There is a story that in September 1967, the graduating class of the West Point military academy in New York was given a senior-year project. It had been just over three months since Israel’s lightning victory over its Arab neighbors in what had become known as the Six Day War. The class was presented with the maps, numbers of troops, armor and ammunition as they stood before the war. They were told to come up with a strategy for Israel to conquer the Golan Heights from Syria.
The members of the class worked on it throughout the autumn months and into winter, some even staying in school for Christmas break. As the spring rolled around, the time came for the class officer to present his findings to his own superior officers. He reported “that according to conventional military strategy, it is impossible for Israel to have captured the Golan Heights.”
There is a book called Siah Lohamim, published in English under the title The Seventh Day, in which secular kibbutzniks were interviewed about their experiences during the war. Many were surprised at how much they cried on seeing the Western Wall for the first time. They could not explain the deep emotions they felt when they connected to the Old City of Jerusalem.
This week marks the 47th anniversary of the war, and yet American Jewry is still not interested in coming on aliya. A whole generation of Jews has been born, been raised to adulthood, married and had children in the shadow of the Western Wall, and yet they are not coming.
I am not talking about assimilated Jews. I can’t blame them. They see their lives and identities tied with America and its values. While I bemoan that fact, their lack of aliya is not surprising.
I am talking about committed Jews – Jews who “drank the Kool-Aid” and understand how amazing it is that the Jewish people have reconstituted themselves in their ancient homeland and built a thriving sovereign Jewish State.
Never before in the history of the world has there been anything parallel to the resurrected Jewish people and state. Israel, one of the oldest peoples on earth, was exiled from its homeland and dispersed to the four corners of the earth. Throughout the millennia, the Jews never forgot their identity, their God and covenant. They even preserved their language and continued to use it in their synagogues and their rituals at home. In fact, when Jewish travelers came from foreign countries, they would break their teeth on the same glorious biblical phrases and idioms that Abraham, David and Jeremiah used, in order to communicate with one another.
Always guests, never at home, the Jewish people continued to pray thrice daily for the eventual return to their homeland. Every Jewish home had a picture of Jerusalem on the wall in the direction of this ancient land, reminding them of where they came from and where they were going.
Suffering through exiles, torture, murderous rampages and genocide, one could not even eat a cookie without asking God to return us to Zion in the blessing afterward.
Through sheer will and faith, we reclaimed our ancient homeland, made deserts bloom, built villages, towns and cities. We created whole industries and rebuilt a destroyed world of Torah. Forced to defend ourselves and our achievements from vicious enemies, we forged one of the greatest militaries on earth. Seventy years after they made soap out of Jewish people, we are a force to be reckoned with.
One could not make up such a story. We are witnessing the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and yet Jews who claim to be believers are not motivated to come. The great sage Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach used to joke that one day the Messiah would arrive, and American Jewry would come, take pictures and leave.
Imagine a Star Trek fan who only saw one or two of the movies, or perhaps none of them; who has watched only an episode or two, but not even of the original show. He cannot tell the difference between Kirk and Picard, and not only does he not speak Klingon, he does not even know what a Klingon is. What makes him a Star Trek fan? There are Jews who call themselves Zionists and have even less of a connection to Israel than this so-called Trekkie does to the Star Trek franchise.
Having been born in New York in the ’70s, I know how comfortable it is in the Diaspora.
I can’t say I ever suffered any anti-Semitism. But that is not the point. Israel isn’t about running away from something, but running toward it.
The rabbis have cautioned us that the study of Torah is not informative, but transformative. If that is truly the case, then imagine the transformation that comes of living a life that is completely Jewish. Imagine living in a country whose sole reason for existing is the promotion of the Jewish people’s welfare. We have a country here that lives, breathes, works, creates and loves according the rhythm of same calendar as the ancient Israelites who once populated this land. Talmudic law is part of the law of the land and plays a decisive role in the decisions of the courts. Here, and only here, do we decide our fate as Jews. How can one take his or her Judaism seriously and not actively seek to live one’s life in Israel?
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high- school yeshivot and midrashot.