Celebrating our differences

Author Daniel Gordis explains his newest book, ‘The Promise of Israel.’

ICEJ Opening Night Feast of Tabernacles 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ICEJ Opening Night Feast of Tabernacles 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While in the midst of a major book launching campaign, Israeli author and scholar Daniel Gordis addressed in early October the annual Christian celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, held in Jerusalem and sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. A rabbi and noted commentator, Gordis is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He rose to prominence in 2010 with his work Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, which won the National Jewish Book Award among other accolades.
His latest release,
The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength (Wiley Publishers, 256 pages, hardcover) is being met with critical acclaim as well. Gordis discussed the premise of his new book before an audience of pro-Israel Christians from around the world. Following are excerpts from his lecture.
It is a great honor to be here, and it is extraordinarily moving for someone who lives in Jerusalem to see the outpouring of love and the show of support [for Israel] that is represented in this building and by you, pilgrims from all over the world. You know better than anyone else that the last 15 years here in Israel have been filled with extraordinary highs, but there have also been some dark days.
I remember telling one of my sons, when he was growing up and nervous about turning 18 and going into the army, I remember telling him: “Oh, don’t worry! By then, there is going to be peace, and you won’t have to worry about fighting wars.” And he got older and got drafted into the army, and peace has not yet come to Israel. Since that time, we have had what was misnamed the second intifada.
“Intifada” is an Arabic word that means “popular uprising.” This implies some kind of spontaneous uprising. But there was nothing spontaneous about it. It was very carefully orchestrated, and it came from the top.
Those were the times when hotels were empty in the middle of the tourist season, and some only kept active one of their floors. But the people who never stopped coming, people who come here – and I don’t really want to call it tourism, because it was so purposeful – they were the Christian pilgrims. It was a demonstration of Christian faith and love. I want to thank all you Christian pilgrims for showing my sons, throughout the years, what the true meaning of faith and religious conviction is.
I want to say a few words about the latest book I wrote and why. Because, as I have said before, it’s so sad watching the perspective grow over the past 15 or so years, of the gradual marginalization and delegitimization of the State of Israel everywhere you turn. The idea that a leader like [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad can stand up in front of the United Nations and say the things he says; the idea that young university students call him “Your Excellency” – it’s unthinkable! Everywhere you turn, Israel finds itself on the receiving end of so much of the world’s criticism. By the way, as a joke when I socialize with some of my colleagues, we refer to the USA university campuses as the “occupied territories.”
The world loves to take the side of the underdog, and the Palestinians are very good at telling their version of history, skewing the facts so that instead of Israel defending herself, [they are] making Israel into the aggressor. So how did this perspective come about? Now we are getting to some of the points of my new book. This is not just a war against soldiers, a fight over land and the right to self-determination. It is also a war of ideas.
I want to focus on ideas and start with an idea from the song that John Lennon made popular, “Imagine.”
Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
In other words, if only there was no religion, the world would be a better place. So countries and religion do the same thing – they divide us. If we got rid of them, there would be no differences between us. We would be one happy, homogenized human family. We would all be the same, and we could get along forever and ever.
All of that sounds well and good, but it’s wrong, because every human attempt to erase human difference has always failed. For example, the former Soviet Union made all the people live in the same oblong-looking apartments. You can go to Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and your house looks like my house. That one looks like their homes. But we all know the homes are not the same, that it is actually very important that each person’s home is different. It won’t work trying to erase the differences in our cultures and languages and religions to make us all the same, so we can all be the same Soviet citizen.
To attain peace is not erasing where we come from and our past and our differences, but rather accepting each other’s difference and honoring each other. Please turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis, and I’ll show you where I get this idea from.
We all know the story of the Tower of Babel. The world is united and speaks one language, and they build a tower, and God comes down and confuses the people and confounds the people with different languages.
It becomes a little bit like the United Nations, you know.
Nobody is listening to each other anymore, and they are all just raving mad, each one saying something more lunatic than the other. And then they all spread out and decided to go live separate.
So what is the sin of the people before they got confused by the Lord? Was it the tower? I don’t think God got nervous over a tower. Let’s look at it again. At the end of chapter 10, that’s the end of the Flood story. And it tells us of the three sons of Noah that they dispersed, each with their own family and to their own languages, to their own lands with their clans, etc. They became peoples. Something happened between the end of chapter 10 and before the beginning of chapter 11.
You see people feared the idea of spreading out and moving away, and God actually told people to go spread out and fill the earth. It’s foretold that one day all the nations shall come up to celebrate together in Jerusalem. It does not say they shall come up to become one nation. God gave this land to the Jewish people, but there are verses where it says that land there is for those peoples. Thus, to summarize the idea, it is that Israel has not bought into the John Lennon idea for mankind. The world says we are all one big happy family, but Israel still believes in the concept of individual cultures and of respecting them.
It’s also what this season and the biblical festivals are all about. Yom Kippur is where we repent and we take stock of our lives, drawing near to God.
And then it’s followed by this festival of Succot. We sit together with our families and with the Gentiles from the nations to experience our fragile, temporary existence. We can use our culture, the Jewish culture, to honor God and to gain perspective and mutual respect for all of creation.