Solly Kaplinski

G-d’s country?

G-d’s country?

I really didn’t want to go. I felt I couldn’t leave Israel during these times especially with 3  grandchildren in the army, but my brother, Benny, was celebrating his 70th birthday and with my late mom z’’l, Sima’s words ringing in my ears about how important family is, I made the visit to Sydney, Australia, more than hours door to door! How could I not be with him? He had also celebrated my 75th birthday with me in Israel!

I had in fact been to Australia several times during the course of my work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Charles Jordan, JDC representative and later, JDC Executive Vice President, during his visit to Australia in August / September 1947 to scout out places of refuge for Shoah survivors remarked:

“They call this: God’s country, and right they are. It has about the same climatic conditions as California, and there is an attractive blend of old and new architecture and landscaping, each community striving to outdo the other in developing its environs, parks, and playgrounds. As I watch these happy people here enjoying the benefits of truly civilized living, I see before me the faces of those for whom we care and knowing as I do of the migrant need of this country for an increase in population, I wonder how many of them who need it most will find their way to this heaven”.

In fact, JDC helped almost 20,000 Holocaust survivors reach and settle in Australia post the Shoah years. Coming to G-d’s country with nothing but the clothes on their back, the survivors laid the framework and foundation for building the local Jewish population into one of the most successful, thriving  Jewish communities in the world in terms of health, education, welfare, philanthropy –  and a strong identification with and an almost an unrivalled support for Israel, which continues unabated – to this day. They also contributed massively to the success of Australia as a whole.

And I thought about “G-d’s country’’ in Sydney as I did my early morning brisk walks and swims and marveled at the sight of Bondi beach and its magnificent promenade – a haven of hustle and bustle, people of all ages, shapes and sizes, worshipping their bodies, the sun god – and the pint, a truly seductive lifestyle, with people swimming in the surf from before 6.00 a.m. till way past twilight, people of all ages involved in  exercising and priming their bodies, and youngsters on the beach engaged in life saving activities and games. The nippers as they are called learn beach safety and awareness skills, in a fun and healthy environment. A paradise.

Benny lives a  mere 25-minute walk from Coogee, perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches in the world – besides Muizenberg in Cape Town! We swam there several times and on the last occasion, we were lazily drying off when Benny asked me – I guess out of concern, whether given what’s happening in Israel, I would ever consider leaving and coming to live in Australia. I must admit I was momentarily thrown off balance by his question. I had never thought about this possibility even for a moment during our 25 years in Israel – except perhaps fleetingly, during the judicial reform chaos envisaging an out-of-control government with no judicial restraints. I had a flashback to a visit I had made to Israel back in the 90’s to interview prospective Hebrew and Jewish Studies teachers for Herzlia High School in Cape Town, when buses, restaurants and night clubs were blown up in Jerusalem – and all over Israel, with a huge number of fatalities. I was travelling on a bus with my daughter Tali who had made Aliyah on the day she matriculated from Herzlia  – and I asked her whether she wasn’t afraid to be in Israel. She turned to me and replied: “Dad, you see those mountains in the distance, the Judean desert? They belong to me – and I, I belong to them.”

And similarly, thinking about Benny’s out-of-left-field question, I responded to him saying: “Everything in Israel matters for me: from the trauma and the angst and the bereaved and the mourning – and the hostages, to the words in the last letter of a soldier who fell in battle: ‘I am going into this war knowing I might not be coming back, but I believe wholeheartedly in what I am doing. We have no other country, and now it is my turn to defend it, and fight the battle of all the civilians, soldiers, babies, elderly and women who were helpless in the face of Hamas’ brutality.. This is the way my parents raised me, this is what I believe in, I hope you will remember me’ – from the sheer joy and feelings of pride in our resilience, how when the chips are down, Israelis rally to the cause like no one else on this planet; how more than 100, 000 Israelis returned from their vacations abroad when the war broke out to serve in the IDF –  to all the bottom up initiatives that Israelis engage in to help our fellow citizens. I embrace all of this, the ‘bitter and the sweet’, and a life of genuine meaning and fulfilment, like never before. I own it, I wrap my arms around it. It all belongs to me – and I, I to it. Now more than ever.”

And then I thought of how Benny, out of fear, had removed the mezuzah off his front door, how we needed to speak sotto voce when people were around us. I wondered whether while on the beach, I should remove my Magen David , which I have not taken off in more than 60 years. I defiantly kept this precious symbol of my proud Jewish identity on!  I thought about the explosion of Jew – hatred in Australia that just about everyone I met in Sydney referenced – to the point of being fearful. I thought about the Greens political party sitting in the government, blatantly anti-Semitic, with rarely an official eyebrow being raised – and the Australian Foreign Minister who visited Israel and Ramallah but saw fit not to set foot in our still bloodied killing fields. And I thought about the normalization of antisemitism and the future for Jewish children – and grandchildren. Yes, Jewish diasporas have limited life spans as per our history – sometimes with devastating and tragic effects. And while Jews in these communities act as strong advocates and lobby groups for local Jewish needs and for Israel, I thought again about Australia, or for that matter, the country of my birth, South Africa, Canada, and Europe – and der goldene medina, America.

G-d’s country? I think not.

About the Author
Solly Kaplinski, a former Headmaster of Herzlia High School in Cape Town, also headed up Jewish Day Schools in Toronto and Vancouver. His Aliyah professionally has been bookended by working at Yad Vashem in the International Relations Department and at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) where he served for 17 years as the Executive Director of Overseas Joint Ventures. He is also the author of a novella, A world of Pains: A Redemptive Parable?