Looking out on the Temple Mount.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
During the long centuries of exile, Tisha Be’av’s focus was loss. Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora were united on this day in mourning the end of Jewish sovereignty.
With the return of Jews to their land, the central message of the day should shift from remorse for what was to realization that history can repeat itself. Jews lost their sovereignty. There is no surety that this will not happen again.
Saul Bellow expressed this idea in To Jerusalem and Back (1976), “... there is one fact of Jewish life that is unchanged by the creation of the Jewish state: you cannot take your right to live for granted.
“Others can, you cannot. This is not to say that everyone else is living pleasantly and well under a decent regime. No, it only means that the Jews, because they are Jews, have never been allowed to take the right to live as a natural right. To be sure many Israelis refuse to admit that this historic uneasiness has not been eliminated. They seem to think of themselves as a fixed power, immovable, their point has been made, they are a nation among nations and will always remain so.
“You must tear your mind away from this conviction as you must tear it from civilized appearances in order to reach reality.”
Bellow’s intention was to criticize the nations of the world for their constant attempts to delegitimize Israel’s existence.
But we can also draw strength from this reality. Acknowledging the fragility of the Zionist project can help us appreciate it all the more. Because we as a people have experienced loss, the return to autonomy is all the more precious. It should not be taken for granted. We must be vigilant.
As the recent upheaval surrounding the Temple Mount demonstrates, Israel continues to face major challenges. Israel’s many enemies will not go away anytime soon. Fifty years of a unified Jerusalem has not convinced the world of Israel’s immovability. It is no coincidence that the place where Jewish sovereignty is most disputed is the very site that symbolizes more than any other Jews’ undeniable ties to this land.
Yet, we should not despair. The Jewish people is uniquely positioned to weather the challenges of the 21st century.
Unlike many European nations that seem awash in a morass of multiculturalism as they face waves of immigrants bringing with them radically different cultures, Israel has a strong sense of identity. We are a people with a rich national and religious narrative that ties us to one another and to this particular slab of land in the Middle East. Days like Tisha Be’av – as well as happier times such as Passover and Sukkot and Hanukka – are reminders of our people’s common past and our roots. We are constantly telling and retelling our story to one another and to ourselves and this story is intertwined in the very geography of the land.
At the same time, unlike less liberal societies, we are a people who knows what it is to live as a guest in a foreign land. The ramifications of political powerlessness are intimately – and painfully – familiar to us. The modern version of the biblical command not to oppress the stranger is to be sensitive to the minorities in our midst in Israel because we too were minorities in Spain, Poland, Morocco and Iraq.
Tisha Be’av teaches us of the destructive forces that can lead a once unified nation to turn upon itself. Today we are witness to divisive elections in Europe and the US. In Israel too we are often divided and polarized by our fears, uncertainties and anxieties. Whether it be the controversy over metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount or the Nation-State Bill, religionization in the schools or solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are a deeply divided nation. We should not, however, allow our many legitimate and heartfelt differences of opinion prevent mutual respect and cooperation.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in a recent TED talk, “the only people that will save us from ourselves is we, the people – all of us together.” No strong leader will do the job for us, not even a messiah.
This necessitates moving from a politics of me or of a particular group to a politics of “all of us together.” On Tisha Be’av we are reminded what is at stake if we fail in this endeavor.