Rabbi Yair Robinson
I have always loved the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, who has long captured the soul of Israel, at least for me. One of my favorite of his poems is called “Tourists,” which describes those who come to Israel to visit, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Toward the end, there’s a prose addendum that reads:
Once I sat on the steps by agate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
So often, when I speak with folks about Israel, the conversation becomes one of political parties, wars, heroes, borders, cherry tomatoes, technology, ancient ruins and archaeological digs, food, literature, women’s rights, green lines and red lines and lines in the sand, and the like. And all of those are interesting topics! But for me, at its heart when I think about Israel, I think about people.
My first visit to Israel was as an infant, as my parents brought me back from the United States to introduce me to my mothers’ parents and brother and the extended family. They had come to Israel in the 1950s from Egypt and had made a life for themselves among the sand dunes of Holon. And so, I would go back to Israel again and again—as a child, an adolescent and an adult. As a child, Israel was not an abstract thing, it was my family, taking me to playgrounds or letting me run around among the sunflowers in the garden outside my safta and sabba’s apartment. It was playing soccer with the children of family friends in HaifaAnd it was not just family and friends; I remember when I was young, it was the early 1980s, we were visiting up north, and we were near some gate. Suddenly my dad was helping direct traffic and large army trucks filled with soldiers were going through the gate, and my mother sat down to cry. I did not know it at the time, but it was early in the Lebanon War, and those soldiers—they looked old to me, but they would have looked like children to my parents—were heading north to fight. As I grew older, and had the chance to live in Israel twice as an adolescent and an adult, and visit in between, it was still the people that made the deepest impression on me. The students and teachers of the school I attended, in all their remarkable diversity, learning Bible and Arabic along with Math and science. Faiz the maintenance guy at Hebrew Union College, who took care of the alley cat that had taken up residence on campus. My first roommate, a South African Olah¸ and my Yekkeh (German Jewish) landlord who wore a full suit in the August heat, and used the most formal Hebrew I’d ever heard. The volunteers I gathered alongside with to help rebuild a demolished home of an Arab family. The monks and artists and musicians, the olim from all over the world, and the sabras who, had never left the Land. The settlers and Orthodox folks who frequented the same gym as me, and the Arab Jazz musicians who put a band together with a classmate’s husband, where they’d run off to play at some club in Ramallah, or Jericho, or Bethlehem. When we could sing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” unironically. Even on my last trip, when I got to bring my wife and son, the most powerful moment was watching my child play with the children of one of my wife’s friends who had made Aliyah.
And this focus on people remains even now. For weeks, we’ve watched hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets to protest the so-called reforms the current government wants to enact on their supreme court. For those not following—Israel has no constitution, but it has what are called basic laws, including laws defining human rights for its citizens, and the supreme court—15 justices nominated by a selection committee and appointed by the president—enforces those laws, sometimes over the objections of various Israeli politicians. It’s how Reform conversions from outside Israel are accepted and women can read from a Torah at the kotel, among other rights. The current government wants to be able to override the supreme court, which sent people into the streets, and caused Israel officers and soldiers to refuse to essentially go on strike. When the defense minister raised alarms in Knesset, the prime minister fired him, which caused a general strike and flooded the streets of Israel with mostly peaceful protesters, and some much less-than-peaceful counter-protesters. Imagine thousands of protesters blocking I-95. That’s what was happening in Israel. And Prime Minister Netanyahu paused the process—theoretically—until after Pesach.
So why should we care? Why should it matter? Again, this sounds like politics, like red lines and lines in the sand. Because it’s still about people. It’s about Israelis like my friend Sharon, who grew up on Cape Cod, moved back to Israel, and is taking her children to the protests. It’s my cousin who worked for the foreign ministry standing in the streets with her grandchildren. It’s the Arab cab drivers who got attacked by right-wing counter-protesters who chanted ‘may your homes burn’. It’s about the hundreds of thousands of Israelis—teachers and hi tech workers and soldiers and students, left wing and right wing, Jewish and non-Jewish, in Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva, Jerusalem and Haifa and all over—who have been protesting to preserve their democracy.
So, what should we do? What could we do? Isn’t this their problem? Well, the first thing we need is to stop treating Israel like Jewish Disneyland. As Amichai reminds us in his poem, this is a country of real people, not costumed cast members, who we should care about, and not just in the abstract, and not just as landmarks for whatever holds our attention. Then, we need to raise up our voices. Contact our Israeli consulate in New York (who’s consul general just resigned over this so-called reform), and make it clear that as strong supporters of Israel and as Jews, we care about Israel’s democracy and don’t want to see it erode. Finally, we need to put pressure on our own government officials. Our senators and congresswoman all engage on Israel and foreign policy in general in different ways; regardless, we should be calling on them to call on the White House and State Department and their own connections in Israel’s government to continue to put pressure on them to find a compromise. And we should do this not out of anger or grievance but out of love—love for the people of Israel who are on the street, on their feet, with their children and grandchildren, trying to preserve a sense of who Israel is and who it should be.
A few moments ago I read about how the light on the altar should not go out. Our dream of an Israel carried us for nearly two thousand years and the real Israel and her people have inspired us for the last seventy-five. We owe it to them and ourselves to keep that light of democracy burning perpetually, not as an abstract thing, but for the people who care for alley cats, and teach mathematics in Hebrew to stubborn American children, and who buy fruits and vegetables for their family. May this be so. Amen.