When I discuss with my college friends my fascination with and adulation for the young men and women of the IDF, or when I merely espouse my love of Israel and they see the passion in my eyes as I discuss the Jewish state, they are perplexed. It is an ignorance not born of anti-semitism, prejudice, or anything of the like; it is simply an inability to understand the inherent, natural connection between the Jewish people and the state of Israel. It leads to awkward conversations as I try to explain why I’m so passionate about the Jewish people and the Jewish nation.
Aside from America, we have been intensely persecuted in every foreign land we have ever resided. Since our exile and subsequent Diaspora 2,000 years ago from Eretz Israel, we have been persecuted, murdered and ghettoized in every corner of the Earth we have wandered into. We have been made to feel like outsiders no matter how high we have risen in a given country’s political or military establishment; as the 1888 Alfred Dreyfus verdict revealed, no Jew, no matter his prestige, is beyond reproach. Every Jew knows that Anti-Semitism is an incurable illness of mankind; it may waver in its intensity and manifestations, but it is always present. Even in America, the greatest country in the world, and a place where the previous statements are wholly inaccurate, there can exist a subtle tendency towards Anti-Semitism. It may be hard to see and rarely come out, but when controversy sparks and there are people to be blamed, there is always that penchant for treating Jews as ‘the other’ (look up which neo-conservatives are to “blame” for Iraq). It is, at this point, part of human nature.
Understanding the connections between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people as a nation-faith is paramount in this conversation. The Jewish people are the only people in the world that are based dually on religion and nationhood. It is precisely because “the seminal moments in Judaism (the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai) established us as both a nation and a religion” that we have been able to persevere through 2,000 years of hardship in the diaspora and remain essentially unchanged. This history established the Jewish people as a nation; a distinct people in the world. Long before there was a Russian, French or British nation there was a proud Jewish nation, one that has never wavered despite not having the seemingly prerequisite state for centuries. This is not a small point. Generation after generation of Jews in the Diaspora kept their faith despite pogroms, dhimmitude, slavery, and inquisitions. They remained committed to the land of Israel and to the traditions and customs that have allowed our people to remain together no matter how geographically divided we were. How easy would it have been for Judaism as a religion to die out and for the Jewish people to gradually do away with all of the traditions that alienated them from every society they were part of. It is because Jews are bound to each other by more than just the bible or the word of God that our story continues; it is our common historical narrative, our peoplehood, so to speak, that has allowed us to endure.
This is what kept the Jewish people alive in the Diaspora, and this is how our ancestors were able to outlive all of the mighty empires (Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, German, British, Soviet Union) that sought to destroy us. The fact that the mightiest and most ruthless empires of history have all tried to annihilate our people, not just physically, but existentially, and that we have outlasted each of them is an astounding feat of perseverance, and one that truly defies the rest of history. Mark Twain once reflected, “The Egyptian, babylonian, and Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then…passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts…All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret to his immortality.” Medieval kings used to point to the continued existence of the Jewish people as evidence of a GOD: in effect, proclaiming, How is it possible that this tiny nation continuse to exist even as the world conspires to wipe them out? All of this makes me proud of our people in a way I can’t fully articulate and eager and determined to keep our story alive for posterity.
This “peoplehood” is what allows me, a secular Hebrew-school dropout to feel so connected to Judaism: It is my people, not my faith, that dictates my Judaism. Throughout our history, it has not mattered whether Jews were observant or reformed, or even identified as Jews at all; when the Gestapo of every generation inevitably came looking to hunt us down, we were all one and the same. Even for our enemies, it seems, It is impossible to separate this peoplehood from religion. Understanding that my ancient ancestors celebrated the same holidays, told the same stories, and had the same customs that my family still adhere to today makes me proud of these traditions and the way our people have endured against all of the odds throughout our history. This understanding has allowed me, in recent years, to relish Jewish holidays and enjoy all of the (sometimes irritating) customs and and traditions unique to our people. It is the Jewish people that have allowed Judaism to remain relevant and to prosper, and it is the Jewish nation state of Israel today that allows Jews everywhere in the world to know that they are safe and protected should any country in the world once again reveals their ugly prejudices, as they have through millennia, and as they will in the future.
Prime Minister Golda Meir, on the first days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel suffered the worst humiliation in its history, and when there was talk of the Jewish state being physically annihilated, spoke to her soldiers in the field. One soldier asked her if having a Jewish state was worth all of Israel’s sacrifices. This particular soldier had lost his father, his brother, and his best friend defending the state of Israel from its implacable enemies. Golda replied, “I weep for your loss, just as I grieve for all of our dead. I lie awake at night thinking of them. And I must tell you in all honesty, were our sacrifices for ourselves alone, then perhaps you would be right; I’m not at all sure they would be worthwhile. But if our sacrifices are for the sake of the whole Jewish people, then I believe with all my heart that any price is worthwhile.” She then spoke of how she had visited the Great Moscow Synagogue during the 1950’s; “Stalin had proclaimed war against Judaism. He declared Zionism a crime. Hebrew was banned. Torah study was banned. One was sent to the gulag or to Siberia for far less.” And yet, when she went to the synagogue to pray she saw 50,000 Jews emerge from the depths of their banished existence to show their resolute Jewish faith and their love for the state of Israel. She points to this moment as when she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that all of the devastation and sacrifice of the Israeli people were necessary “I thank you for remaining Jews,” and they responded, “We thank the state of Israel.”
