Jews, come home

Author Naomi Ragen urges Diaspora Jews to “come home” to Israel, and describes her own feelings of the almost miraculous condition of being a Jew in the Jewish homeland:

I was walking down Prophets Street (Rehov Hanevi’im) in Jerusalem, thinking how lucky I was to be living my life in a place that has such a street. I was thinking how short life is, and how we live in such an incredibly special era, a time when miracles and prophecies are unfolding before our astonished eyes. You have only to read the Torah to see all that God predicted would happen to the Jewish people has happened and to realize that the time we are living in is when the good things that were promised are now coming true.

I too understand the feeling of experiencing the miraculous, even when I’m only in the somewhat decrepit shuk in Rehovot.

It’s not connected to religion, although it’s easier to observe the commandments in Israel where you are not always wondering where to find kosher food, and where people understand what Shabbat means, whether or not they keep it themselves.

From a religious point of view, the connection between the Jewish people and their land is obvious. The Torah is in large part a story about the relationship between, Hashem, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel. For secular people, especially those living in those parts of the diaspora where Jew-hatred is currently held at bay, it may not be evident. Some feel the connection and some don’t.

I have a good friend, who came to Israel from America close to 40 years ago. He is not observant. He will tell you that he is an atheist. We don’t talk about politics much, but I suspect he is significantly to the left of me. But he has a connection to the Jewish people, and for better or worse this is his home. He could have earned a good living in America or Europe, but he chose to be here. He feels the magic of living in a Jewish state, even if he wouldn’t express it like Ragen does. And he isn’t the only one that feels this way. The socialist kibbutzniks that played such a great role in the early days of the state also claimed to be atheists, but they loved the land of Israel and made great sacrifices for it.

But for some diaspora Jews, the Jewish homeland is not their homeland. There is something missing. It’s easy to find examples. Simone Zimmerman, the Jewish woman who leads the organization called “If Not Now,” accepts the Palestinian narrative of the conflict, calls Israel immoral and corrupt, and seemingly fails to notice the murderous behavior of Israel’s enemies. Jewish historian Hasia Diner feels “a sense of repulsion when [she enters] a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, “We Stand With Israel.”

Zimmerman and Diner are strongly influenced by their progressive political perspective, but why did they choose it? And why did they choose to emphasize its anti-Israel aspects? I believe that it is impossible to adopt an ideology that is so one-sided, that so strongly condemns both the actions and the motives of a people, when you see yourself as a member of it. And they don’t, despite their public identification as Jews.

I greatly prefer someone like Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, the pro-Palestinian group that sent Rachel Corrie to her death under an IDF bulldozer. Shapiro believes that being Jewish is simply a matter of religion, and since he has no connection to Judaism, he is not a Jew. Hitler would have disagreed, but at least Shapiro is honest.

Zimmerman and Diner claim that they are acting in accordance with Jewish ethical principles. They are referring to the system of universalist ethics that underlies the social activism that has replaced ritual as Jewish observance for many liberal Jews. While it is certainly legitimate to practice a Judaism that emphasizes the prophetic tradition and deemphasizes ritual, it seems to me that when your ethical system elevates other groups over the Jewish people, then it can no longer be called a Jewish ethics.

And some diaspora Jews really do place the Jewish people at the bottom of their ladder of ethical priorities. Zimmerman says that “Jewish liberation is inextricably tied to the liberation of all people,” a statement which is clearly false. Is there a connection between the Jewish people and the persecuted Rohingya people of Myanmar, a country that has about 20 Jewish residents?

What she means is that in her eyes, the Jewish people are no more important than the Rohingya. Of course I agree with her that a Jewish life and a Rohingya life are equally valuable. But I care less about what happens to the Rohingya than the Jewish people, and I would expect them to feel the same about us. In any event, Zimmerman is a hypocrite: her activism is aimed primarily at opposing the state of the Jewish people, and she devotes little if any energy to helping the Rohingya.

For every Jew that supports the cause of the enemies of the Jewish people there are probably ten that are indifferent. Some just don’t think about it, some deny their Jewishness to escape antisemitism, and for some, the idea of being a part of a people that transcends politics doesn’t resonate, or is even abhorrent.

I think there is something – a spark or a gene, depending on the kind of language you prefer – that no matter where a Jew may be on the spectrum of observance, can act as a channel to the Jewish people and their homeland. You have it or you don’t. You are connected or you aren’t. And in the diaspora many people with Jewish parents, even synagogue members, simply aren’t. They are the ones who see Israel as “just another country.”

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt thinks that there are six inherent moral foundations that serve as the basis for our decisions about right and wrong, and good and evil: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. Cultures and individuals differ in their relative responses to these six triggers. For example, in affluent, educated Western circles, care is very important: morality is primarily about not hurting anybody. In more traditional groups issues of loyalty, authority, and sanctity take precedence.

Haidt thinks that part of the difference in attitudes of liberals and conservatives can be explained by the idea that liberals greatly emphasize the first two, care and fairness, while conservatives place more equal weight on all six. The feeling that one belongs to a people fits in the category of loyalty, which possibly explains why liberals find the universalist ethics of Reform Judaism attractive.

Naomi Ragen speaks in religious language, and she is politically conservative. But there are countless diaspora Jews who don’t fit into those categories but who still feel their connection with their people, their land, and their state.

If you feel that connection, then you should come home too.

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