Ianai Silberstein
Ianai Silberstein

Whose Journey, Whose Zionism

After reading two articles on The New York Times last week, and after pondering about them for a while, not quite knowing which direction to take in a humble attempt to confront them to some point, suddenly this morning my memory took me back four years to an interview to George Steiner (1929-2020) published by The Forward, in which he dealt with Judaism, Zionism, and Israel. While I believe I have stood quite in the antipodes of Professor Steiner’s view on these issues almost all my life, at my own older age I’ve come to realize how true some of his opinions have become to me. Let me stress the use of the terms “opinions” and the concept of “becoming”; Steiner speaks clearly from a very personal point of view by which some values prevail over any other value (“I’m a confirmed ethical snob” he says, defining himself bluntly), while at the same time the process of maturing and admitting the complexities of reality have become part of my own story. Neither of those concepts seem relevant to either of the two articles in the New York Times: issues and time seem equally frozen, events irrelevant, while ideologies prevail. This is journalism with a political agenda.

The first article, concerning the disappointing Israeli reality in contrast to its founding fathers’ dreams, can be found at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/25/world/middleeast/israel-jews-palestinians-journey.html; while the other one, regarding American Jews and Zionism, can be found at www.nytimes.com/2021/11/02/magazine/israel-american-jews.html. In a sense, the latter is an explanation of the former: no wonder the New York Times finds its readers among these fierce anti-Zionists, these denouncers of Israel’s most extreme, exceptional, and marginal situations. That a group of ordained rabbis dare question Israel’s stand in the centre of Jewish life is not new; but put side by side with the depressing journey from north to south in Israel as portrayed by Patrick Kingsley, it’s overwhelming. Perhaps, however absurd it might seem, the first reaction to these positions regarding Israel would be to suggest that the trip be taken West to East: the piece of land we call Israel, or The State of Israel, leaves almost no room to travel, hardly anywhere to go. The sea on the West and the huge, hostile Arab world to the East, this is reality. As Shimon Peres used to say, we dream the dreams at night, but it’s in the daytime we make them true. Dreams and reality almost always don’t always match.

I grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay, attending a Jewish Zionist school and one of the largest Jewish Youth Groups in the South America, Chazit Hanoar. I cannot conceive Judaism without Zionism. Although I’ve been closely in touch with Americans, and I know that for many Zionism and Israel are not necessarily a key part of Judaism (davening and Tikun Olam are more relevant to many), I’m still amazed every time I see Judaism seen through an anti-Zionist lens. Furthermore, when The Palestinian Issue (yes, with capital letters) is brought into the equation, then I’m appalled. What about the Jewish Issue? There’s no need to bring in the Holocaust; take a look at thousands of years of persecution, forceful conversion, and genocide before the Shoah. The Spanish period, to which Steiner refers in that interview, those glorious 500 years, came to an abrupt end in 1492; it’s an exception to the rule. If, as Professor Steiner asserts, “Israel were to disappear, Judaism would survive”, why us, Jews, should be the ones to force that nowadays very remote possibility? Professor Santiago Kovadloff, from Argentina, wrote a book on “The End of the Diaspora”: its title (I’m not discussing the book now) serves me to claim that the Diaspora doesn’t end with the creation of the State of Israel; if anything, it is challenged.

May be America is one of those places where the challenge is stronger. In spite of some antisemitism, it has allowed Jews to grow, prosper, and thrive; as a country of immigration, it allows for a double sense of belonging. While economic uncertainty and blunt antisemitism has been the main factor for Aliyah from many countries in the world, the U.S.A. loses its Jews mostly to assimilation. No matter how you look at it, Israel and Zionism are the answer to Jewish self-determination and survival. Otherwise, Jewish population world-wide would keep dwindling. As “The” Hartmans say (David Z’L and Donniel Hartman, may he live to 120), in “an open-market of ideas” Judaism has to be relevant to survive. Personally, I think that it is this new position of power that gives us a new historic opportunity. The fact is we’re as sovereign, powerful, and real as never before.

