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April 28, 2011 10:05 pm

Can the Real Israel Survive Its Imagined Versions?

avatar by Melvin Konner

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The Old City of Jerusalem at night. Photo: Adiel lo

Israel, goes the title of a book by Rich Cohen, Is Real. This message is coming home to me as I get ready for a six-week stay there—a blip in time to many, but a longish stay for me. What else could it be except real?

Well, it could be the Zionist dream of salvation I had at age twelve, dropping tears on a page of my well-worn paperback Exodus in my bed in Brooklyn. I was twelve, Israel was ten, the Shoah burned vividly in my mind, and Israelis were superheroes, the men and women who saved my people and their history from the humiliation and devastation of genocide.

It could be Yerushalayim, the vision of a spiritual world apart, beyond history and humanity, imbued in me as an Orthodox boy for whom God and Torah were close companions and the return to Zion was something like the very first Hebrew crossing of the Jordan, or like every Jewish dream of heaven.

It could be the other-world of Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland, in which the Jewish state of his own great original vision somehow morphs into a transethnic nation where Arab and Jew coexist without enmity or strife.

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Or it could be a historical fiction in which Israel was in effect a terra nullius—an empty land—when the Jews returned, so that they could reestablish their nation in its greatest ancient extent, with nobody else to bother them between the Jordan River and the sea.

But it isn’t any of those, although it could have elements of some of them. It’s the people in Yerushalayim who post apartments for rent on the web for transients like my wife and me, and appear to be doing well at it (thank you very much).

It’s my host at Hebrew University, a physician and global health expert, who brings a polylingual collection of students from all over the developing world to learn what he and his colleagues know about how to improve health in their home countries.

It’s my friend the former helicopter pilot and current Yoga Master, whose high-tech day job is one of many thousands that helped make his country the world’s leading start-up nation.

It’s my friend the former Orthodox rabbi from Atlanta who has lived in Jerusalem now for twenty years and writes vivid essays about, for instance, a man who remained rude after the rabbi helped him, or a woman who lost her faith and fears her husband with find out.

It’s my friend the former stone-thrower from the first intifada who is married, owns a café in Ramallah and still dreams of independence for his people.

It’s my friend the grandmother who travels once a week with others like herself to a checkpoint in the West Bank to make sure that the scrutiny and harassment of Palestinians does not go too far.

And it’s also my old friends in Beit El in the West Bank—educated, dedicated, problematic “pioneers” whose final answer to the conundrum they and others have set up is that, failing all else, “Moshiach will come.”

Swirling around them all is an “Arab Spring” that may or may not bring summer weather to Israel, but will surely require dramatic adaptations: a worldwide weakening of support for Israel and the Jews, not the Palestinians, are increasingly seen as obstacles to peace; an insidious infusion of classical anti-Semitism into strident critiques of Israel, an Iranian nuclear threat that may not be stoppable either by Israeli power or American will and a possible re-election of a quite popular U.S. president without much Jewish support and, therefore, without much sense of obligation to the Jews or the Jewish state.

And within? Israel continues to be governed by the bizarre coalition of Ehud Barak, a former hero who heads a declining left-wing movement and who sees the current situation as dire and strongly urges immediate moves toward peace; Avigdor Lieberman, whose constituency of Russian immigrants, many of whom do not speak Hebrew, harbors anti-Arab attitudes that verge on racism; and the confused, temporizing Binyamin Netanyahu, who seems to care more about not rocking his strangely poised political boat than he does about leading Israel into the future.

As Passover quickly approaches and we celebrate our first Exodus, we can also celebrate our second arrival in the promised land, even if we don’t know what will happen next. So what do I think? I think—I know—I will go, and it will be frustrating—and real.

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