Modesty notwithstanding, I feel the same way as Golda Meir did. I cannot separate the Jewish faith from the Jewish nation because neither would have been able to sustain itself without the other. Millions of our people have been killed throughout the generations, simply for being born Jews, because we were unable to live as a nation in our homeland. If the state of Israel had come about a century earlier, or if the Romans had never removed us from our homeland two thousand years ago, there could never have been inquisitions, massacres, and Holocausts. To the late great Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel was a Jewish safe haven, and indeed, a continuation and reflection of 2,000 years of Jewish history. “When a Jew anywhere is threatened, or under attack do all in your power to come to his aid. Never pause to consider what the world will think or say. The world will never pity slaughtered Jews. The world may not like the fighting Jew, but the world will have to take account of him.” This is what modern Israel has done for the Jewish people; we are no longer the defenseless, weak, Jews of exile. The Jewish state is the embodiment of the fighting Jew; free, strong, and in command of their destiny. As Yossi Klein Halevi has remarked, Israel’s greatest feat is in ensuring that the defining image of the Jew in the 20th century is not the beat-down, depraved Jew of Auschwitz, but the strong, determined, and independent Jew of the Israeli Army marching into liberated Jerusalem. Think for a moment of how such a change in history effected such a momentous and fundamental change in the psyche of every Jew alive, whether consciously or not.
True, the state of Israel has not remedied the question of anti-Semitism in the way that Theodore Hertzl and the founding Zionists intended: Israel is treated by the other nations of the world in the same way that individual Jews have been treated by their respective countries throughout history. But still, there is a supreme difference in fighting for one’s people and homeland versus fighting merely for your right to exist as a human being at all. Even further, even if the collective attitude of the world towards the Jews haven’t changed, we, the Jews, have. With the establishment of Israel, the Jews would never again suffer whatever undue harrassment the world decided to inflict upon them in a sweeping moment of rage. Every Jew knows, and indeed the world at large understands, that Israel will lash out ferociously and without hesitancy or mercy at any enemy that threatens the Jewish people with annihilation once again. We have been down that road too many times. Never again. Prime Minister Begin liked to point out that the Israeli is not a brand-new creature divorced from the whole of Jewish history; rather the existence of the nation-state of Israel is a return to our former consciousness, before the attacks, degradation, and alienation, when we lived righteously as a strong and equal nation in our homeland. Israel is the return to our ancestral homeland but with the added power that, after 2,000 years in the diaspora, we know what happens to Jews without a state of Israel.
While we, American Jews, truly have nothing to fear, we cannot say the same for our brothers and sisters around the world. The recent shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the 2012 shooting at a Jewish school in Tolousse, the torturing and killing of IIllan Halimi in Paris in 2006 and the seemingly endless number of violent attacks against Jews by Europe’s growing radical Muslim community in indicative of how bleak the Jewish future in Europe truly is. Jews are migrating from Europe in numbers unseen since the era preceding the Holocaust; in 20 years Jews will make up a negligible percentage of Europeans. Most police forces in major European cities advise Jews not to wear yarmulkes or to speak Hebrew in public so as to not incite violence, because apparently being visibly Jewish is to warrant an attack. Swastikas can be seen on Jewish tombstones and store fronts throughout Europe, Jews and those that support Israel are compared to Nazis, and apparently Tel Aviv’s basketball team winning the EuroLeague championship is cause for roughly 18,000 tweets from Spain, proclaiming “Death to the Jews” and “Go back to the Gas chambers”. The recent rise in popularity of Neo-Nazi political parties, the reemergence of traditional European Anti-semetism and the transporting of Islamic Anti-semetism from the Middle East to Europe means that Europe’s Jewish problem is only going to get worse in the coming years.
Anti-semitism In the Arab world is even worse,. With the creation of the state of Israel, Jews were ethnically cleansed from all Muslim Arab countries, this coming after 1400 years of systematic discrimination and being treated as third class citizens. The PLO, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran (to name but a few of our enemies) use Israelis and Jews interchangeably in defining whom they aspire to kill; they sometimes forget to emphasize the imaginary distinction that gives Anti-Semites in the west moral cover. Indeed their religious sermons, media shows, and school textbooks discuss not just “Israelis” and “Zionists” but rather all Jews worldwide as the enemy that Allah must relinquish. There is but one nation in the world that will watch over Jews in any corner of the world and protect them from those that seek our destruction.
We should further take heed of the message of Entebbe 1976, in which a German Nazi and a Palestinian terrorist hijacked a plane heading to Israel from France and allowed all of the non-Jews to leave and held all the Jews hostage. After the Israelis rescued the hostages in a daring and unprecedented mission that solidified the notion that Israel would never let Jews be helplessly devastated again, Cabinet Member Begin declared, “And we asked ourselves, God Almighty, hardly 30 years after the Auschwitz crematoria, that cemetery without end, with the image of Dr. Mengele still fresh in our minds, standing there among the rows of Jews- pointing his finger, ‘to the right: to death; to the left: to life.’ And there was no one to save them. Well now there is. Now we declare for all to hear: Never again! We are but a small nation, but after all that has befallen our nation throughout the generations…we declare that if there be anyone anywhere who is persecuted or humiliated or threatened or abducted simply because he is a Jew, then let the whole world know that we Israel, the Jewish State, shall marshal our strength to come to their aid and bring them to the safe haven of our homeland.”
It is important that we honor our ancestors that made immeasurable sacrifices to keep the Jewish tradition alive. Supporting the men and women of Israel that currently defend the Jewish people’s right to live free and secure in any country on Earth is the perfect way to remember our past and ensure the sanctity of our future.
Sources: https://waww.youtube.com/watch?v=A_LFf6_I39o#t=147 http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3905/europe-moral-values http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/12605#.U46G5s3aZJo
All Quotes and Stories not cited are from Yehuda Avner’s book, “The Prime MInisters.”