is central to our existence.”

But if Israel is so central to our existence, why aren’t we living there? If we don’t “walk the walk” should we “talk the talk?” And why should we care about a land thousands of miles away, about a people that uses a language most of us can’t even speak or read, about a culture that is dramatically different from our own in many profound ways? For answers, please join me on a journey into Jewish history.

In 586 B.C.E., the First Temple was destroyed. This was followed by the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  The result of these events was the exile of the vast majority of the Jewish people to disparate foreign soils. The Jews were certainly not the only people to experience such a trauma. Hundreds upon hundreds of nations and peoples have been dispossessed of their land and exiled to foreign places. Typically, the exiled face two choices: a) Assimilate into the larger culture and adopt its languages values customs and even its faith. In other words, when in Rome, not only do like the Romans, but eat like the Romans, feel like the Romans and think like the Romans. (b) Adhere to the way of life of their ancestors and maintain an emotional link to their former land. Put another way, when in Rome, remember not to feel too much at home, don’t get too comfortable- because the glory of your heritage is not worth giving up for the world.

Now here is where Jews act atypically. Whereas almost all other exiled people have succumbed to the temptation to assimilation into the larger culture of their host countries, the Jews, as a people, stubbornly refused to abandon their identity. Further, they never gave up the dream of one day returning to the place of their ancestors’ birth.

How was this achieved? Leaving aside the question of Jewish survival, how did the singular idea of returning to Israel – a utopian dream at best – stay alive for hundreds of years?

Part of the answer lies in our biblical literature. The bible promoted the dream of returning to Zion as a recurrent theme, repeatedly pledging that a day would come when the exile would end and the Children of Israel would return to their land. Such passages as ” If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning “(Psalm 137) and the striking imagery of Ezekiel, imagining a valley of dry bones coming to life, are among the many places where this motif appears.

Furthermore, the Rabbis of old, at every possible twist and turn of a Jew’s religious observance, enshrined the value of returning to Zion. Mourning for the destruction of Zion and yearning for the mass return of the Jewish people to Israel were woven into the fabric of Jewish life. For example:

  • Not only were prayers recited in the direction of Jerusalem, but the liturgy also made numerous references to the day the Jewish people would return to Zion.

  • A full three weeks out of the traditional Jewish calendar (the weeks leading to Tisha B’Av) were devoted to mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile.

  • According to traditional Jewish law, when one moved into a new home, a portion of the wall had to remain unvarnished, unpainted, and unfinished. For how could we complete our homes in what was only a temporary country,how could we thoroughly beautify our houses when Jerusalem and the Temple were in ruins?

  • When a traditional Jew concludes a visit to a house of mourning, the words he or she says are: “May God grant you comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” And the last act at a Jewish wedding is the breaking of the glass, which (tradition suggests) reminds us of the destruction of the Temple.

The term galut – exile – was coined to describe the homeless and subjugated state of the Diaspora Jew.  To the Rabbis there were only two regions in the world: Israel and outside of Israel. As long as the Jew lived outside of Israel’s borders, his spirit was also in exile. Judah Halevi’s cry ” My heart is in the East, but I am in the West,” and Nahman of Bratzlav’s credo,   “No matter where I go, it is always to Israel ” are merely two amid many expressions of deep longing and fidelity for the land of Israel to be found in Jewish writings.

Legend has it that Napoleon once witnessed a group of Jews sitting on the ground outside a synagogue, crying and tearing their clothes. It was the ninth day of Av, Tisha B’Av. Napoleon was told by one of his aides that the crying was on account of the Jews’ being exiled from their land.

“Who are their enemies?” Napoleon is reported to have said. “I shall take revenge on them”. “No,” replied the aide, “this happened eighteen hundred years ago. Today is the day on their calendar they have chosen to mourn their loss.”

Napoleon, deeply touched, replied: “A nation that still mourns the loss of its homeland after so many years of exile will one day be returned to it.”

