I always find it moving that during the last days of the fall holiday season, Jews throughout the world begin praying for rain. It doesn’t matter what the climate in any region might be; it doesn’t matter that I much prefer sunshine in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I live, to dark rainy days. I pray for rain along with Jews everywhere, because this is the time of year when rain is most needed in the Land of Israel. In tradition, that land is the Jewish homeland, no matter where one lives, and Jews everywhere need to take responsibility for its well-being, including praying for rain.
These days, however, dubbing Israel the Jewish homeland feels almost anachronistic. Practically every day, books, articles, social media posts and the like emphasize the divide between Israel and the diaspora. Again and again we hear how Jews in Israel and America are pulling apart from each other, with American Jews bemoaning the rightward tilt of Israeli politics and Israeli Jews bemoaning the high intermarriage and assimilation rates among American Jews. Like an iceberg cracked down the middle, American and Israeli Jews would appear to be floating toward different destinations.
To be sure, serious disagreements do exist, and they became exacerbated in recent years under the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, with its far-right religious coalition. Nevertheless, as Israel grapples with forming a new government, perhaps it’s time to step back, take a deep breath and contemplate what that country has accomplished and how, despite difficulties, it remains central to our lives as Jews, continually worthy of our support and loyalty.
Back in 1920, Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, moved to British mandatory Palestine. In a letter to her sister Adele, she wrote about the “bundle of problems” there, foremost among them the “hundreds and hundreds of immigrants” who had arrived after World War I. And she wondered how there would ever be “a synthesis” of the Jews streaming into Palestine “from everywhere.” Some 30 years later, Golda Meir, then Israel’s Labor minister, struggled to integrate the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the world flowing into the country after World War II. Today, although tensions still exist among various groups, to a great extent, the synthesis of different nationalities Szold hoped for has happened. With each new wave of immigrants, Jews of disparate backgrounds, education and cultures have been melded into a single nation, speaking the Hebrew language and sharing values and practices.
Tiny Israel’s absorption of so many immigrants, remarkable in itself, is one of the threads that tie it to Jews in America, also a nation of immigrants. Another key link is Israel’s democracy — a statement that protesters on college campuses and other places would hasten to dispute. What about the occupation, they would cry, and the unequal treatment of Israeli Arabs? Undoubtedly those are ongoing and draining problems. But flaws and all, Israel boasts a vibrant democracy, certainly unlike any in the Middle East. I sometimes think that someone unfamiliar with the country who reads the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper for the first time might think it was written by Israel’s enemies. Its columnists and editorial board do not hesitate to lash into the nation’s leaders when they deem it necessary, letting no one off the hook, no matter how powerful that person. Yet, skip reading Haaretz or other Israeli newspapers and you miss understanding the soul of a nation that cares profoundly about its own behavior and its place in the world at large. And while Israel’s relations with its Arab population is a pressing issue, consider the fact that the Joint List, an alliance of Arab political parties, is the third largest party in the Knesset, and will surely one day be part of a coalition government.
Then there is the matter of anti-Semitism. Its rise in France, Germany, and other countries has been distressing, but not unpredictable; that sickness never really left the European psyche. Its rise in America, including the slaughter in Pittsburgh last year, has been shocking. American Jews are not about to move en masse to Israel. But for them, as for Jews everywhere, the very existence of the state is a statement of strength and protection. Whatever our disagreements, it says, we are part of the same people.
In her letter to her sister, after complaining about the many problems confronting her, Henrietta Szold described “the glory of these days before the rainy season.” She had supper, she wrote, “on our little terrace overlooking our garden of olive trees, oranges, lemons, nuts and almonds. And we ate by the light of the moon.”
Wherever we live, we pray for seasonal rains in the Land of Israel so that the earth might bloom and the country flourish, a homeland for Jews everywhere.