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Yom Kippur Contemplations

2 October 2005

By Yisrael Ne'eman

For over a century, Jews have been searching for answers to ensure their physical existence, a search crowned with success with the establishment of the Israeli state, but unfortunately only after the Holocaust. Since 1948 we have been safer than at any time in recallable memory. A national redemption had been achieved. Fifty-seven years later we appear rather lost, despite the successful functioning of the army and security forces. We for the most part have physical security but have lost much else.

From 1948 to 1967, the state entity proved its vitality. With the advent of the Six Day War, the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem, the sudden access to the Kotel (Western Wall) and the rebuilding of the Jewish Quarter, a religious redemptive exhilaration swept the country, even among the non-devout. Since that moment however, a certain socio-ideological decay continues to gnaw at our being. From the outset there were those in the extreme Left who used the phrase “the conquest corrupts” but this is not the issue at hand. Neither bi-nationalism nor a physically indefensible Jewish state is the answer. Ideology and Jewish identity began to sink with the Labor Zionist demise from 1967-77 as socialism (and Jewish social justice) became just empty phrases.

With one ideology dying, another took its place, that of the National Religious Movement. Yes, Menachem Begin took power but his territorial maximalist secular Revisionism, whose overall objective was to retain the entire Land of Israel, was overshadowed by the pioneering dedication of the National Religious. While Labor was shorn of God and ideals, the National Religious often became idolatrous worshippers of the Kotel and Land of Israel. Over the years people no longer prayed at the Kotel but rather to the Kotel while holding up the Land of Israel as the ultimate value and sanctity. Issues of social justice (between fellow Jews and between Jews and non-Jews) were forced from the every day agenda. All could be sacrificed in the name of the sacred Land.

The secular (Right or Left) followed and allowed for the ultimate issues of State to revolve around the Land. All participated in the arguments over security and the need for “secure borders” but once the word “Jewish” was mentioned the non-religious were either not to be found or made to understand that such a domain was not theirs. It was so simple, so conscious cleansing to abdicate responsibility. We lived in a collective Milgram experiment where those who purported to represent the Lord said “I am responsible” and all others were absolved.

The Jewish People around the world lost their identity, assimilation raged (yes, in Israel too, just look at what our high school and college students do not know about their heritage) and left it to the National Religious and the ultra-orthodox to determine our “Jewish future”. A symbolic Jewish action or two could be dredged up on Yom Kippur or Pesach for the obligatory “Jewish moment” or sound byte but then forgotten the rest of the year. After all, the average Israeli had “the army” and the chevre (the guys, the buddies) and a certain secular Israeli culture. Judaism would be left to those who were “really” Jewish.

We ignored the enormous treasure set out in front of us. Here was the golden opportunity not only to live, walk and work the Land, but to tie in the emotional, intellectual and spiritual connection of the individual and Jewish collective with the physical reality. A Jew could take the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud or modern Zionist writings in hand and find solace in the fact that the nation had come home. One could contemplate one’s Jewish being on the background of the physical survival of the nation who after 2000 years no longer had to wonder. The Land of Israel was a tool to be used for study, not a new God to be worshipped. The Land was a catalyst to a better understanding and not erroneously, an end in itself.

The academics and intellectual elite barely offered battle over the Jewish soul. And as for Left wing politicians, they argued borders and did not participate in the battle over the Jewish future, but rather the Israeli. Most sought to be a nation like all others in the West (except that we speak Hebrew). Hence common denominators in the Jewish identity were not only lost, but never discovered and a common heritage not shared. At least with the National Religious, the common experience of military service and daily participation in the overall secular and religious worlds allowed for certain collective identification. (But more than anything, Thank God for the national teams in soccer and basketball, and of course, the Maccabee Tel Aviv hoopsters - okay, so most aren’t Israeli or even Jewish, but they still wear the yellow and blue and take European championships. Here we have across the boards identification.)

Today after the Oslo failure of bi-lateral “brotherly” relations with our Palestinian neighbors and the death of the God given Greater Land of Israel “orange wave” rabbinical dictates, most Jews in Israel find themselves in the “Center”. PM Ariel Sharon is leading the charge in the quest for a pragmatic solution to guarantee our physical security. Included are defensible borders, military deterrence – as much as possible and a security fence. On the diplomatic front Israel is on the offensive with the US and especially Europe and Russia. The economy is expected to grow 5.1% in 2005 and unemployment is down to 9.1% (still not good but better than the last few years). All this is fine if our objective is a State of Jews and not a Jewish State. Physically we will survive, spiritually we will not. But was that really the point of the Zionist epic?

The Centrist solution is only a response to the question of our physical defense and borders. It puts an end to “The Great Distraction” of dealing with the Palestinians and Arab/Moslem world at the expense of Jewish introspection. “The Distraction” must become peripheral. A true Centrist solution involves combining the common denominators of Tanach, Talmud, Jewish history (both in the Land and Diaspora), Zionism and an understanding and connection to a universalism including all peoples.

For the overwhelming mass of the secular it will certainly not be an easy task after a generation and a half of not teaching our children pride in being Jewish and having forgotten that each generation is a link in the chain of existence. Many traditional Jewish texts are treated with downright cynicism and ridicule. Positive parental role models are not easily found, nor even should parents have the desire, would they know where to begin. As for many of the orthodox, they forgot that the vast majority of the world is made up of the Nations and that Jewish existence is also contingent on not being in perpetual conflict. One cannot teach Jewish existence to the exclusion of everything else.

Our most creative element is also our most powerful defense: The education and identity we pass on to our children. Serving in the IDF and living in Israel are only a couple of aspects of our collective Jewish being. The time has come for us to return to what kept the Jewish flame alive over the ages; Jewish knowledge, morals/ethics and responsibility for each generation being “an unbreakable link in the chain.”

Shana Tova and Gmar Hatima Tova.