Whether this story is more than legend is highly questionable, but the deeper truth is not. The Jews never gave up their affection for Israel and their trust that they would live to see Zion restored.

After almost two thousand years of exile, the tide of history took a remarkable and unprecedented turn. The year 1860 saw the birth of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. One could not find a more unlikely candidate to play what was to be one of the most decisive roles in Jewish history.

Who was Theodor Herzl? First and foremost, he was an assimilated Jew. Born in Budapest, he identified himself more as a German – his favorite composer was the notoriously anti-Semitic Richard Wagner -than as a Jew. His love affair with  German culture continued when he moved to Vienna, where he pursued his career as a journalist, playwright and author.

His assimilationist tendencies were so great that he did not circumcise his only male child. In 1890, Herzl wrote that the solution to anti-Semitism was to dissolve Judaism. All Jews, he suggested, should convert on the steps of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the problem of anti-Semitism would be done away with once and for all.

All of this changed in 1895. Herzl was in Paris covering the trial of another assimilated Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, on charges of treason. Despite Dreyfus’ clear innocence, he was convicted, stripped of his uniform in a public ceremony, and shipped off to Devil’s Island. Cries of “Death to the Jews! ” chanted by the Paris mobs drowned out Dreyfus’ own pleas of innocence.  The cries of the French mob- in the country that had first promoted the ideas of the Emancipation, of liberty, equality, and fraternity, shook Herzl’s belief in the ability of Jews ever to be accepted by their non-Jewish hosts. Herzl taking a 180-degree turn, concluded that no matter what the Jews did -assimilate, convert, or maintain their identity – they would always be rejected by their host countries. His solution to anti-Semitism was no longer to dissolve Judaism, but to allow the Jews to breathe the air of freedom in their own land, among their own people. The answer to the Jewish problem, Herzl proposed, was a Jewish state.

Shortly after the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl wrote The Jewish State. Thereafter he devoted the remaining nine years of his short life to the Zionist cause, exerting his considerable energy and force of character in the single-minded pursuit of this goal. His last book (Altneuland, published in 1902) contains one sentence that best sums up the man and his passion: “Im tirtsu ain zo agada. If you will it, it is not [merely] a dream.)

From town to town and village to village, news of the modern-day Moses spread. Herzl’s message of redemption electrified the Jewish population. It was an overpowering mix: Herzl a gifted orator, a skillful writer, and a man of compelling appearance, combined with an age-old message of liberation to a people reeling from pogrom to pogrom.

Herzl himself did not realize the strength of his message and of the power of the masses behind him. On his way to Istanbul, he stopped off in Sofia, Bulgaria to deliver a speech to the local Jewish community. Standing in the synagogue Herzl felt awkward speaking with his back to the Sefer Torah, until one of those in the audience yelled out: “Right now, you are more important to us than the Sefer Torah!” In his diary Theodor Herzl wrote about how impressed the Sultan of Turkey would have been by this show of support, not realizing that the devotion of rank-and file Jews to his cause was far more significant than the Sultan’s good graces.

Against tremendous opposition from almost all of organized world Jewry- from the Reform movement to most Orthodox rabbis to the wealthy Jewish establishment – Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel in the summer of 1897. In his diary, Herzl wrote that he was far more nervous attending the Orthodox shul in Basel on the Shabbat before the Congress than delivering his inaugural address at the congress -and not because the local rabbi was opposed to his cause.  In fact, Basel’s rabbi, Arthur Cohen was one of the few rabbis who did rally to his side. Rather, the cause of Herzl’s trepidation was that he, an assimilated Jew could not read Hebrew and was terrified to be called upon to recite the Torah’s blessings.

History does not record what the congregation thought of Herzl’s aliyah to the Torah. It does tell us that the two hundred delegates to the first Zionist Congress were swept away by Herzl’s eloquence, personal magnitude, and, most importantly, his message. At Herzl’s urging, the delegates from fifteen countries adopted the Basel program advocating large-scale migration to Palestine. Soon after the congress, Herzl wrote in his diary, ” In Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered with universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” Fifty years and eight months later, after the annihilation of two thirds of European Jewry, the state of Israel was formally established.

