Shaiya Rothberg

Return to the Land of Your Soul: The Palestinian Problem and Jewish Identity

When I made aliyah from the U.S. in 1988 at the age of 19, I was freshly religious, a “chozer b’tshuvah”, and also a shiny new Zionist. I had been a new-left activist in high school, fighting American imperialism in Nicaragua (when not doing more important things like watching TV and hanging out in the park), and neither Jewishness nor Israel were important to my identity. But then I got into Recontructionism, and a little Jewish Renewal, and the next thing I knew I was in Israel for a semester (on “Inside Israel”, a gap-year program run by the Reform Movement). During that semester, I fell in love with Israel and Torah, and I have been in love ever since (marrying a beautiful Israeli woman from the Kibbutz where I volunteered didn’t hurt). Making aliyah was the fulfillment of a dream that took root during that formative time and I have never considered living anywhere else.

Looking back on it now, I was a kid who wanted nothing more than to step into a fantasy novel. Israel was for me the Land of Narnia; a magical realm that miraculously opened up on the other side of the wardrobe and redeemed me from suburban New Jersey. Or, to mix my metaphor, I was a soldier of Gondor, who strove to be faithful both to Gandalf’s wisdom and Aragorn’s fair minded valor. I was a religious Labor Zionist, and the resurrection of the body politic of our holy nation of priests would lead humanity to a world of liberation and global justice. Of course, Labor Zionism was already essentially dead back then in 1988, but that was nothing that a little Elven magic couldn’t fix.

I was not so overwhelmed by my new Jewish and Israeli identity as to become blind to Israeli oppression of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. (I was also not blind then, nor am I now, to the Palestinians’ racist and fundamentalist violence against us.) I think that anyone who has internalized the principles of legitimate government as understood in the liberal democracies, as I certainly had, cannot but see our regime over the green line for the ugly selfish reality that it is. However, as I served as a soldier and officer in the Gaza Military Government (for three years of regular service and more than a decade of reserve duty, until my base was turned over to the Palestinians in the “disengagement”), I thought of the Palestinian problem as merely a minor obstacle on the path of Jewish destiny.

I figured that we Jews were smart enough to find our way out of the Palestinian mess. Only then the real Jewish project would begin: we would build an enlightened society of justice and spiritual transcendence as only the descendents of the prophets, rooted in their ancient holy land, could envision. A fan of Rav Kook, I believed that as our roots grew deeper into the Land of The Matriarchs, we would reconnect to the bedrock of Israelite religious consciousness, and from that rock would flow a river of divine inspiration powerful enough to push Israel and humanity to a higher stage of evolution, that is, a stage in which we as a species would be wiser, more loving and more just than we are now. As silly as I’m afraid it might sound to some readers, I still believe in that vision today. It is in that light that I understand the meaning of my life in Israel. But I no longer think of the Palestinian problem as a detour on our Jewish path.

As the Holy Story tells it, when the People Israel set out from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land, they were authentically a people returning to their homeland. Their ancestors left Canaan as an extended tribe, and there was nowhere else that the children of Jacob could call home. And yet there were other people who authentically called Canaan home. And our failure to achieve peace with them and the surrounding peoples stands at the center of many of our national disasters as told by the holy writ.

Once again, in the modern era, we have returned to the Land of our Soul; the Land in which we were born and reborn again (as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach put it). And I think it’s clear that if any living nation has a real connection to a particular chunk of our shared planet earth, we Jews have that connection to this place. And yet, it cannot be denied, there are others who justly call this place home. And so it is again, as of old, that our Return to Zion revolves around a conflict between the peoples of The Land. We are the People of the Book, and perhaps it is our destiny to live out this holy story (or as Bob Marley put it, “we’ve got to fulfill de book”). And so I no longer believe that the Palestinians are merely a detour but rather that our existential conflict with them stands at the center of what Torah means in this generation; it is part of what defines who we are as Jews, and who we – the People Israel in the Land of Israel – may yet become.

May it be God’s will that the spring of Israelite religious consciousness – our ancient divine inspiration – flow up from the bedrock of Jerusalem, and illuminate the way to true justice and peace for all people – for both we and the Arabs are created in the divine image – here in God’s Promised Land.

About the Author
Shaiya Rothberg lives with his wife in Jerusalem Al-Quds. He is a teacher of Jewish Thought and a human rights activist. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan University. He made aliyah in 1988 and served as a soldier and officer in the I.D.F. Shaiya's writing and teaching focus on the transformative potential of Jewish tradition.
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