The annual book fair in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It is no secret that American Jews and Israel are drifting apart. Reasonable minds can and do differ about whether the tide can be stemmed, but that the world’s largest Jewish community (Israel) and its largest Diaspora (American Jewry) are becoming less interrelated is fairly beyond question. Why this is happening is also not entirely clear, but one significant cause is undoubtedly the fact that most American Jews think of Israel only in terms of the conflict – a conversation which reduces Israel to a source of nothing but sadness and frustration.
Several times over the past weeks, though, it’s struck me that much would be different if only many of those same Jews could walk the streets of Jerusalem to see what Israel has become and with what it still struggles. The modern streets of this ancient city are the ultimate window into both the triumphs and tribulations of Israelis society. Listen to what the city has to say and it becomes clear – the conflict, painful though it is, is not at all what the State of Israel is about.
A century ago, some Zionist thinkers (Ahad Ha’am perhaps the best known of them) wished not for Jewish sovereignty, but for a renewed, thriving Jewish intellectual and spiritual center in Palestine. They wanted not a state but an oasis of Jewish learning and discourse. Had they been in this ancient city in recent weeks, they would have witnessed their vision come to grand fruition.
Jerusalem on the night of Shavuot is a scene of thousands of people scurrying about the city’s streets, heading from one study session to another. Journalist and rabbis, authors and psychologists, literature experts and Talmudists all teach that night, to standing room only crowds. Even at 2 a.m., there were long lines to many of the venues. Those hoping for a seat were young and not young at all, religious and secular, men and women and Jews of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
If Ben-Gurion and his fellow founders imagined that Israelis would reject classical Jewish texts and focus on social revolution, Jerusalem that night would have proven that this dimension of their revolution failed. Today, secular Israelis by the thousands want to join an ancient conversation. They seek not to be observant, but conversant. Their search is not for freedom from tradition, but for the meaning to be found in it. Today’s Israel is in many ways home to a “revolution against the revolution,” a longing to re-enter the Jewish conversation that began thousands of years ago.
Do Diaspora conversations about Israel ever focus on this?
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, often called the father of modern Hebrew, would have been awed this week had he gone to any of the many venues of The Week of the Book – the annual celebration of the miracle of books in a language not long ago very few people spoke. Dozens of publishers, thousands of titles and capacity crowds filled the arenas.
The sight of thousands of Israelis of all ages and backgrounds hungrily buying up Hebrew books by the thousands is another glimpse into what the reestablishment of a Jewish home has wrought. Jews today are still the People of the Book, still in love with the written word, still creating homes that in addition to everything else, are characterized by shelves filled with books we wish to read and then pass on to our children. It is no exaggeration to state that without Israel, Hebrew would not be a spoken language today. That’s another triumph that interminable conversations about the conflict can only mask.
Yet how many American Jews can name five Israeli novelists, or have read even a handful of Israeli novels in translation within the past few years? We cannot love what we do not know.
Jerusalem’s streets reveal an underbelly, too. Trek a kilometer or so from the First Train Station, Jerusalem’s venue for the Week of the Book, to Sacher Park, and you will find a tent where doctors and staff from the pediatric oncology unit at Hadassah Hospital are seeking public support in their battle with the hospital’s administration and the Health Ministry. Some time ago, the hospital decided it could bring in more money by offering its worldclass oncology treatment to non-Israeli children for a top-dollar price (medical tourism, as it’s called). Gradually, though, the physicians became convinced that the dramatic increase in the number of patients was harming the quality of care for Israel’s desperately sick children.
No one heeded their warning that lives were at stake; so after months of frustration, the doctors all resigned. Another Jerusalem hospital was willing to hire them all and to create, overnight, a world-class pediatric oncology unit, but the Health Ministry blocked that. Today, Israel’s capital has no pediatric oncology unit, and as is too often the case in modern Israel, critical financial needs are endangering children’s lives and the reputation of an internationally renowned hospital.
What if American Jews rolled up their sleeves to help fix this? Might not actually working together help heal the rift between the world’s two largest Jewish communities?
Physically or figuratively, we need American Jews to walk Jerusalem’s streets. A Zionist conversation about Israeli society and its ongoing challenges invites Jews across the world not just to judge, but to participate in what is without question the most magisterial Jewish project in two thousand years.
Will Jews across the world take up that challenge and broaden their conversation? One thing is certain: that decision is not Israel’s to make. The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, was National Jewish Book Award’s “Book of the Year” for 2016.