The First Word: Next year - in Des Moines?

We resemble more and more the biblical spies who claimed that the Land of Canaan couldn't be conquered.

biblical times 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
biblical times 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On September 15, 1825, Buffalo, New York was the site of a grand ceremony that might have changed the course of Jewish history. On that day in St. Paul's Episcopal Church, journalist and Democratic Party activist Mordecai Manuel Noah announced to a large crowd the creation of "the Jewish State of Ararat" on Grand Island in the Niagara River, near the US border with Canada. Noah, an American Jew who wanted to provide "an asylum" for his persecuted brothers and sisters in Central and Eastern Europe, believed that the new colony - named after the mountain upon which Noah's ark rested after the great flood - would provide that safe haven that world Jewry needed to survive. In the end, Noah's vision did not translate into reality. All that is left of Ararat is its cornerstone. It is inscribed with the Hebrew words of the Shema prayer and now rests in Grand Island's town hall as a curio to attract tourists. Historians have not treated Mordecai Manuel Noah kindly, branding him a schemer and an egotist who dreamed dreams that bordered on the realm of insanity. Yet, let us remember that in the early 19th century, the idea of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel was a fantasy. The Ottoman Turks controlled Palestine - there was no way that the Muslim empire was going to allow a Jewish state in its domain. Noah, as an American Jew, tried to do his best to find an answer to the suffering of Jews in the Old World. For him, the New World provided an answer. He was not a crackpot. He was a man ahead of his time. For him, living in America two centuries ago, Grand Island was the only option. In July 2006, when the IDF was struggling to defeat Hizbullah terrorists in Lebanon, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen referred to the State of Israel as an "honest mistake." He argued that the creation of a Jewish State in the Arab and Islamic Middle East had produced "a century of warfare and terrorism." In the wake of the recent Israeli war of self-defense in Gaza, more and more American Jews seem to be agreeing with Cohen's assessment. While many American Jews remain supporters of Israel, Jews here are starting to abandon hope that Israel will be able to survive. They argue that the Jewish state is surrounded by enemies, that Israel's Jews are a house divided, and that, perhaps, the creation of a modern Jewish state in the Land of Israel was not meant to be. They are starting to say that "Israel is a mistake" and that Judaism and the Jewish people would survive even if Israel were to be obliterated by Iranian nuclear weapons. Many years ago, a student in an adult education class that I taught at a local community college proposed that the Jewish state should not be in the Middle East, but in America's Midwest. Would not a Jewish state in Iowa, located in a region far, far away from the hostile Arab and Islamic world of the Middle East, be the best location for a homeland for the Jewish people? Perhaps, at the Passover Seder this year, I should conclude the festive meal with the cry of "Next Year in Des Moines!" Perhaps those who do not recognize the centrality and importance of Israel to the future of world Jewry are right. Perhaps we, as Jews, can go on even if Israel no longer exists. Perhaps we should forget who we are, the descendants of men and women who sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem, studied in the academies of Yavne and Tiberias, fought for independence in Modi'in and Betar against the Hellenists and the Romans. Perhaps we should discard the Hebrew Bible as our deed to the Land of Israel. Perhaps we should ignore all the archeological evidence proving that the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel dates back 3,000 years. Let us forget the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar Kochba letters, the Western Wall, Masada. Let us forget that Jews have yearned for millennia in the Diaspora to be redeemed in the Promised Land. Let us abandon Hebrew as a living language, relegating it only to sacred texts that we do not understand except through English translation. Perhaps this form of mass amnesia is the answer. Forgetting who we are, where we came from, and forgetting 60 years of sacrifice, backbreaking work, heroism on the battlefield, Nobel Prize winners, economic success, the revival of Judaism in a Jewish homeland - for some Jews, this sort of amnesia seems to be the answer. WORLD JEWRY WILL NOT survive the destruction of the State of Israel. The Jewish state is the religious, political and cultural center of all Jews. The hope of the Jewish future is the hope of Israel, the people and the nation. Some American Jews argue that Jews have lived in the Diaspora for more than 2,000 years and will continue to do so whether Israel exists or not. At best, this argument is misguided. At worst, it is defeatist. With each passing day, we resemble more and more the spies in the Bible who demoralized the Israelites by claiming that the Land of Canaan could not be conquered. Some American Jews are simply ignoring the realities of history. They forget that while Jews were persecuted in the medieval world, our people were never the victims of systematic mass murder and cultural repression. Genocide of the Jews is a modern phenomenon, the result of both traditional anti-Semitism and the dynamics of modern nationalism. Have we forgotten the disaster of the utter powerlessness of the Jews of Europe only 65 years ago? Furthermore, Jewish identity is both religious and national. Whether it was Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel in ancient times or Jewish self-government in Germany and Spain in the medieval period, Jewish identity was never based solely on religion. We, as a people, cannot survive if we forfeit either crucial element of our identity. American Jews fool themselves if they truly believe that Judaism could survive another destruction and another exile from the Jewish homeland. There will be no more genocide of the Jews. There will be no more exile of the Jewish nation from the Land of Israel. This time, history will not repeat itself. The year 2009 is not the year 586 BCE or the year 70. Jews and Judaism in the 21st century would never recover from the destruction of the State of Israel. I apologize to my fellow Americans in Iowa. I am sure your state is lovely and honorable. But it will never be the homeland of the Jewish nation. Forget Grand Island, Uganda, Argentina, Birobidjan and New Zealand. Jewish history began in the Land of Israel; our future as a nation is in the Land of Israel. Jews in the Diaspora, especially Jews living in America, can certainly play a vital and active role in the continuing drama of Jewish survival and continuity. There will always be a Jewish Diaspora - the State of Israel has not negated that reality. In the end, however, the future of the Jewish people will likely not be in Des Moines or New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or in my own Fort Lauderdale. The destiny of the Jews as a people - our future - will be played out in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The writer is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University's LifelongLearning Institute in Davie, Florida.