Sometimes, you have to step back a ways in order to gain a new and different perspective on life. Well, Alaska, by all accounts, is a long, long ways away, and the two weeks I’ve spent here have certainly given me a lot of perspective and food for thought vis-à-vis our homeland, Israel. Let me sum it up in three words: solitude, serenity and survival.
Alaska is big, folks – very, very big. It is, by far, the largest of the United States, twice the size of Texas, the next-largest state. In fact, it comprises one-fifth the territory of all the other states combined (which the locals here call “the lower 48”).
Rich in natural resources, Alaska still mines gold and produces a full 25% of America’s oil needs. It is the only state to have coastlines – which total more than 53,000 kilometers! – on three different seas, the Pacific and Arctic Oceans and the Bering Sea. It is filled with glaciers, mountains, volcanoes and forests – including the largest forest in America, the Tongass.
But along with its gargantuan territorial size, it has a tiny population. It is the third-least-populated state, with just 1.3 persons per square mile, as opposed to 84 persons per mile in the rest of the US and a whopping 242 persons in Israel.
All this combines to offer a huge amount of space to the average Alaskan, who prizes his privacy and savors his seclusion. Lots of room to roam and ramble, to walk for long distances and never see another living soul (although a bear or moose may occasionally cross his path).
By contrast, Israel – at least its central core, from Gedera to Hadera – is packed into a small corridor, where we must rub shoulders every day with our fellow citizens and learn to coexist with them, like it or not.
Alaska’s wide-open space not only allows for a great deal of solitude, it also can bring a heightened sense of serenity.
You can truly appreciate the combination of peace and quiet, as the two blend together into what those two nice Jewish boys from New Jersey called “the sound of silence.”
It’s a very noticeable variance from the hustling, bustling daily life back home, where the streets are alive with every type of chatter, from the ringing of the ubiquitous cellphones to the honking of the cars (Israel, as you know, is a very musical nation, where virtually every driver plays the horn!). I found the silence refreshing, but I missed the vibrancy and dynamism of the average Israeli street.
But what most strikes me about Alaska is its sense of survival. Cut off from most of America, with temperatures that can routinely dip to 20º below zero Fahrenheit (minus 6º Celsius) in winter – when there are up to 20 hours a day of darkness – the state must struggle to find a way to provide its population with basic needs, such as food, shelter and warmth. Indeed, there are still thousands of people here who live in “dry cabins,” i.e., homes with no running water or indoor plumbing.
On a tour of Denali National Park – the largest national park in America, with more than two million acres – we saw a stark lesson in survival. A gray wolf walked down the road with the severed leg of a caribou in its mouth.
Our guide explained that the wolf must feed on the caribou to survive, but must hurriedly eat its prey before it is overtaken by the grizzly bear, who ranks above him in the food chain. “Nature writes its own rules,” said the guide, a Native Athabascan, “and rule No. 1 is survival.”
And here is the most important takeaway that I garnered from this visit.
Alaska may be huge, and Israel minuscule in comparison, but both share that common need to survive.
We are, by tradition, among the most moral of nations, setting the bar high for integrity and concern for others. We are rightly proud of that. But first and foremost, we must do what it takes to survive, for if we do not survive, nothing whatsoever will come of our eternal mission.
We must protect our borders, safeguard our citizens, ensure our national security and take whatever steps are needed. At times, these may seem to be harsh or hasty, but if they guarantee our survival, they are, by the laws of nature, just and right.
Alaska bills itself as America’s “last frontier.” Israel, no less, is, for the Jewish people, the last and greatest frontier.
Let us do all that is necessary to see it survive and flourish.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org