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May 2, 2017 12:44 pm

Why Israel? A Haven, a Homeland, a Holy Land — Yom Haatzmaut 2017

avatar by Chaim Steinmetz

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The Tel Aviv skyline at night. Photo: Gilad Avidan via Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe it was crazy.

In February 2003, I led a mission to Israel shortly before the Iraq War. It was a time of great nervousness; when we arrived, we were greeted by full-page ads in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz from the Canadian government, advising Canadians to be ready to leave Israel. There was enormous concern that war would break out, and that Saddam Hussein would once again fire Scuds at Israel.

Lisa and I walked up to the ticket counter in the airport, with four kids aged 3 to 7 running excitedly in circles, and two small mountains of luggage precariously balanced on baggage carts; and with this bit of domestic chaos, we started checking in for our flight. Looking at the scene, the ticket agent did her best to help us. “Where are you going?” she asked in a sweet voice. “Tel Aviv,” I answered. She hesitated for a moment and said, “I hope everything goes OK for you.” I am not a mind reader, but I could readily tell that what she meant to say was: “Are you crazy! Why are you bringing small children to a war zone?”

“Are you crazy?” is the perfect question to start any discussion on Israel. Like any passion, those who don’t share our love for the Jewish state are bewildered by it. Why are Zionists Zionists? Why do they love Israel?

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There was a time when you didn’t have to explain Zionism, because Jews desperately needed a safe haven. The two millennia of Jewish life in exile are stained with a relentless stream of antisemitism. There are too many episodes of violence to count, including massacres, pogroms, Crusades and expulsions. Even in the relatively “tranquil” times, Jews were second class citizens, the objects of legal and social discrimination. A medieval author phrased it this way, in a passage included in the Monday and Thursday prayers: “Look down from heaven and see that we have become scorned and insulted among the nations, we have been led like sheep to the slaughter, to be murdered, destroyed, stricken, and disgraced.” Exile was always an irritation, and often a misery.

Antisemitism spiked unexpectedly at the end of the 19th century. The Dreyfus Trial, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kishinev Massacre, the Beilis Blood Libel and the rise of antisemitic political parties in Europe and elsewhere all foreshadowed the Holocaust. It was this atmosphere that inspired Theodor Herzl to seek a safe haven for the Jews.

There is a famous, bitter joke: In 1939, a Viennese Jew enters a travel agent’s office and says, “I want to buy a steamship ticket.” “Where to?” the clerk asks. “Let me look at your globe, please,” the Jew replies. Every time the Jew suggests a country, the clerk raises an objection. “This one requires a visa … this one is not admitting any more Jews … the waiting list to get in there is ten years.” Finally the Jew looks up and says: “Pardon me, do you have another globe?” Jews desperately needed a safe haven in the 1930s, and, tragically, they did not have one.

Israel is now that Jewish safe haven. Over the years, she has received Jews escaping from Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union. Israel has also protected Jews in Entebbe, Kenya and beyond. Even today, for Jews in places such as France and Venezuela, Israel acts as a security blanket for worried communities.

Yet having a safe haven is not important if you live in an open, multicultural society. For American Jews, the United States might be more comfortable than Israel. Considering that Jews have other havens, one might argue that Israel is an anachronism.

This question is an old one. During discussions with Chaim Weizmann over the possibility of a Jewish homeland under the British Mandate, Arthur Balfour asked, “Wouldn’t Uganda be just as good?” Weizmann records his response and the rest of the conversation:

“Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” He sat up, looked at me, and answered: “But Dr. Weizmann, we have London.” “That is true,” I said, “but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.”

Israel is not just a haven; it is a homeland. It is the birthplace of the Jewish people, and the land that has nurtured the Jewish soul for 3,300 years. There is a unique connection to a homeland. The Bible records that when the farmer would bring an offering of first fruits, he would issue a declaration that unlike his ancestors, he no longer has to wander; instead, he can experience the blessings of being rooted in one place, having a home that nurtures the soul as well as the body.

There is a theory that Jewish creativity is a side effect of exile; years of improvising to survive turned the Jews into master improvisers in every arena, including science and culture. It is an interesting theory, but incorrect; the record of the State of Israel contradicts it. In reality, having roots — having a homeland — has allowed Jews to flourish in multiple ways.

Israel has become a world leader in culture, science and social services. Returning home hasn’t dampened Jewish creativity, but it has actually increased it. As the Jewish farmer might say, having roots bears fruit, and having a country of your own unleashes the spirit. A homeland is transformative, even if you feel at home in another country.

Israel has been a haven and homeland; but for the religious Zionist, another answer is far more significant: Israel is the holy land. This theme begins in the Bible, and trickles all the way down to pop culture, which is why all visitors to the Western Wall (including artists, athletes and actors) leave a note for God in its crevices.

Yet it is a mistake to assume that the idea of a holy land is for the religious only, and that the holiness of Israel is found only in historic shrines.

A few years ago, a woman approached me with a request. She was trying to convey to her son, an atheist, what Israel was all about. She had brought him to the Western Wall, but it had very little impact on him. So she turned to me for advice on how she could inspire her son to feel a connection to Israel.

I told her that I find my greatest inspiration in Israel at the shopping malls of Tel Aviv. Yes, that is correct — at the shopping mall (even though I hate shopping). The reason why is because it’s at a shopping mall that the triple miracle of modern Israel is most apparent.

First of all, the Jews should have disappeared after 2,000 years of exile and persecution. Second of all, the country of Israel is perhaps the most improbable event in all of history, a fossil that was extinct for 2,000 years, which came back to life. And third, this country, built by a mixed multitude of lonely refugees, should have been a charity case rather than a world leader with a first class economy.

The fact that the State of Israel is here, and that it is a world leader despite decades of constant attacks, is the equivalent of winning the lottery three times in a row. That, even for an atheist, has to be pretty remarkable. To quote Isaiah: “Who has ever heard of such things? Who has ever seen things like this?” After walking around a cutting edge Israeli shopping mall, even a non-believer can stand in inspiration of these miracles, and see this land as inspiring, even holy.

Therefore, Israel is a haven, a homeland and a holy land; and she is at her best when you can glimpse all three at the same time. One such example can be seen in an anecdote that was shared on Facebook during Operation Protective Edge in 2014:

The father of a soldier who is now in Gaza told how his son was informed on Friday that his unit will not be going home for Shabbat, which was a problem, because they did not have any provisions for Shabbat. The father ran to the supermarket to buy some things, as many dips and salads as he could, and then he stopped at the shwarma stand in Petah Tikva. He asked for a shwarma to be put into an aluminium tray and explained that it was a Shabbat meal for his son who is in Gaza. The owner said to him, ‘What do you mean for your son? How many soldiers are in his group?’ The father answered ’70.’ The owner called over his workers, and … within an hour, he and all of his workers had emptied the entire restaurant and given it over to the father. The father just stood there crying and thanking him.

This powerful anecdote is a microcosm of the story of Israel. It is about a safe haven protected by dedicated soldiers. It is about a homeland where even the man at the local shwarma stand is like a member of the family. And it is about a holy land, a place filled with a unique heart and soul. There are many things that make Israel extraordinary, but one of them is this: if you need 70 shawarmas on a Friday, there’s someone who will stop everything and get them for you.

Chag Sameach!

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