I’m comfortably middle-aged and not really the groupie type, but last month I found myself asking someone to sign a photo for me.
The someone was Natan Sharansky.
The photo showed me and a group of fellow high-school-age protesters sitting in the middle of the road halting what passed for rush-hour traffic in 1978 in London’s Piccadilly Circus. The demonstration by the group My Brother’s Keeper was held outside the Aeroflot office and we were calling for the release of Sharansky and other refuseniks held captive in the Soviet Union.
When Sharansky, a former minister and current head of the Jewish Agency, visited The Jerusalem Post editorial board he smiled as I pointed out my teenage self, clasping a balloon which had his name printed on it, and was happy to oblige with an autograph and dedication: “To Liat, Thank you for marching for me – it helped!” Concluding in Hebrew: “Am Yisrael Hai!” “The People of Israel live!” I spent most Sundays in the late 1970s campaigning at different London venues to put pressure on the Soviet regime to “Let my people go!” so finally summoning the courage to ask Sharansky to sign the picture just ahead of Passover seemed particularly fitting.
Neither Sharansky nor I would want to go back to those days (although my experience was vastly more comfortable, and the risks I faced in London were inconsequential compared to the ones Sharansky and others took in the Soviet Union).
Both of us are happy with our lives in Israel. Still, there is an element of nostalgia to those days – the solidarity that helped Sharansky is no longer fashionable. It was briefly felt for three weeks last summer as Israelis, Jews and well-wishers prayed for the safe return of the kidnapped teens; some of the positive energy from those prayers, unanswered, took us through the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge, when more than 4,000 rockets rained down on Israel from Gaza, and we responded with love – for the soldiers and for each other – and marveled that the Iron Dome was helping keep us safe, a modern miracle of sorts.
I wish we could recapture some of that good feeling also in times of peace (or at least relative quiet).
That’s why I like this special time of year.
There is something quintessentially Israeli about the emotional roller- coaster that takes us from celebrating the Exodus during Passover, to marking Holocaust Remembrance Day the following week, and then back-to-back, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day, one week later. It’s something even the bickering and fallout from last month’s elections can’t destroy.
Jews everywhere sit down for Seder night with friends and family. Even nonreligious friends admit having a warm feeling stemming from the memories of childhood meals.
“I guess for you the ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ bit came true,” someone remarked last month.
And yes, I do feel blessed to be able to celebrate the holiday in the Promised Land, surrounded by friends and neighbors each marking their family’s own private journey – in my neighborhood, overwhelmingly from Iraq and Kurdistan – along with the story of how “we” left Egypt to come home some 3,000 years ago.
The pictures of President Barack Obama hosting a Seder in the White House failed to give me the same fuzzy feeling. Passover marks the most significant event in Jewish history, the first step on the path to nationhood and freedom in Israel.
It’s not a PR gimmick. Sitting down to a meal with your boss, even if he is the president of the United States of America, is not the same as arguing over the tunes with relatives, recalling Seders past and the family members no longer around to enjoy them but whose memory lives on nonetheless.
Passover, like most Jewish holidays, is also not for the politically correct. Following J Street’s recent call to boycott Israeli enterprises over the Green Line, I wondered if it would produce Haggadot defining which parts of Jerusalem it was acceptable to include in our yearning, and whether that includes, for example, the Western Wall.
In certain liberal circles the concept of “tikkun olam,” “mending the world,” has become the focal point of Jewish identity. But they need to make sure the world they’re trying to fix includes Israel in it. Organizations whose raison d’etre depends on targeting the Jewish state rather than defending it do not make the world a better place no matter what they tell their members and donors.
AND ON to Holocaust Remembrance Day. The two-minute siren during which the country comes to a halt was more jarring than ever following last summer’s war. Flightor- fight syndrome doesn’t fit well with standing still and remembering your dead, six million of them.
The theme that Israel was founded at the Palestinians’ expense to assuage European guilt for the Holocaust has become the bon ton in some places. It curiously ignores all historical evidence that Jews always lived here and that the First Aliya, the first mass immigration, mainly from Eastern Europe and Yemen, began in 1882. The move to create an independent Jewish state was born on an ancient dream mixed with a general European move towards nationalism: that was before nationalism became a dirty word, before the term “Holocaust” had come into use, and long before Palestinian had come to exclusively refer to Arabs in the region.
More than once I have quoted writer Haim Gouri who told me: “Israel was not born because of the Holocaust, but in spite of it.”
As anti-Semitism rises to frightening levels around the world, I literally thank God that Israel exists.
However, as Sharansky stressed in his talk to Post staffers, there are enough good reasons to choose to freely come to Israel; it should not be seen simply as the last resort in the face of anti-Semitic attacks.
Israel, too, is under attack. It faces threats that the world powers consider unspeakable. They barely acknowledge that paving the way for Iran to gain nuclear weapons while still funding terrorism from Lebanon to Gaza and Yemen and promising that the eventual elimination of Israel is “nonnegotiable,” as a commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards put it last month, is doomsday material, not tikkun olam.
Obama last week told an interviewer from NPR that the Lausanne agreement, if it is signed in June, will delay Iran by at least 13 years, although by then the breakout time to a nuclear bomb would have shrunk to almost zero.
Thirteen years might seem like a long time to a president whose term ends in two years. It’s nothing in Jewish terms.
Boys born this Passover will be celebrating their bar mitzvas. For a people who recall the Exodus every year, from generation to generation, over millennia, talk of a 13-year delay of danger sounds more like a threat than a promise.
And so this year Remembrance Day and Independence Day, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, will have an especially strong bittersweet quality. The freedom to celebrate the 67th birthday of the modern Jewish state comes at a price.
As Sharansky points out, “Even if Israel could prove that it does everything in its power to achieve peace, and to minimize the number of civilian casualties in battle, it would not satisfy those who see the country’s very existence as problematic.”
Every time Israel is forced to defend itself, it invites not only new attacks on its own legitimacy but new pressure on its supporters in the liberal West to join the chorus, he says.
Why should European Jews, or anyone else, choose to hold fast to their particular identity in the face of so much pressure to abandon it? Sharansky asks. His answer, as he wrote in Mosaic Magazine last September, is: “Because identity, Jewish or otherwise, imbues life with a meaning and purpose beyond mere material existence.
It satisfies a basic human longing to be part of something bigger than oneself, an intergenerational community that shares a set of values and a sense of overarching purpose.”
That’s why I not only asked Sharansky to sign the photo from more than 35 years ago, I am planning to have it framed: A little piece of Jewish history of which I can be proud.
Because, in a world so uncertain, I am sure of one thing: Being proud of our roots and identity is a better way of moving forward than running away from the past.