Arnold M. Eisen
Arnold M. Eisen
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Israel in the winter sun and cloud

He loves the Jewish state and cannot believe that political crisis will destroy all its physical and spiritual achievement

Israel’s prime minister was in Washington this week, seeking to enlist President Trump’s support for his vision and agenda. I recently traveled in the opposite direction, seeking to take a break from the draining anxiety and frenzied activity of the past few weeks by immersing myself in day-to-day Israeli life. I wanted to experience once more the Israel I first fell in love with as a student 40-plus years ago, and that I love still. It was not hard to summon affection for the country’s landscape, people, and culture, which for me have long been wrapped up in the lives of dear friends and trusted colleagues. I returned to America with a new set of glowing memories from encounters with people and projects of which we can all be proud, along with sadness at the Knesset’s passage of a highly controversial law that is justly earning the condemnation of Israelis, American Jews, and many foreign governments. The Israeli prime minister left Washington with much to be satisfied about — and much cause for concern.

Let me dwell first on the “normalcy” famously sought by Israel’s founders and in so many respects achieved, for visitors like me to rejoice in, as the state approaches its 70th birthday. It helped that I was met at the airport by a friend who drove me to breakfast at a verdant restaurant/garden center in the Jerusalem hills. The road we took up to the capital included a tunnel that had opened only weeks before, to great acclaim, but that, in the days I traveled it, seemed to make traffic worse than it had been before. Transportation projects have recently come to fruition all over Israel. My journey from Tel Aviv to Afula was fast and smooth, thanks to a new line from Haifa to Beit Shean. The taxi from Nazareth made it back to Jerusalem in only 75 minutes, thanks to the Route 6 super-highway. Progress in Israel means a constant struggle to keep pace with the ever-growing number of cars on the road, a result of steady growth in population and GDP. Those developments are all the more remarkable given the lack of progress toward peace with Palestinians, a state of chronic uncertainty that seems to have spurred Jewish Israelis to focus on internal matters, and improve what can be changed, while waiting for a break in the long political stalemate. One friend, intimately familiar with matters of state and security, put it this way: creative energies that at other times had been directed toward seeking resolution of the Palestinian conflict, and hopefully will be dedicated to that task again someday soon, are for the moment being channeled into initiatives that are making life in Israel better for all its inhabitants.

The sheer amount of idealism at work these days on all sides of the political spectrum is truly extraordinary. Israelis do not have the luxury of giving up on their country’s future. They live there, after all. The vast majority have no intention of leaving. Right or wrong, right or left, those I spoke to are a determined group: frustrated by the intransigence of the situation, sometimes angry at one side or the other or both for prolonging it, and immensely proud of Israeli’s accomplishments in the midst of it all. Whether because of denial or success, few despair.

One aspect of Israeli society is particularly encouraging to me: the flowering of Masorti Judaism, which I encountered on this visit from my first hours in Israel to my last. Friday evening, I attended services at Kehillat Zion, a congregation composed equally of Israelis from Ashkenazi and Mizrachi backgrounds, with music and prayers that reflect that diversity. “Zion” is blessed with children and adults of every age; a shaliach tzibur whose musical talent and level of kavanah left me in awe; and the presiding presence of my friend, Rabbi Tamar El Ad Appelbaum, whose luminosity of spirit extended this Shabbat to sympathy with the right-wing settlers who had just been forcibly evicted from the illegal settlement of Amona. Only in 21st century Israel could this community of Jews come together to do tefillah in this unique way, made possible by Conservative Judaism in North America, but rightly taken in new directions suited only to Israel. It is thrilling to behold and to join.

That impression was strengthened in coming days. I met with the Masorti movement’s thoughtful rabbinic leadership; heard the moving personal stories of Masorti rabbinical students, most of whom grew up in either secular or Orthodox homes, now enrolled (in record numbers) at the Schechter Institute originally founded by JTS; visited thriving Congregation V’Ahavta in Zichron Ya’akov, and learned from its charismatic rabbi, Elisha Wolfin, and several of the congregation’s lay leaders, about the shul’s growth to over 200 member families, as well as its impact on hundreds more. Masorti congregations are successful because they are involved with many aspects of their communities, engaged in multiple activities that include but go beyond prayer services and education of the young. The Masorti rabbis and lay leaders I met at Kehillat Moriah in Haifa proudly showed me the rooms they had rapidly refurbished after a recent fire, and told me with equal pride that they believed Masorti Judaism would make an impact on Israel that matched Conservative influence in America — this despite the lack of government support for non-Orthodox institutions.

The country’s papers were dominated during the week of my visit by the Knesset’s decision to retroactively legalize the appropriation by settlers of buildings and land that had formerly been in private Palestinian hands. Israel’s attorney general opposed the bill, arguing that it would not withstand constitutional review by the Supreme Court. The prime minister initially opposed it on tactical grounds, maintaining that it threatened Israel’s standing in the world, and his close relationship with the new American administration. MK Benny Begin, a stalwart supporter of West Bank settlement, attacked the legislation as “the theft law.” Weakened by three separate police investigations and by Trump’s apparent support of unlimited settlement (qualified somewhat in recent days), pro-settler forces led by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett pushed the bill through.

Israelis live with this reality every day, of course, except when they look away or strive not to counter it up close — and focus instead on all the wonderful things happening in their wonderful country. Next week they will have to probe the significance of an American president who declared that he is open to a one-state solution, if Israelis and Palestinians can agree on it. Trump also said that he is not averse to settlements, but thinks new construction should be frozen for a while in the interest of peace. He would like to see the US embassy move to Jerusalem but is in no hurry to make that happen. American Jews on both sides of the issues will wonder and worry with Israelis. I for one love the place, cannot but love it, and cannot allow myself to believe all the hope and sweat poured into Israel will come to naught, and the state’s incredible achievement give way to tragedy.

The sun shone brightly as I boarded the plane for home, but dark clouds gathered. I suspect a day of reckoning is not far behind them.

About the Author
Arnold Eisen, one of the world’s foremost experts on American Judaism, is Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
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