He stands, lowering his pants, and urinates on the dying bonfire of Zionism.
(from “Shtei Nekudot” by Aharon Shabtai, Haaretz, Oct. 11, 1998)
Growing numbers of Jews in Israel and around the world are sinking into banal ambivalence, alienation, and even hostility toward the country. On a polarized field, deprecating detractors face off against staunch supporters. The current conversation leaves little space for what we need most — nuanced, caring engagement. We also need creativity and visions to realize. Like most inspiring propositions to improve the human condition, Zionism thrives on the passions of legend and the mysteries of yearning, as well as on reasoned arguments and an inexorable drive to shape history. With the largest contingent of new Members of Knesset, 54 of 120, and the most women ever, our government is configured to distribute the burdens of security and sustenance more fairly, and to enable more pluralism in the public practice of Judaism. We are (re)opening our ancient texts with Israel in mind.
When the biblical prophet Moshe died on the other side of the Jordan, his ultimate desire unfulfilled, he bequeathed to the Jewish people a profound longing for the Promised Land. Since Moshe’s hope, and, before him, Avraham, Sarah, and Rivka’s journeys to the land, we have been cycling through incursion, attainment, and settlement, ruin, exile, and return. The biblical Israelite conquest, habitation, and building of the first Jerusalem Temple ended in the Babylonian destruction and exile. Many returned and built the Second Temple; the Romans destroyed it and exiled Jews for 2,000 years of unrequited desire for home. In the modern period, before, during, and after the European Holocaust and expulsion from Arab lands, Jews returned to this land and resettled.
The “Zion cycle” — exile and return to Zion — rivets Jewish attention to home and pulses through millennia of Jewish life. As surely as Sigmund Freud convinced us that the location and context of our birth, as well as our relationship to our parents and siblings, shape our personal identity, so this relationship to place undergirds Jewish identity. Denial, repression, ignoring, or shunning do not extinguish either the personal or the collective Jewish connection to Israel any more than we can elude our family roots or our membership in humanity. From our beginning, each of us is inextricably connected with our close kin, our people(s), and the vast interdependent web of creation. Consciously or unconsciously, at every moment, we choose how to fulfill our role in the evolving covenant of “interbeing.”
The Mikdash (Sanctuary), is at the heart of the metanarrative of the Jewish people. To that project, the Torah obligates every person to contribute a voluntary offering. This paradoxical commandment ingeniously mobilizes the human and material resources from which the Jewish people are to collectively build a headquarters for sublime convergence. The Mikdash — a place of animated aesthetic, ritual, social, and spiritual practice — embodies a public and particularly Jewish sacred service. Even after the total decimation of Jerusalem, the enslavement and dispersion of Jewry in 70 C.E., the majority of the rabbinic corpus probes the Temple and its functions. Interpreting and elaborating sacred service became equivalent to performing it, fuel for a flame on the altar of the Jewish soul.
In exile, the Jewish sacred home migrated from the spatial realm — the corruptible domain of power — to the ethereal domain of sacred time, where Jews frequently took refuge from the scourges of homelessness. Zionism restored the Jewish body, mind, and soul to a dignified home among the nations.
Too often, critics are oblivious to the fact that Israel faces the same earthly challenges that humanity faces — perhaps more so. We aspire to resolve conflict and to live in peaceful coexistence; we aspire to create an ethical military, a responsible government, just laws, honorable sustenance, good health, fine arts, and progressive economics. In most areas, we innovate; in some, we struggle.
Every spring and autumn, half a billion birds, more than 230 species, fly through Israel on their annual migrations through Europe, western Asia, and Africa. On the earth, ideas and practices, cultures and values converge, collide, and cross-fertilize one another. Liberalism and Judaism meet Islam; democracy meets monarchy; tradition meets modernity. Today, Israel is at a nexus of shifting tectonic plates of civilization. Around the great Syria-African rift, societies heave. The political future of Syria, Egypt, Iran, and our other neighbors hangs in the balance. In Israel, Arabs and Jews, women and men, are increasingly integrating. A head-scarfed woman draws my blood sample at a health clinic in West Jerusalem; the Arab manager of a gas station-convenience store directs students to Tel Aviv University. Israel offers an opportunity to participate in a great undertaking on behalf of humanity.
Now is the time to fall in love with Israel, to enter the covenant willfully, to meet our irrecusable obligations (to use a term of Emmanuel Levinas), and to contribute. In our day, building the State of Israel is the collective sacred project of the Jewish people.
Zionism is an ongoing revolutionary process by which we negotiate our relationships to land and power. For most of this generation, the revolution has not yet begun. Awaken your heart to the blossoming of Israel’s spring.