Jeremiah, Alterman, and Ariel

Many of Israel’s detractors see no reason to constrain their condemnations by the truth. The end goal of destabilization and ultimate destruction of the revival of Jewish sovereignty on our ancient homeland justifies any means to get there. It’s only natural that our reflex against this phenomenon is to put up our guard and raise our defenses. After the past two weeks of slander and calumny regarding the Temple Mount, Israeli soldiers, and more this response might seem to be the timely one. However, it is also the period leading up to the ninth of Av. Despite the blame that our enemies bore for our destruction and suffering during this period, we always asked ourselves where have we gone wrong. What aspects of our society need repair. Our agenda on the eve of the ninth of Av is national introspection. In that spirit I share the musings below.

In the past month, I have come across four powerful pieces of literature that bitterly critique behavior of the Jewish people in its land. As I have been reading through Rabbi Benni Lau’s Jeremiah, I keep wondering if we are like those who refused to heed the prophet’s words. Many of us express extreme surety of our way in arrogant and immodest fashion. Too many lambast those who dare to challenge the notion that we have problems in our midst. I gaze up from Rabbi Lau’s and the prophet Jeremiah’s words and ask myself, are we willing to hear the Jeremiahs of our day?

And who are those Jeremiahs? I recently put down one of the best pieces of non-fiction that I have read – Matti Friedman’s Allepo Codex. The book contains a deep indictment of the arrogance of the political elite of Israel’s early days. It also lays bare the story of the exploitation of new immigrants. Though it seems to me that things are much better on these scores today, we still hear stories of ugly discrimination against Ethiopians (amongst others) and I feel that in so many ways Israeli society takes advantage of its weakest elements. I wonder, how far have we really come and how much have we really learned our lesson?

I insisted that my daughter read Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers.” Then she invited me to join her at Tmol Shilshom to hear Halevi speak about one of the heroes of the book, Meir Ariel. Halevi was joined by Ariel’s biographer – Nissim Calderon. At the event, the speakers explored Ariel’s song Midrash Yonati. As most of the lines went by too fast for this immigrants Hebrew to fully take in on a first hearing, I was left breathless by this one:

ושמיטה כהלכה אתה כבר יודע לעשות שאתה רץ לקחת עוד ועוד אדמות?

(In my paraphrase) Do you know how to keep the Sabbatical year well enough to justify grabbing more and more land?

This line echoed for me the verses from Leviticus 26:34-35 that come on the tail of the long description of the expulsion of the people Israel from their land and the suffering of the exile.

“Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, while it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies’ land; then shall the land rest and repay its sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest; the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it.”

Our right to dwell on the land is tied into our behavior. Are we really so sure that we are deserving?

And then this past Shabbat, one of the members of our Kibbutz gave a class on the prophetic voice of the poet Natan Alterman. Among the poems that I encountered for the first time was Al Zot — a poetic account of a soldier who opens fire on an old man and woman in cold blood. Alterman insists that we call this act what it is – murder. He also demands we admit that there were many such acts in the war of independence and that even if they were not the norm, we dare not ignore what even relatively isolated incidents say about us.

This poem, written and published in the midst of the fighting of the War of Independence was read by Ben Gurion to his cabinet and reprinted to be distributed widely amongst the soldiers of the nascent IDF. Could we imagine our prime minister reading such a poem to today’s cabinet or sharing it with our soldiers?

All four of the critiques mentioned here, were penned by people deeply connected and loyal to their people. Each one’s destiny was/is intimately tied to the destiny of Israel itself. At the event at Tmol Shilshom, Halevi and Calderon pointed out that Ariel always identified deeply as a soldier of the IDF. At the Alterman class, several attendees, remarked that the power of Alterman’s words stemmed from his patriotism – his profound connection to the land of Israel and the Jewish people.

And so today the eighth of Av, let’s remember that our greatest critics don’t attack from the outside, but rather they come from those who throw their lot in with the nation. And as we ignore the slanderous fabrications thrown about by insidious forces, let’s strive find the wherewithal to hear the sincere censure of those from within who love us enough to confront us with our failings.

About the Author
Ross Singer lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and works as a tour guide and educator.
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