Friday, July 23, 2010

Why I Am Still An Israel Junkie

I just returned from my annual summer stay in Israel approximately 24 hours ago. As always I was extremely busy with work, family, friends and just living in Israel. A most special feature of this time in Israel was that my 22 year old daughter Talie accompanied me. This past Wednesday night after three weeks together in a lovely Emek Refaiim apartment, I got on a plane to return to the United States and Talie drove down to Beer Sheva where she begins four years in Medical School at Ben Gurion University. We are all so excited for her and I know this will be an amazing experience.

As for me, this was my sixth summer as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s learning community. We focused on some work that is being undertaken at the Institute called Engaging Israel. There is so much talk out there about Israel, its problems, people’s disappointments and anger with Israel and so on. There is also so much to be proud of in terms of what Israel has managed to accomplish in 62 short years. If only more people would acknowledge and appreciate these accomplishments, but to be sure, this is not the point! What we focused on in this two week seminar was the fact that somewhere along the line, this conversation about what we do not like about Israel or what we think Israel should do differently has morphed into a dreaded question about Israel’s basic right to exist! To me this is nothing short of horrifying!

We must always remember that we are not perfect, we are not without fault and we will not always make the right decision for all people concerned in every situation. This is clearly the reality of the human being, our institutions and the countries in which we live and govern. No institution or country will be more perfect than the sum total of the imperfections of those that are part of it and comprise its reality. We accept this in our daily lives, our relationships in those lives and in the institutions with which we are associated in our reality. Why is it that Israel is held to a higher and ultimately unachievable standard?

True, we set ourselves up for this dilemma. Israel continues to try to be the best Jewish state possible. Israel continues to try to be the best democracy possible. Israel continues to try to do as much as possible for other peoples, for all of her citizens and residents and to fulfill that prophetic charge of being an Or LaGoyim, a light to the nations. Yet, with all of these efforts, Israel often falls short of her own expectations to say nothing of those of the invested as well as occasional or even reluctant spectators. Yes, there are groups that are not as supported as many might like. True, there is poverty, crime, dirty streets, lack of sensitivity towards others and all of the other shortcomings of a country. Find me one that has none of these!

Yet, and my family and I continue to return, often more than once per year, to spend some time in this wonderful place and just ….. breathe, take it in, and be part of it. Why? I could say that I am part of the start up nation gang but that is not it. I could speak about the feeling of thousands of years of history pulsating through my body when walking around – still very true and overwhelming, but that is not it either. I could say I love the feeling of being with “my” people, but clearly the way I see people treat each other on the streets as well as at holy sites mitigates against that feeling too often. So what is it? I think that in some, perhaps very strange way to be sure, measure, the very fact that we hold onto our hopes, our desires, expectations, and dreams about what “ought to be,” to use very Hartmanesque thinking, and continue to maintain these as goals for Israel is exactly what makes it so special. Israel is a real country with real problems, real challenges, real shortcomings, and everything else that being real brings about and evokes. That being said, there is something inherent in Israel that continues to ask of us to be our best and try for something better while we collectively support Israel in trying to do so as well. We are self-critical and accountable as we are commanded to be in a way that brings pain in our love of people and land, but there is no avoiding its place in the equation of just being.

At the Hartman Institute, there is constant talk of needing to have a new vocabulary with regard to how we speak about Israel. The old nostalgia will no longer do. The Chalutznik talk of the early years is irrelevant for today. Yerushalayim LeMaaleah (the utopian Jerusalem) is eclipsed by the dirty streets, the fighting factions and the lack of reverence for each other and place. I completely agree – we have to find a language that is somewhere on the continuum that includes our dreams and our reality, that challenges us to look at the REAL Israel and see it for what it is while encouraging ourselves to be seen for WHO we are. That being said, I still think Israel wants us to be the best we can be and to help Israel be the best she can be. This is what I feel so strongly and why I am so overjoyed that my daughter Talie will be living within this strange juxtaposition of hope and reality for the next four years. We will be there to share it with her and so many others as often as possible.