A great summer vacation provides enough distance from reality to relax and enough different perspectives to reframe and revitalize. By those criteria, in addition to enjoying a month vacationing together, the Troy family just spent two triumphal weeks in Hawaii. In Hawaii, 13 time zones and 14,000 kilometers away from Jerusalem, Israel is delightfully, blessedly irrelevant. However, in this old-new tropical archipelago, juggling its rich ancient tradition with modern ideas and realities, Zionism is surprisingly, instructively resonant, to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Unlike with most Europeans, when a Hawaiian hears you’re visiting from Jerusalem, mileage trumps politics. “Wow,” we kept hearing, “that’s far” – and that’s all. The distance is refreshing, silencing the constant “will Israel survive” question, while shelving those nasty twins: the Left’s “what did Israel do wrong today” and the Right’s “why does everybody hate us” obsessions. Most Hawaiians just seem fascinated that you traveled so far – and ignorance about Israel seems to preclude most judgments.
The distance also provides some wisdom.
Deep in the forests of Big Island, we saw a Hawaiian proverb posted. “He ka’e’a’e’a pulu ‘ole no ka he’e nalu,” it warns, mocking “an expert on the surfboard who does not get wet.”
“How’s that for a description of a self-righteous anti-Zionist American Jew,” I exclaimed, showing that the Big Island mellow had not yet dulled my fighting instinct.
There was also a proverb offering advice for hypercritical Israelis: “A’ole no I ‘ike ke kanaki I na nani o kona wahi I hanay ‘ia ai,” “A person doesn’t see all the beauties of his birthplace.”
Even more compelling were the many non-Zionist reflections on Zionism. One tour guide, an earnest Canadian who recently moved to Hawaii, explained that the Hawaiian word for non-Hawaiians, “haole,” means “person with no soul.”
“Hawaiians always knew who their ancestors were, back five or six generations at least,” he said. “The British sailors who first arrived professed no awareness of their past, so they were dismissed as people lacking souls.”
Similarly, an exuberant Hawaiian native said, “a tree without roots cannot live” – and he wasn’t just talking agriculture.
This notion that the past roots us even in our present-obsessed world is part of Hawaii’s charm – and central to the Zionist message. Hawaii feels like a paradise because its rich culture, connected to the land, harmonizes with its stunning beauty, synthesizing humanity’s creativity with nature’s bounty. In seeing the culture’s embrace of its space, in feeling Hawaiians’ love for their surroundings, in encountering Hawaiian pride, one doesn’t condemn them as possessive, or racist. Instead, one applauds their synchronicity, their easy integration with their environment. The Labor Zionist A. D.
Gordon celebrated the land as anchor and springboard, reassuring us with continuity but emboldening us to progress. And the Cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am believed that enduring cultural expression requires the authenticity Hawaiians and Zionists seek, by expressing ourselves today in language and symbols imbued with the power of our particular yesterdays.
At the same time, in a place filled with transplants, one sees the difference between an indigenous relationship with the land and an adoptive one. In a vacation spot that seemed like Florida with more beauty and fewer Jews, we had one tour guide who quickly bageled us – our term for being identified as Jews by Jews while traveling.
“I’m from the tribe, too, man,” he said, a phrase my kids instinctively understood but never heard in Israel. He admitted that despite loving his last 14 years in Hawaii, and despite never having visited Israel, Hawaii was “Hawaiians’ homeland,” while “Israel is my homeland.”
This love for a land this man had never bothered to visit was instructive. When traveling, we find all kinds of people who have made all kinds of places their homes. But most of us are particularly fascinated by the natives, those maintaining their homes and cultures in their homelands. In an ever liquid modern world of disposable, fluid relationships, homeland is about solidity, continuity, about ancestors, about roots.
One’s homeland is like one’s family, the origins of so much about yourself you take for granted, that defines who you are and who you wish to be.
That sense of familiarity, of ownership, is the key to programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel – wherein Jews who have never been in Israel describe feeling “at home” in ways they never have before, despite their return tickets “home.” After all, Jews are, as the human rights activist Irwin Cotler says, the original aboriginal people, connected to the same land, speaking the same language, developing the same culture for the past 3000 years.
The Hawaiian word for homeland, “one hanau,” literally means “sands of our birth.”
One Hawaiian curriculum notes that “our location tells us the history of our people.
Our place has a strong spiritual significance that links us to our past and inspires us to protect it for the future.” Many Westerners see this power of place so well in others; what a shame that many of us don’t see it in our own lives, with our own lands. Instead, we often mistake pride for provincialism, depriving ourselves of the integrated identities we love to toast in those we deem exotic.
The author, professor of history at McGill University, is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy
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