What made Herzl’s efforts and his vision so remarkably effective? For centuries, Jewish texts and Jewish leaders had repeated the message of the yearning for Zion. How was Herzl’s Zionism different from theirs?  How was Herzl different from his predecessors?

Part of the answer is suggested by a classic joke: What is the difference between Jews and everyone else? When others arrive in the after life, they immediately go through the door marked “Heaven.” Jews however choose to enter a second door marked “Lectures about Heaven”. A major difference between Herzl and his predecessors was his call to action. To Herzl, it was not enough to speak of Zionism, it was not sufficient to pray for return to Jerusalem, it was not enough to write stirring poetry about the land of Israel – one had to act in the real world to make it happen.

A story is told concerning the saintly nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev.  Before his daughter’s wedding, he sent invitations asking his guests to attend the celebration taking place on such-and -such date, at such-and- such time – in the city of Jerusalem! The startled recipients glanced at the wording in puzzlement, wondering how a city of ruins, thousands of miles away, could be the location of the wedding. Their wonder ceased when they looked at the small print at the bottom of the invitation. The line stated that in the unlikely event that the Messiah did not arrive in the next few weeks, the wedding would take place in Berdichev. Where, a cynic might ask, did the saintly rabbi advise the caterer to deliver the food? However, the real message of the story is this: pious belief can only take us only so far. At some point, we must take destiny by the hand and pull it on to its necessary course.

There were other differences between Herzl and his predecessors. Herzl was a man of considerable eloquence, presence and boldness. A veteran of the theater, he understood long before Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” At the first Zionist Congress, he insisted that all delegates (many of them from poor shtetls of Eastern Europe) dress in formal attire, so that photographs circulated around the world would capture the seriousness of the Zionist enterprise. Herzl lived during the rise of political nationalism. Influenced by this movement, Herzl believed that the Jews deserved their own country -with its own territory, flag, national institutions and currency – just as the American, Italians, and English had theirs. Finally, Herzl was thoroughly devoted to his cause:  after 1895,virtually every moment of his time – to the exclusion of his career, relations with his family, his health, and his family’s finances – was spent in the pursuit of his vision of a Jewish homeland.

With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, two millennia of collective hopes and dreams came to fulfillment. The return of the Jewish nation to its ancient land and the rebirth of a language unspoken since the days of the temple in Jerusalem are developments that are with out precedent in the annals of human history. To some, Israel is nothing short of a divine miracle. To others, it is a miracle of the human spirit. Above all, it is a testament to the ability of a small nation to overcome history and geography, hatred and powerlessness, to achieve its most cherished goals.

How do Jews living outside of Israel during this privileged period in Jewish history relate to this modern-day phenomenon?

A minority of Jews are apathetic towards Israel. On the other extreme are those who are so gripped by the Zionist message that they have made aliya  to Israel in order to invest the best of their creative efforts in building the country. The majority of us, however, find ourselves between these two poles. We are not ready to leave our families, the culture we are accustomed to, or the language we have grown up with. On the other hand, we yearn to create a meaningful connection with this unfolding “miracle”.

Is it hypocritical to assert that a love of Israel is not an all-or- nothing proposition? Is it a sign of moral inconsistency to involve oneself with the destiny of our ancestral homeland even if we do not transplant ourselves there? Living where we do, can we not share in the dream of rebuilding Zion without being labeled morally deficient?

We Diaspora Jews can build a meaningful connection, a “living bridge” between ourselves and the land and people of Israel.

How? By visiting Israel, by studying in Israel, by volunteering in worthy social projects in Israel, by defending Israel against biased reporting, by encouraging close relations between Israel and our native countries, by celebrating with Israel during her moments of glory, and by crying with Israel during her moments of tragedy. We participate in the miracle of Israel by contributing to her critical social and humanitarian needs. We support the future of Israel and the Jewish people by helping the more than eight hundred thousand Jews who have made aliya since 1990 to build a new life of freedom in Israel.

