Rachel Gottlieb

Israel at War: Unconditional

Israel aglow at the golden hour, October 17, 2023 (Photocredits: Author)

I have a confession. This probably won’t come as a surprise to you. I’m in love.

There. I said it.

The truth is, though, I’ve been saying it. I’ve been saying it for the last three weeks. Actually, scratch that: I’ve been saying it for the last 18 years. Because I fell in love in the summer of 2005, and I haven’t looked back since then. And yes, I was a child then, but a child’s love can grow and mature and age like fine wine, and I’d like to think that if you cracked open this bottle, you would be duly impressed.

I speak, of course, of my love for Israel.

I’ve been trying to figure out, over the last three and a half weeks now, what it is about Israel that makes me love her so much, because I’ve been asked that. Repeatedly. Not in those exact words, but I’ve gotten questions along those lines. Questions like, “How do you get to the point of just always wanting to be there, even in times of war?” or the very tone-deaf, “Why did you stay?” (And yes, I did get asked, “When are you coming home?” before I very, very quickly shut that down.) The thread that weaves its way through all of those questions, and all the questions along those lines, is the question of what is it about Israel that pulls me with a siren call so strong that I feel torn in half because I had to leave? And I’m trying to find an answer, but it’s difficult—very, very difficult—to define emotion with logic and reason. It’s challenging to explain love. But it’s worth a shot.

The first thing I must do, before I address anything else, is stop and thank my parents for instilling within me that love for Israel. I know that I have a distinct advantage in the fact that I was raised this way. It’s in my blood, going back generations. My father was studying in Israel during the Gulf War, and he was one of the Americans in his program who was very outspoken towards the other Americans that they cannot leave. My grandmother recently made aliyah, actualizing her 60-year old dream. Almost my entire extended family lives in Israel, including, by the way, one aunt who made aliyah in 2002, during the Second Intifada, because when Israel is in trouble, you run to her, you don’t run away from her. My great-grandmother was extremely active in the קרן קיימת לישראל, the Jewish National Fund, back in the 1920s, when she lived in Poland and the State was still just a dream (and I have no idea what she did, but we have documentation of her very active involvement). So it’s in my blood. I know this.

But it’s one thing to be endowed with genetic material. It’s another to actualize it. For me, that actualization began in the summer of 2005, when my parents took us for a month to visit Israel. We children had never been there, and it was high time. That summer, if you’re old enough to remember, was also the summer of the disengagement from Gush Katif (look where that got us). So there was a lot of orange plastered all over Israel that summer, accompanying the blue and white that is the mainstay there. (I have no idea why orange was the color of protest. I just realized that. Just one of those things that you absorb as a child and don’t think twice about.) And in the weeks leading up to the disengagement, there were rallies and protests and marches, because Israel knew, in its heart of hearts, that this was a terrible plan. Now, I can’t say that I really got what was going on. I was a child. But my parents took us to Netivot, where we joined together with our brothers and sisters to march in protest of this disengagement that we didn’t really understand because we were children but we still knew in our bones was wrong because this land is ours, and sometimes children have the clarity that adults do not.

Although I didn’t really understand it at the time, that march, that protest, that summer, and our participation in the pain of the Jewish people and the land of Israel, affected me. Deeply. It became the seeds of young adoration that germinated into full-bloom love. Because as the years went by, and I grew older, and I continued to visit Israel, what I ultimately developed was the conviction that Israel is where I belong. Israel is home. And every time I had to come back from Israel, I promised myself that I would make it back one day for good. You know, it’s funny: Last year (2022), I was in Israel for Sukkot, and I made friends with the salesman at a wine store that I went to a couple of times. (I have a tendency to make friends pretty much everywhere I go. It makes for quite the collection of stories.) On my last Friday there, I went to get wine for Shabbat and I told him that I was leaving Israel. So first he wanted to know if I was making yeridah, the Hebrew term to refer to citizens who move out of Israel. Then, when he got over his shock that I’m not Israeli and that I was just visiting, we got to talking about Israel, and he expressed how wherever he goes in the world, there’s nothing like the feeling of landing in Ben Gurion, because you land there, and you can breathe again because you’re home. I replied that that’s easy for him to say, because he is Israeli. He does live there. But the fact of the matter is, I feel the same way every time the plane touches down on the tarmac. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath, on guard, the way that you are when you aren’t in the comfort and safety of your own home, and then we land and I can breathe again in a way that I didn’t realize I was missing before.

None of that, though, explains what it is that I love about Israel herself. I know that. But I don’t know that I can really put it into words. I don’t know that I can properly capture and convey the depth of the emotion with words. Because words are limiting. And if I try to explain, I’ll miss something. Is it the food? Well yes, sure, I love Israeli food. But that doesn’t explain it. Is it the people? Honestly, I love the brashness and brusqueness of Israelis and how that doesn’t stand in the way of how they see each other—us—as one solitary unit, a family. But that doesn’t explain it. Is it the topography? I mean, as someone who lives to be outside, I can never get enough of Israel’s breathtaking beauty and the way she has everything within her small borders. But that doesn’t explain it.

It’s all of this, and more. It is the city of Tel Aviv that barely existed a century ago as more than a couple of buildings in a sandy desert and is now a thriving metropolis that is marked by innovation. It is the city of Jerusalem that has the sound of construction as its underlying soundtrack because it is perpetually growing, except for when it falls silent and still and serene as it takes in and honors Shabbat. It is the smalls pools of water that you find on hikes in the desert that attest to life even in the most barren of places. It is the buses that wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom every week, because as a culture we are linked to a thousands-year-old unbroken chain. It is, yes, the mustaches on the faces of our reservists who have put their lives on hold as they stand up to defend and protect our people and our land, attesting to the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people. It is the thriving agricultural industry in a land that lay barren for the better part of 2,000 years, because we refused to accept the idea that Israel is not fruitful and beautiful.

