Keep dreaming: If you build it, they will come

We can't expect majority of Jews from around world to “feel more connected spiritually and Jewishly” in a country that demonstrates contempt for the sensibilities of Reform and Conservative Jews.

‘IF YOU wish it it’s not!!! A fairytale.’ Graffiti on the walls of Neveh Tzedek in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: DAVID BREAKSTONE)
‘IF YOU wish it it’s not!!! A fairytale.’ Graffiti on the walls of Neveh Tzedek in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: DAVID BREAKSTONE)
Walking through the gentrified neighborhood of Neveh Tzedek in Tel Aviv last week, a line of graffiti at odds with the surroundings caught my attention. With the adroit placement of three exclamation marks, an artist with a public consciousness had managed to transpose Theodor Herzl’s celebrated catchphrase into biting social commentary. IF YOU WISH IT IT’S NOT!!! A FAIRYTALE appeared on the wall, swapping inspiration for frustration.
Here in the heart of the first Jewish quarter to be built outside the walls of Old Jaffa, in what would grow into the first Hebrew city crowned with the title of Herzl’s utopian novel, Old New Land, was a stinging declaration that the loftiest aspirations of the Zionist ideal have gone unfulfilled.
Now is an opportune time to take note of that. This Tuesday we commemorated the anniversary of Herzl’s death, following by just a couple of days the 17th of Tamuz, the beginning of the “Three Weeks leading up to Tisha Be’av, commemorating the destruction of the Temples and the subsequent exile of our people from our homeland.
What does one date have to do with the other? Connect the dots. For 2,000 years we’ve been mourning and longing over sovereignty and return. Now our generation, incredibly privileged to have inherited answered prayers, is being accused – from within – of not succeeding in doing what we’d set out to achieve. And anything less than that, it appears, just isn’t good enough.
The graffitist whose work I stumbled across wasn’t complaining about the absence of a Jewish sanctuary; she was decrying the absence of a home for “the best strivings of the human spirit” that Herzl had dreamed of, where those who “hazarded our lives for the cause would regret having raised a finger if we were able to organize only a new social system and not a more righteous one.”
The consequence: young Israelis are leaving in droves, or at least thinking about it. A number of recent polls, punctuated by anecdotal reports of mass migration to destinations such as Berlin of all places, indicate that more than a third of Israelis have seriously considered leaving. Among the young, educated, and secular the proportion is considerably higher.
Which brings me to another less than obvious connection I spotted a week ago. Last Friday, two apparently unrelated articles appearing on this page were, to my mind, inextricably intertwined.
In the first, former Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman pleaded nobly with Jewish parents around the world to raise their children to make aliya, maintaining that “it is here where they will feel more connected spiritually and Jewishly.”
Below that piece, David Brinn pleaded with the government of Israel to offer “even a shred of an idea” as to how we might pull ourselves out of the diplomatic quagmire into which we’ve sunken regarding talks with the Palestinians, bemoaning the disheartening sensation that as a nation “it seems like we’ve given up the will to try.” The Lipman-Brinn connection? Who is going to move to a country in a perpetual state of morass? It gets worse. Whatever one’s take on the government’s handling of our conflict with our neighbors, there is no denying that PM Netanyahu has betrayed his pledge to represent the entirety of the Jewish people. “All Jews can feel at home here,” he recently told a crowd gathered in the Jerusalem Theater to honor Michael Douglas – a self-proclaimed Jew by patrilineal descent – upon his being awarded the Genesis Prize.
“And as prime minister of Israel...I will continue to reject any attempt... to delegitimize any Jewish community. Everyone is welcome – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox alike.”
Yet earlier this week, he oversaw the repeal of conversion reform that another of his governments, free of haredi political parties, had enacted just seven months earlier. Orthodox Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, a passionate champion of wresting control over such matters from the clutches of the ultra-Orthodox, termed the move “the biggest conversion fraud in the history of the Jewish people.”
And Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, hardly a stranger to PM Netanyahu’s inner circle, was unwilling to “accept the fact that a matter so vital to the future of the Jewish people and to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is subject entirely to the configuration of the coalition.”
Unperturbed, the prime minister chose to rub salt into the nation’s wound on the very same day, leading the cabinet to approve transfer of authority over the rabbinical courts from the Justice Ministry to the Shas-controlled Religious Services Ministry, a move vociferously opposed even by modern-Orthodox women’s groups, which feared, as did Yesh Atid MKs Yael German and Karin Elharar, that the decision would “return us to the era of darkness.” Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid lambasted the two decisions as “an act of betrayal against women, new immigrants and world Jewry.”
Capitulation on such matters is not only bad for those who wave the flag of religious freedom. It is also bad for those who aspire to nothing more than putting a roof over their heads. The wholesale auction of prejudicial legislation and the concomitant pledge of hundreds of millions of shekels to coalition partners in exchange for their loyalty is an affront to all who understand that the security of this country depends first and foremost on the preparedness of those who do serve in the army to die for it. If we cannot offer them the hope of building a home here, if we cannot make them feel at home here, we can hardly expect them to fight for the homeland.
Nor can we expect the vast majority of Jews from around the world to “feel more connected spiritually and Jewishly” in a country that demonstrates nothing but contempt for the sensibilities of Reform and Conservative Jews who make up the majority of the affiliated community around the world.
As Tisha Be’av approaches, then, and as we contemplate the internecine rifts that brought about our devastation two millennia ago, it is appropriate that we dedicate ourselves to removing the exclamation marks scribbled on the wall of Neveh Tzedek, and re-envision the field of dreams on which this quaint “Abode of Justice” originally took root. We need not complete the task in order to entice others to join us. If enough of us link hands in an effort to build it, they will come. IF YOU WISH IT IT’S NOT A FAIRYTALE.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, a member of the Jewish Agency executive, and international vice president of MERCAZ Olami, the political arm of the Conservative/Masorti movement.
The opinions expressed herein are his own.