They have all seen fit to raise the matter of the Zionist idea.
By DAVID BREAKSTONE
On the eve of Israel's 61st Independence Day, I've discovered that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Binyamin Netanyahu and my sister have something in common. They have all seen fit to raise the matter of the Zionist idea. I am writing now to thank them personally for having taken it upon themselves to remind me that what we are celebrating is nothing to be taken for granted.
Each, of course, has a different perspective on the subject. The president of Iran denies the very legitimacy of a Jewish state, the prime minister of Israel insists on its explicit recognition by our enemies, and my sister merely wants to know what we are talking about. I'll leave it to others to tackle the easy challenges put forward by the president and the prime minister; I'm going to struggle with the more difficult one raised by someone who loves me, but who doesn't fully understand what I am doing here.
"A place where Jews can live comfortably I can appreciate," she said to me during a recent visit to the States, "but a Jewish state - how can a state be Jewish?"
Behind the question I sense a degree of uneasiness. If what you mean by a Jewish state is what I think you mean, then it must inevitably be one that oppresses, or at least marginalizes, anyone who is not Jewish. How would you feel if people began calling America a Christian country? Thinking that there must be those who would be absolutely fine with this idea, I tried Googling "Christian America" and came up with 31,100,000 results. But as neither she nor I would be happy about the prospect, I've chosen not to ignore the problematic nature of her proposition. Instead, I present here the rest of a conversation that never took place.
"THE PROBLEM is that when you say 'Jewish,' you're thinking religion," I begin. "When I say it, I'm thinking culture, values, mythology, nationality and history. Framed this way, you should have no more problem accepting a country being Jewish than you do accepting one as being Chinese or American."
"Religion isn't a part of it? There's really a separation of 'church and state' in Israel?" she asks accusingly.
"Yes... No... It's complicated," I stammer, a bit befuddled. "Okay, religious law is imposed on important aspects of our lives," I concede, "but not just on Jews. Druse, Muslims and Christians have to contend with this as well. That only clergy can perform weddings doesn't mean we're a theocracy; the religious establishment derives its authority entirely from a democratically elected Knesset and, ironically, it is the Jews who are complaining most loudly. Those who aren't Orthodox feel disenfranchised."
"While in America, you've got all the freedom you could possibly desire," she persists. "So what do you need a Jewish state for?"
Holocaust Remembrance Day has just ended, along with Durban II, and I am tempted to retort with the obvious. But that would be too easy, and not really answer the question she is asking. Fortunately, Passover has just ended as well, and that offers me an entirely different realm of response.
"Because the other day when I was shopping for groceries, a riot almost erupted in the supermarket," I explain. The quizzical look on her face prompts me to continue. "It was just before the Seder and the store manager rolled out a container of five-kilo boxes of matza that he was selling for a shekel each for as long as the supply lasted. It didn't last long. Only in a Jewish state can you witness men, women and children from a hundred different countries trampling one another to save $6 on a carton of carton-like sustenance, when all around them aisle after aisle was overflowing with delicacies for which they would be shelling out 60 times that amount.
"When I managed to extricate myself from the pileup (victorious, I might add), I realized that I was shopping to the tune of 'Chad Gadya' and other Pessah melodies piped in to add to the festive atmosphere."
"Sounds a little like Christmas here," she says.
"Exactly my point," I retort. "Anyway, it wasn't only the matza that disappeared. Anything not kosher for Passover had either been removed or covered."
"So anyone not observing the holiday is being persecuted..."
"'Persecuted?' I protest. "How about 'inconvenienced'? That I'll go along with - happily. There's a law - again, passed by the Knesset - that actually prohibits the display of hametz in Jewish neighborhoods throughout the holiday. You can sell it; you can buy it; you just can't see it."
"You don't find that offensive?"
"Personally, I far prefer living where I don't encounter any bread for a week than where I am enticed for far longer to amass Easter eggs, bunnies and chocolates at every checkout counter."
"And Passover isn't commercialized in Israel?" she challenges me.
"Of course it is, but that's precisely what I'm trying to tell you. Only in a Jewish state. For months before the holiday, billboards advertise discounted kitchens that can be installed in time for the Seder, thereby precluding the need to turn your old one inside out. Full-page ads in the papers read, 'The wise child. Where does he shop?' playing on the theme of the Haggada's four sons. Vacations - Seder included, and prices jacked up - are promoted on every Web site and have become integral to the holiday ritual. Schools, public institutions and private businesses close down for the week, and before they close down, they slow down, so that for at least a month before Passover nothing is promised to be delivered until 'after the holiday,' a handy excuse for procrastination which anyone who has encountered it knows there is no sense arguing with."
"That's what Passover in your Jewish state has been reduced to - time off from work?"
"And intolerable lines at the barbershop," I add, leaving her totally confused. "Also at the carwash."
"After the Seder, we begin counting the Omer, seven weeks when Jews traditionally don't cut their hair. (Google it for a full explanation.) So suddenly everyone needs a trim at the same time. As to the cars, well, people make a fuss about cleaning them just as they do their homes, strictly observant or not.
"But once the frenzy of preparations are behind me, I am free to sit contentedly in my garden. The rains have ceased along with our prayers for them, and I am profoundly appreciative of the first fruits sprouting on my fig tree and the tender grape leaves unfolding on my vine - all in perfect harmony with the ancient rhythm of nature indigenous to this ancient land of my forebears and described in glorious detail in the ancient language of the Song of Songs."
"IT SEEMS you've found a real fullness in this Jewish state you're so proud of," she concedes, not anticipating my answer.
"There is one thing we're missing," I confess with a sigh.
"And that would be?" she inquires curiously.
"A modern-day Moses," I reply. "One who will implore us to relate justly and with sensitivity to the strangers in our midst - Palestinians, foreign workers and refugees from Darfur alike - who will beseech us to remember that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land.
Someone who will shout out that our very right to be here is predicated on our acceptance of the charge we received while still on the other side of the Jordan to fashion a society that cares for the widow, the orphan and the downtrodden among us. An impassioned prophet who will chastise us for proclaiming at the Seder table, 'Let all who are hungry come and eat,' while doing nothing the next day to alleviate the misfortune of those less fortunate than we."
All of this may not constitute a sufficient palliative to the vitriolic diatribe delivered by Ahmadinejad in Geneva, nor will it further Netanyahu's diplomatic stratagem. But perhaps it will satisfy my sister, and all who would wish to understand what it is that those of us who live here mean when we talk about a Jewish state, and why it is so meaningful for us to celebrate its independence.
The writer is a member of the Executive of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization where he represents MERCAZ Olami, the Zionist organization of the worldwide Conservative Movement.
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