It’s all of this, and more.

And I grant you: Israel is cantankerous. It gets brutally hot there in the summer. The winter rains can be miserable. And don’t get me started on the price of gas. But Israel is not earned because she is easy. Israel is not won without pain. But she is worth the price. Because she is ours. For all of her faults and flaws, for all of her drawbacks, the line that I keep coming back to is the simple phrase, “אין לי ארץ אחרת, I have no other land.” (It’s become my catchphrase now to the point that when one of my soldiers offered to me to write a message on a grenade, I asked him to write that. And he did. And I hope he put it to good use. I’ll find out. Eventually.)

I raise all of this now, and I try to work through the emotion of it now, because the impression that I’m getting here in the States from too many people is that they are getting very caught up in the details, that their love for Israel is conditional.
“I mean in theory I love it, but I’ve never really been there so how can I really know.”
“Of course it’s our land, but Mashiach [the Messiah] isn’t here yet.”
“What do you mean, how could I not love Israel? But I wouldn’t really want to live there.”
“I love it, but.”
I cannot say this clearly enough: If your love for Israel is accompanied by a qualifier, then you are part of the problem. To say that you haven’t been there yet so how can you know? I’m sorry, that’s no longer an acceptable excuse. It never should have been. But especially now, in the wake of what happened. And you want to go back and forth with me on the validity of the State? Not a problem. Trust me. I know the Messiah isn’t here yet. I know it in the near-1,500 of our brothers and sisters who were slaughtered. I know it in the now-239 of our brothers and sisters and grandparents and children who were taken captive by those who I don’t even want to call barbarians because I think even barbarians are better than that. I know it in the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were pulled unceremoniously from their lives on that awful, awful day but they did it anyway because that is what the Jewish people and the State of Israel asked of them. Believe me. I know it.

But that doesn’t give us license to qualify. Things do not have to be perfect for us to love Israel, and our love for her should be unconditional. And before you argue with me, I invite you to open up the book of Numbers to chapter 13, verse 28. It’s a story that many of us know well. The Jewish people were on the threshold of entering the land of Israel when they sent scouts ahead of them just to check it out. And those scouts came back. And do you know what they said?

“The land is great. But.”

Their entire report shifted because of that qualifier. Imagine if, instead of saying, “The land is great, but,” they would instead have said, “The land is great, and.”
And the inhabitants are strong.
And the cities are fortified.
And it’s going to take work on our part.
Changing that one word, from the qualifier, “but,” to the simple, “and,” changes the entire tone and tenor of the report. It makes possible the impossible. It turns fear into hope. It turns hesitation into resolve. It turns weakness into strength.

But. They didn’t. They settled into their fear. They settled into their hesitation. They settled into that one disastrous word for which we are still, thousands of years later, paying the price.

Our job now, as we are still reeling from the horrors of October 7, as our hearts are still grieving and as we still don’t know what to do with ourselves, is to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if our love is conditional. And I know that I speak more to the Diaspora right now than I do to Israelis, but I think it’s important that we all stop and ask ourselves if that love is conditional. And then we need to check ourselves. We need to change our language.
“I haven’t been to Israel yet, and it is, therefore, incumbent on me right now to develop a personal connection to the land without having ever been there.”
“I love the land and the Mashiach still isn’t here which means we still have a ways to go and I will accept her with all of her faults and flaws.”
“How could I not love Israel? And although I’m not ready to live there yet, I’m working on myself to get to that point, because where else is does a Jew belong?”

Conditional love is no longer good enough. It never was, honestly, but certainly not now. Not anymore. And that doesn’t mean we should be blind to her flaws. But we can love her anyway. Because when you love, when you truly, truly love, you accept the other party as a package deal.

So I will take Israel for what she is. And I will take the next steps in our relationship, because, let me tell you, long-distance relationships are the absolute worst, and I am ready to do what it takes to make my dream a reality. Because I love Israel. Unconditionally.

What about you?

Please continue to pray for us, and for the following soldiers, especially:
עזרא צבי יוסף בן אריאלה פנינה
יעקב זכריה בן אריאלה פנינה
אליהו סִינַי בן ביילא רבקה
נַתַּן בן דבורה אסתר
דוד אלכסנדר בן דבורה אסתר
אלכסנדר בן שרה אלישבע
ראובן אליעזר בן אביגיל אסתר
בועז כָּלֵב בן יפָה מרים
יצחק אייזיק בן פריידא
אהרן בן רחל ברכה
חובב בן דבורה אסתר
שמחה בן הינדא ברכה

כי ה׳ אלקיכם ההולך עמכם להלחם לכם עם אויביכם להושיע אתכם. ה׳ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם

About the Author
As a combination logophile and Israel-o-phile, Rachel's fingers itch whenever something needs to be shared about Israel, particularly as it relates to the Diaspora. Her credentials include a Master's in English and many years experience as a high-school English teacher, which covers the writing part, and being a card-carrying member of the Jewish nation, which covers the Israel part. Although she currently resides in Suffern, NY, her heart has long since been stolen by Israel herself, and her mind is constantly preoccupied with the capital of the Jewish people.
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