Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Personal Reflections from the Holy Land

For the first time in 33 years I am visiting Israel. A short 8-day visit.

I was born in February 1948 a few months before the birth of the state of Israel (and the election victory of the Nationalist party in South Africa), so I have grown up alongside Israel. This is my fourth visit, and, as expected, this time I see the biggest change.

Israel is truly a miraculous achievement. It is now a complex, developed and affluent economy. In the face of continual threats its inhabitants live very busy and creative lives. The achievements of its citizens are amazing. But this is well known.

Reacting on a more personal level, I see a society like me grown somewhat cynical from experience, the experience of maturity that afflicts us all if we live long enough. The cynicism is doing battle with lingering idealism, and, in the end, because we have children who must inherit our handiwork, idealism wins out.

I am with my daughter staying at a student hotel-hostel in Jerusalem. There are Jewish children here from all over the world. They are seeing the phenomenon of Israel and I am privileged to do so again alongside them for a while, through their young eyes. Israel symbolizes the triumph of hope over despair – hatikvah. Seen inevitably in the context of the emergence of the "new Jew" out of the squalor and brutality of the shtetl and the ashes of Auschwitz, this vibrant, creative yet persistently compassionate people continues to inspire us as Jews.

I puzzle over the essence of our identification with this entity we call the Jewish people, and I have come to believe it to be a matter of "tribal" continuity. The "tribe" is the extension of the extended family. And we know by looking around that tribal-ethnic ties are incredibly powerful both for good and often for ill. Tribal connections persist over centuries and carry collective experiences and myths along the generations. Children drink them with their mothers' milk so that by the time they reach adulthood it is part of their social DNA – they have no choice.

This is manifestly true for me as well. Yet, while I sometimes feel apprehensive at my susceptibility to this romantic identification, I am immensely comforted by the conviction that the "Jewish people" is a "good" people when seen against the backdrop of the world at large. We fight amongst ourselves bitterly, but fundamentally we share a belief in peaceful coexistence. There are glaring exceptions, because all people are fallible, but, as a rule we are peaceful, compassionate, tolerant. That the world is unable to see the stark contrast (it could not be starker) between Israel and its neighbors is a source of eternal frustration, but perhaps not mystery, since there are none so blind as those who will not see.

So we Jews, in Israel especially, live continually recalling our struggles in the recent and the distant past. In my short time here I have visited Yad Vashem, completely new since my last visit, Har Herzl, where I relived the struggle for independence and security through 6 major wars and many minor ones, up to the present. I saw the graves of boys killed within the last month in Gaza lying close to those who fought for independence in 1948. It never seems to end. How does one go on celebrating life in the face of such immanent death?

That is the other side of the coin. Since being here I have visited beautiful restaurants with every variety of food, attended an international book fair, with books from many countries in many languages, listened to a lecture by the great modern Jewish thinker, Rabbi David Hartman, seen a little American musical, 1776, celebrating the Declaration of Independence, walked miles among ancient ruins, under the guidance of a passionate expert, many uncovered within the last few months, and felt the thrill of recalling a language I once knew intimately and thought I had forgotten – a living, dynamic, beautiful language.

To believe in the continuity of the Jewish people for its own sake is narcissism, but to be able to identify with a collective stream of consciousness that sanctifies life and gives hope from the midst of depravity and despair, is a noble elevation.

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