We were back in South Africa after 15 years and we were psyched. But instead of a lazy Sunday drive our open-air jeep was speeding over a dirt road out of the Kruger Park. Wind splayed the girls’ hair into manes while our rear-ends sprang up with each bump in imitation of the skittish impala. Elvis, our intrepid guide, had plainly told us he was determined to make it back in time for his ZCC Church gathering. Though it was a hurried and premature ending to the day, our smiles, like elephants, remained glued to our faces. We’d had an exhilarating seven hours of game viewing.
We had got chatting during our safari and he thought that coming from Israel – where he suspected we lived like the Israelites of biblical times — we would understand and even respect his position.
As we said our goodbyes I was taken aback at the vigor of Elvis’s farewell embrace. First me, then my wife, were treated to the bone-crushing hug of an anaconda. Anaconda are not indigenous to these parts. Our tip was generous but not excessive. How to account for his effusiveness?
Two weeks later, Emanuel, the server at a small Gelateria in Boulders beach Cape Town, allowed all four of the kids to take unfair advantage of the taste-before-you-buy policy. As he lavished dollops of ice cream upon teaspoon after teaspoon, he shared the Hebrew meaning of his name and his desire to one day make it to Jerusalem. Emanuel was incredulous when my son Gilad told him that he had been there many times.
Gillad, 15, is indeed privileged to visit Jerusalem as often as he likes – we immigrated to Israel from South Africa a year before he was born. Though we have friends, Facebook, and a wide expat community that maintains active ties, it’s almost as long since we’ve visited South Africa. From that sort of distance, it’s hard to see beyond the picture postcard beauty, to avoid a creeping cynicism at the underperforming currency and corruption, or not to cry or laugh at anything but Trevor Noah and Jacob Zuma. Or even to tell the difference between the two.
When you get closer in you see, as expected, that poverty is still rampant and frustrating. What catches you unawares is the frustration with which it is expressed. It has a different tone. Daily interactions are still respectful, but familiar not servile. It’s only when you’re there and you get to meet the Elvises and Emanuelles that you realise what you’re missing – the emerging personality of a people moving toward self-determination.
Parallels with Israel and the Jewish personality are obvious. The founding of Israel gave rise to the Sabra — the Israeli born or Zionist Jew. A lot can be said about this animal, and already has been, but you could not mistake this person for the Diaspora Jew, the ghetto, court, sycophantic, self-hating or other stereotypical Jew spawned when the nation was a stateless one. Even Jews who conform to these depictions are swept along in the current of renewed self appraisal that comes from having a home.
Self-determination theory says that to grow fully people need: competence – the need to control the outcome, relatedness – the need to interact, and autonomy – the need to be a causal agent of one’s own life. In the case of an individual personality this is a life-long project. In the case of a national one with a challenging legacy it can take generations.
To be sure, the Sabra as a personality-in-the-making often gets it wrong. But there are many beautiful instances, be it in technological innovation or volunteer work, where he gets controlling and connecting spot on.
Regarding autonomy, one of Israel’s many detractors last week lamented the establishment of the State of Israel as a tragedy, arguing that the West should have absorbed Europe’s Jews, Africa and Asia’s ones should have remained in position. But the Jew is a pale imitation of his greater self without this autonomy. It is this autonomy which underwrites our opportunity to re-imagine and grow into our optimal selves. It is the freedom of Elvis’s Biblical Israelites and Emanuel’s Jerusalem of Gold.
This is our first Pesach since making Aliyah not spent in Israel. For the first time an an Israeli, I was compelled to let go of my smug sense of having literally arrived in the Promised land; to consider the journey from Egypt to a land flowing with Milk and Honey metaphorically. Being back to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut feels sensational because it is never a given. The intense sequence — Yom Hashoah to remember the Holocaust victims, Yom Hazikaron for the fallen soldiers, and the culmination — our independence, was actually lived out by the founders of the state over a few years: dodging the ovens of Auschwitz and the bullets of our Arab neighbours to proclaim the State of Israel.
Being in South Africa and returning to Israel helped me understand that as for the new South Africans, so too for us. On this our 68th day of Independence, it is the paunchy middle-aged men honing their barbecue skills, the fighter pilots celebrating dominion over our skies, and the children playing in parks that is the enduring pledge to our future. We are treading, and inevitably stumbling, along this path to our greater selves. It is the journey, the right to hope to be a free people in our land, that Is our precious duty to defend. Chag Sameach