These words from this past Thursday are now famous:
[T]he aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.
I appreciate President Obama’s earlier re-statement of the ‘unbreakable’ bond between the US and Israel, but I must protest this re-writing of the birth of the modern state of Israel.
Israel was not built in Roman brutality. Israel was not manufactured by Muslim massacres at Khaibar and along the Mediterranean. Israel was not created by Christian Crusades or European expulsions or the Catholic Inquisition or the pogroms of the Cossacks, and Israel certainly was not made in Germany.
Israel was made in Israel, thousands of years ago. We have more than our own Torah as evidence; we have the testimony of pottery shards and the Mesha stele and the historical memory of numerous races.
Israel is not a product of our enemies’ venomous anti-Semitism, but a product of our proud Torah and our proud ancestry.
Of course, President Obama’s speechwriters were not the first to view Israel, primarily, as a haven from our enemies.
Moses Hess wrote in 1862, [T]he Jews in exile, at least the majority of them, cannot devote themselves successfully to productive labor: in the first place, because they lack the most necessary condition - an ancestral soil; and, secondly, because they cannot assimilate with the peoples among whom they live without being untrue to their national religion and tradition. The irony, of course, is that Hess fulfilled his own dire prediction by marrying a Catholic woman.
Leo Pinsker wrote, twenty years later, We need nothing but a large piece of land for our poor brothers, a piece of land which shall remain our property, from which no foreign master can expel us. This was the idea behind the Uganda movement, which sought to acquire territory in East Africa for a Jewish land at a time when a return to Israel seemed unlikely.
Certainly, this approach of “Israel as Safe Haven” has an internal logic as well as a legitimate pedigree in modern Jewish and world history – but serious weaknesses undermine its meaning and application today.
First, what are we to make of a Jewish nation which so values its own survival that it will ride roughshod over the survival of other human beings in order to achieve it? If we desire Israel for the sake of our own security, do we not have a responsibility to help Palestinian Arabs find their security? Indeed, that was part of the president’s point of moral equivalence.
Second, in an age when millions of Jews feel comfortable and secure living outside of Israel, do we have the right to demand a homeland for our safety? Even if the world is not entirely safe for the Jew, we don’t see the Jews of North America or Australia expressing concern for their future!
And third, and most crucial for me today: Israel in the Torah was never meant to be a function of our enemies’ hatred; rather, Israel is supposed to be a positive expression of Judaism. It is the place where, as recorded in the Torah, our ancestors walked. It is the place where, according to the gemara, we can achieve purification from our sins. It is the place where, as Ramban noted, our mitzvot are real. It is the place where, as Rav Kook wrote, the Jewish heart can connect to Gd.
Indeed, in our own parshah, this is what the Nazir fails to understand regarding the Torah itself.
The nazir vows to abstain - for a period of time or indefinitely – from drinking intoxicating beverages, from contact with impurity, and from cutting his hair. These abstentions guarantee one thing: The Nazir will withdraw from society. He will drink with no one, he will mix with no one lest they contaminate him, he will grow his hair until it is long and tangled and dirty; he will become a hermit.
The gemara paints nezirut as a safety option taken by a Jew who feels that he is out of control, threatened by his own desires, but the gemara goes on to argue that this is not the purpose of Judaism and its Torah. The Torah labels nezirut a חטא, a sin; the Torah and its mitzvot are not about escaping this world for a spiritual place of our own, they are about developing and growing into model human beings.
And the same is true for Israel. Our homeland is not a mousehole to which the Jew can run and hide from the big bad Nazi. Israel is a place for the Jew to be a Jew.
But there’s a catch. If we really disagree with the President and believe what I just said, if we really believe that Israel is not only about safety but rather about creating a place where a Jew can live and develop as a Jew, if we buy the arguments of Tanach and the gemara and the Kuzari and so on, then we should all be rushing to live there, now.
Were Israel only a mousehole for protection, we could stay out of the mousehole until the cat came along. But if Israel is truly a religious imperative, then why aren’t we there, now? I don’t speak of those who have medical or financial or family reasons and the like for remaining in galut, but for the rest of us, is there any question as to where we belong?
The president’s speech should not be a simple opportunity for politicking; rather, it should be a challenge to us, all of us, a chance for us to think. If we don’t accept his narrative, if we do not view Israel as the nazir views Judaism, as an escape hatch, then let us ask ourselves what narrative we do accept, and put it into practice.
1. Before you ask, "What about you, Torczyner?" know that I am in one of the categories mentioned above.
2. You can find the president's remarks here. Pinsker (Auto-Emancipation) and Hess (Rome and Jerusalem) are excerpted in Herzberg's excellent The Zionist Idea.
3. Re: Nazir - I presented the midrashic rationale for nazir, but I wonder about another type of nazir, someone who chooses nezirut as a way to fuel passion and direct intensity, as might arguably be observed in Shimshon, Shemuel and Avshalom.