In some sense, Theodor Herzl was a prophet. However, he did not anticipate the clash between secular and religious Jews, nor did he foresee the strife between the Jews and the indigenous Arab populations – issues that remain unresolved to this day. Furthermore, Herzl believed that incurable anti Semitism made Jewish life in the Diaspora unviable. Once Israel was founded, he claimed all committed Jews would move to Israel, and Jewish life in the Diaspora would wither away.

Truth be told, Jewish life in the Diaspora of the 1990’s is astoundingly vibrant. Millions of committed Jews live passionate Jewish lives in North America, Europe, and other regions of the world. Assimilation not anti-Semitism is Diaspora Jewry’s most powerful enemy. Yet, Herzl’s mistaken view was most fortunate. Without his conviction that Zionism was the only solution to anti-Semitism, it is likely that there would be no state of Israel today diminishing greatly the quality of Jewish life the world over. For, in a twist Herzl could not imagine, the very presence of Israel serves to strengthen Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Some Jews see Israel only as an insurance policy – “If things turn really bad here, I always have a place to go” -,or as a source of pride in the achievements of the Jewish people. But more and more, Diaspora Jews are beginning to view Israel as a repository of spiritual values. We travel there to recharge our Jewish souls, we send our children there to learn of their heritage, we read books by Israeli writers and attend artistic performances and lectures by Israeli figures.    We insist that all of our major religious denominations have institutions in Israel, and we care deeply about who Israel decides is or is not a Jew.  In addition to becoming the population center of the Jewish people (Israel will soon have the largest number of Jews of any country in the world), Israel is developing into the spiritual center of the Jewish people, a view supported by Herzl’s archrival, Ahad Ha’am.

Last year, headlines carried the news of the tragic crash of two helicopters over northern Israel, resulting in the deaths of seventy-three soldiers. All of Israel, together with Jews around the world, mourned the loss of so many of Israel’s fighters, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. A friend of mine recognized the last name of one of the casualties that appeared in the newspaper as that of someone he had grown up with in South Africa.

A long distance call to Israel confirmed his fear. “Yes, my nineteen year old son, Gilad, was one of those who fell in the collision,” the faint voice on the other end of the line confirmed. “But I’ll tell you something else, ” the father continued. Mistakenly, his son’s name had appeared twice on the manifest containing the names of the soldiers scheduled to board one of the helicopters. As a result, the commanding officer thought he had one too many men on the helicopter and ordered one of the young soldiers to return home. The disgruntled youth forced to hitchhike home, did not realize how close a brush he had just had with fate. “So,” the father concluded, “my son’s death was not entirely in vain. Because of him, the life of another young Jewish soldier was saved.”

Does this story not symbolize the story of the Jewish people? Is not our history composed of attempts to find some seed of consolation even in the grimmest moments?

In traditional sources, we read of two Jerusalems: The earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem; The Jerusalem of street and stone and the mythical Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of our hopes and dreams. Israel also has meaning on two levels.  On one level, it is a real country of stunning natural beauty, with falafel stands, overly aggressive taxi drivers, black-hatted yeshiva buchers, brown sandaled kibbutzniks, mystical sites and archeological ruins, modern institutions, and big-city traffic jams. But on another level, Israel symbolizes the triumph of hope over despair. Judaism and the rebirth of Israel teach us about the potential to do better in the future- never to give in to the voices of negativity, cynicism, or resignation. Whether it comes to building a state from scratch or overcoming our own personal and often quite difficult challenges, human will and perseverance can carry the day.  Im tirtsu ain zo agada.  If you will it, it is not a dream.

As we celebrate Israel’s fifty years of existence, let us strengthen our connection to the land and her people. And let us also, in our own personal lives, remember what made Israel possible: the belief that against the greatest obstacles, hope can overcome despair- if we truly desire it with all our heart and souls.

First published in Humanistic Judaism, Summer 1998. Portions of this article were also subsequently published in the Canadian Jewish News.