Borders, Nations and States: Wisdom from Amos Oz

It is, as we look at the calendar most of us use, a new year. Welcome to 2019 CE.

But other than marking the circling of the sun, is one day really any different than the one before? This marker, this boundary, is it really real?  Isn’t it all imaginary, something we just made up in our minds?

View of Magens Bay, and out into the Atlantic, from Northside, St. Thomas, USVI

As I sit on the veranda of my home in St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, I look down at the news, and am distressed.  But I look up, to behold one of the most beautiful views in the world.  And there, out there, somewhere in the water, just past the uninhabited Hans Lollik Island, just before Great and Little Tobago, before you get to the world-famous bars on Jost Van Dyke (inventor of the Pain Killer!), somewhere out there is an invisible international boundary.  Somewhere in the water you pass from the United States to the United Kingdom.  But where?   Hard to say, and impossible to see.

Boundaries and borders, labels and limits. To many of our young people in liberal and progressive settings, all of these things are made up. There is no such thing as race; racial differences are superficial and more a social construct than an inherent reality. (Biologically that is essentially correct, by the way.) Gender, too, is more a frame of mind than a matter of body. Um… harder to prove, but things are certainly more… nuanced and complicated here than we once thought.

Don’t believe me about all of this?  Spend an hour an almost any college campus today.

Nations and countries?  If race is not real and gender barely genetic, what is a line on a map?  A figment of imagination, a fantasy of limited minds.

We are, of course, deeply immersed in a high-stake conversation about borders and boundaries in the United States at the moment.  And, as I said, that question is relevant where I live, and how and where we float into Her Majesty’s domain.

But as I raise the limits of lines and the concept of countries, I am looking not only close to “home,” but also somewhere else.  All of this has implications for the purpose, definition, destiny and fate of one small country on a Mediterranean shore, far from here but close to many Jewish hearts.

The challenges are real, the questions hard and sometimes even sincere.

  • How can we defend a state with a special connection with one people, when everyone should be equal? Never mind that every European state and many others have a special status for the culture and claims of the ethnic-national majority who live there.
  • How can we support a state which favors one flavor of religion over another? Although theoretically, Israel is the Jewish homeland in the sense of Jews as a people, not a religion — and never mind that there are dozens of countries in the world which favor one flavor of Christianity, and dozens more which give official status to Islam.

Into all this, enter the passing, this past week, of Israeli author Amos Oz.

Amos Oz was a tremendous figure, an amazing writer and a man of depth, sincerity and integrity.  For now, I am drawn to several paragraphs he wrote in 1982 on the concept of a country, of patriotism, nationalism and the associated instruments of state:

“This is the place to make my first shocking confession — others will follow. I think that    the nation-state is a tool, an instrument, that is necessary for a return to Zion, but I am not enamored of this instrument. The idea of the nation-state is, in my eyes, “goyim naches” – a gentiles’ delight. I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all cross-pollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flag, no emblem, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.  But the Jewish people has already staged a long-running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for two thousand years, the model of a civilization without the “tools of statehood.” For me this drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler. And I am forced to take it upon myself to play the “game of nations,” with all the tools of statehood, even though it causes me to feel (as George Steiner) like an old man in a kindergarten. To play the game with an emblem, and a flag and a passport and an army, and even war, provided that such war is an absolute existential necessity. I accept those rules of the game because existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger, but I accept them only up to this point. To take pride in these tools of statehood? To worship these toys? To crow about them? Not I. If we must maintain these tools, including the instruments of death, it must be not only with glee but with wisdom as well.”

Many people, of course, don’t have such hesitation.  And Amos Oz acknowledges that these tools do involve, well, glee.  Pride in service.  The swelled heart at a communal accomplishment.  Flags.  Sacrifice and devotion, loyalty and love.

And I am either old or old-fashioned enough that I do see positive value in such distinctions as well.  In some ways, the lines we draw — sometimes — can be a source of  not just “glee,” but also “good.”  Sometimes.

But these are, Amos Oz insisted, tools.  They are all instrumental.  Not the goal itself.

To the internationalists among us, to those of any age who question everything, who recoil at labels and rebel at limits this is, I think, a very good response.

At the very least, having some sympathy with the questions our young people are asking… these paragraphs from a sensitive soul… this is a response which works for me.

About the Author
Michael L. Feshbach serves as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands -- the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He also was, most recently, Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had previously served congregations in Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania and Boca Raton, Florida. While in Erie, Rabbi Feshbach taught at Allegheny College and served as the summer rabbi for the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, New York. Rabbi Feshbach is the author of several articles and book chapters. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, he attended Haverford College and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1989. He is married to Julie Novick. They live in St. Thomas, and have three children: Benjamin, Daniel and Talia.