The challenges lying ahead are indeed great. As Mr. Kingsley writes, “We found a country still wrestling with contradictions left unresolved at its birth”. America still deals, and it probably for ever will, with the issue of slavery, racism, discrimination; check “Black Lives Matter” and other related issues. It also deals with the implications of its 2nd Amendment, the proliferation of mass shootings. As historian Paul Johnson says in his “History” of the United States, no nation is born without sin. The challenge is to improve upon it, to aim at overcoming it. As Christian as the concept of “original sin” is, the endeavour to improve upon it is originally, fundamentally, and essentially, Jewish. There’s no need to be a “moral snob” as Professor Steiner puts it; moral standards still stand above many other considerations for Jews and for Israel as a Jewish State. We’re not, nor were designed to be by our own narrative, an imperialistic nation, because we were slaves in the land of Egypt; therefore, Occupation is an anomaly. How long will it last, I couldn’t know; but as long as it does, more and more people are trying to reconcile Israel’s security with its moral obligations.

I won’t bother to go into the predominant lack of accuracy in Mr. Kingsley’s travel diary, but one example will suffice: Palestinians are not citizens of Israel; Arabs that remained in Israel after 1948 are. The article even tries to force an identity between these two categories, but the conversation with Israeli Arab poet Asmaa Azaizeh shows it’s not that simple. In general terms, the whole, much too long article, focuses on minorities, ethnic groups, the challenges with which Israel has had to deal in the last thirty years; for instance, after the Russian Aliyah, or the Ethiopian rescue operations, and so on. As I write, the Israeli government has approved new towns for its Bedouin citizens, one of the issues the article deals with. It’s an on-going process like Judaism itself; it never stops, it will never come to an end. It strives for perfection while knowing there’s no such thing. May be the Messiah will come, but in the meantime we do what we have to do.

Let me end by referring to Mr. Kingsley´s last interview of his journey, Mr. Taggar of Eilat. The closing line says: “Who cares whether it was your land, my land, he added. Live anywhere you want.” I don’t doubt Mr. Taggar said it, but it doesn’t make it true: the issue, from the very beginning, is THE land. Be it from the biblical promise to Abraham, including his two sons Isaac and Ismael, or be it since the Balfour Declaration in 1917 or the UN partition in 1947, the issue is the land. As Dr. Einat Wilf has very well claimed, the Palestinian “right of return” is but an excuse to erase Israel from the area, its Jewish population along with it. The “dream” of a bi-national state, as proposed by Peter Beinart among others (Mr. Kingsley quotes someone saying “she is unsure, however, whether Palestinians and Jews are ready to live together in a single, egalitarian state”), is, as the late Amos Oz expressed it, “a beast that doesn’t exist”. To further quote one of the last icons of pacifism and the “two-state-solution”, “I don’t want to live as a minority; particularly not in the Arab world”.

My proposal regarding Israel and its challenges is to focus on our own narrative, the mainstream Jews who’ve come to Israel from West and East, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Israeliness might be changing, but the Israeli character was moulded by those immigrants who later welcomed and accommodated millions of Russians, thousands of Ethiopians, and so on. Israel never became the melting pot its founding fathers dreamed of; so what? Living in a boiling pot isn’t easy, but nine million people manage to do it, to grow, and to prosper. Whatever inequities, they work politically to solve them. The only exceptional thing about Israel as a country is being The Jewish State. So let’s focus on Jewish values, aspirations, and inspiration instead of downgrading our own achievements. Zionism has been the next big step in the history of the Jewish people and it is on us to cherish it, improve it, and make us proud. There’s enough wisdom in our tradition, the Bible, the Sages, the modern philosophers (you name it) to go around doing it. Let us not be defeated by self-loathing and double moral standards only because we’re Jewish. On the contrary, because we’re Jewish we know we’ll prevail, and not by the use of force only. Whether “a nation of priests” or “moral snobs”, it all comes down to ethics. We’ve been at it since Abraham first confronted God regarding Sodom and Gomorra. In the end evil was destroyed and justice was made.

About the Author
Sixty-two, married, a son and a daughter. Very closely related to Israel, residing in Uruguay. Retired. Lay leader for the Masorti congregation in Montevideo. Served as President of the Board. Vice President of the Board of the Jewish school. Twenty years involvement in community affairs. Attended the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem seven times for their CLP programs. Writer & lecturer.
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