Commentary: Masters of Our Own Fate
This month, the State of Israel is celebrating its 60th birthday, and most Jews have grown accustomed to the nation’s existence. One day when I was teaching the kindergartners in my synagogue school, I asked them, “How old do you think Israel is?” “A thousand years.” “Oh, no,” I said. “Five thousand years?” They kept shouting out higher numbers. When I finally told them the correct answer, they stared at me in disbelief. I explained how the history of Israel is ancient, but the state is very young. I told them that some of their great-grandparents fought to make Israel an independent nation.
Do we take Israel for granted? I hope not, since only in Israel can our freedom be wed to our ancient land. Only in Israel do Jewish rights and history come first and foremost.
I like to retell a story of my awakening Jewish pride at age 13. It was 1976, the 200th birthday of the United States. For the July 4th festivities, New York planned Operation Sail, a gathering of tall sailing ships and warships from throughout the world. The day before the ships entered New York Harbor, Navy vessels steamed up the Hudson River. My family sat in our 22-foot Glastron boat for two days waiting for them to pass. I remember the majesty of the 200-foot crafts. I remember the Russian vessel purposely sailing past its designated anchorage. Most of all, I remember when Israel’s Galaxy entered the harbor. Every horn on every boat sounded. Every bystander broke out in cheers, whistles and thunderous applause. The Israeli sailors stood at attention in their dress whites. The noise and commotion continued for several minutes—because only hours before, Israeli commandos had rescued about 100 hostages from the hands of terrorists in the extraordinary Operation Entebbe. Israel had asked no one’s permission to rescue Jews in danger. On that day, Jewish power was asserted.
Over 30 years later, in another secret raid, Israeli Air Force jets bombed Syria’s nascent nuclear facility—the country again taking matters into its own hands. I could tell stories of 1967, 1973 and 1981 that represent the turn from allowing history to be written about us—and on us—to writing our own history. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote (www.danielgordis.org/dispatches): “Yes, it may be… more dangerous to be a Jew [in Israel] than anywhere else in the world, but there’s also nowhere else where Jews get to chart the course of their own destiny. There’s nowhere else, in short, where the Jews can have what every other ‘normal’ nation has at least somewhere. How can a people who want to survive in a meaningful way give up on that? It can’t.”
Last summer, I traveled to Israel, as I do every summer, going north to see the devastation from the 2006 Second Lebanon War. I stood within a few feet of the border, and in the distance I could see the yellow flags of Hezbollah flying on rooftops. In nearby Kibbutz Manara, an elderly woman offered me tea.
Her name was Rachel Rabin, sister of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a founder of the 60-year-old kibbutz. Set on a mountaintop, it is an unlikely place to build a home; on that July morning, a cold wind blew. Along with tea, Rabin plied her visitors with stories of her youth, showing old movies recently uncovered in the Simon Wiesenthal archives.
When asked if she was worried about the future, Rabin responded by pointing her finger. “Look,” she said, “we built this kibbutz…. We moved boulders with our own hands. We planted orchards in inhospitable soil. We carried our children on our backs down the mountain when the Arabs attacked.” And then, she exclaimed, “So you want to know what will be? We have had great leaders. We have had bad leaders. There will be hard times. There will be easy times. We will survive. What we overcame 60 years ago far exceeds any challenges we will face in the future.”
Sometimes i think the survival of the Jewish people rests not on the shoulders of prime ministers and rabbis but on the shoulders of women like this who wave their fingers at fate. Or leaders who do not pine after fame but devote themselves to the task of building a Jewish nation and rebuilding the Jewish spirit.
David Ben-Gurion, for example, is one of only two prime ministers not buried on Mount Herzl. His grave rests alongside his wife’s on a hill overlooking the Negev Desert. One would not be surprised if his headstone read: “First prime minister of the State of Israel. First defense minister of the State of Israel. Founder of the Histadrut labor union. Author of the Declaration of Independence.” But all it says is: “David Ben-Gurion; 1886-1973; aliya to the land 1906.” That’s it. The year he was born. The year he died. The year he immigrated to the Land of Israel.
There is a story that when Ben-Gurion was still prime minister, his motorcade passed through the desert, where he caught sight of Kibbutz Sde Boker. He said to himself that this is where he would like to retire when he was finished with the affairs of government. When he asked the kibbutzniks about becoming a member, they responded, “Well, Mr. Prime Minister, we will have to vote on it.” Only in Israel would a bunch of Jewish farmers answer a prime minister that way. They eventually admitted him, but not without controversy. Apparently, some said—perhaps with a finger jabbing the air—“He is not going to pull his weight. Presidents and foreign dignitaries are going to want to visit him on the kibbutz. He is going to ruin our nice, quiet life.”
Last summer, on one erev Shabbat, I strolled down the trendy Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. The day was winding down. There was very little traffic. People were carrying bouquets of flowers for their Shabbat tables and last-minute purchases of food and wine. I wandered into the rebuilt Cafe Hillel for an espresso and thought about the homicide bombing that had destroyed this restaurant on September 9, 2003. I thought of the lives that were shattered. But when I looked around, all I saw were smiles and all I could hear was laughing. Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins.
My weeks of study in Israel were framed by the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, marking the day the Romans besieged this city, and three weeks later by the full fast day of Tisha B’Av, when Israel’s enemies destroyed the First and Second Temples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.
Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, when Jeremiah’s Book of Lamentations is chanted. In past years, I had gone to the Kotel on Tisha B’Av, the closest place to the ancient Temple’s site. This year, instead, I went to the Haas Promenade, which overlooks the village of Abu Tor and, in the distance, the southern side of the Old City, where members of a local Conservative synagogue gathered. Unlike the scene at the Wall, where the mood is mournful, this crowd of 400 recited ancient prayers and also modern songs, including Hannah Senesh’s impassioned “Eli, Eli.”
One would think that this holiday, too, would color the city’s mood, but the walls of the Old City were aglow. There may well be untold ruins beneath our feet, but despite ancient grief and ancient exiles, there is no ruin in the air. I revel in the songs of thousands of Jews. I rejoice that we have returned to this city. Israel writes Jewish history each and every day. Indeed, 60 years after its modern rebirth, Israel waves a finger at fate.
Steven Moskowitz is rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville in Jericho, New York. He returns every summer to Jerusalem to study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.