Friday, April 12, 2013

Israel at 65: Celebrating Is Not Enough

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City |
Originally Published in The Jewish Week

All eyes were on President Obama in Israel last month as he visited Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem. Watching the moving images of the president visiting the graves of Rabin and Herzl, and the adjacent Holocaust memorial, I wondered how aware he was of the fact that the mountain he was on has a very deliberate architecture: At the mountain’s apex rests Herzl’s grave, surrounded by the graves of Israel’s past leaders.
Walk down the slopes and you are in Israel’s national military cemetery. Follow the path further down and you’ve arrived at Yad Vashem. Below the memorial, at the bottom of the mountain, is the “Valley of the Communities,” representing the diaspora Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust.
When President Obama walked across this mountain, from Yad Vashem to Mt. Herzl, he was climbing the contours of an ideology embedded into the mountainside: Jewish history has worked its way from the depths of exiled communities doomed to destruction, through the flames of anti-Semitic hatred, up past the children of the nation who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and onwards to the top, where Herzl’s visionary dream is enshrined in black marble: an autonomous Jewish state.
This week in the Israeli calendar tells the same linear story, using not only sacred space but also sacred time: There are seven days between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. It is as if the entire country sits shiva, mourning the tragedy of the Holocaust, then rises to be comforted by the existence of the State of Israel. While the pairing of the Holocaust and Israeli independence has its historical problems, for me it remains a powerful narrative, one that has imprinted itself in my own family history.
Yet Mt. Herzl’s narrative is also an insufficient one, for there — at celebrations of our independence — the conversation unfortunately stops (usually with a good BBQ and a pound of hummus). For years Israelis avoided a serious conversation about what we actually wanted to do with the Jewish state now that it exists. As we re-live that sacred timeline again this week, moving from memory of the Holocaust to celebrating 65 years of Israel’s existence, it is time to say: arriving at Mount Herzl is not enough.
Sixty-five years in, Israel still lacks a constitution and a clear social contract for the Jewish identity of the country. Sixty-five years in, Israel still avoids having a deeper conversation about the role of the two groups that don’t fit into Mount Herzl’s narrative: Jews who live outside Israel and Israeli citizens who are not Jews. Sixty-five years in, we can no longer be sustained merely by the fumes of our own existence, or by the fumes of those who threaten us — as powerful as those realities are. We must have a painful conversation not only about our borders with our neighbors, but about the identity of the home we build together — this is the Zionist calling of our times.
The good news is that Israelis are doing exactly that. The social protests of the summer of 2011 seemed to call an end to the age where every Israeli tribe — haredim, settlers, Tel Avivians — simply does what is best for itself. The new Knesset has brought in fresh political parties that were elected to have a wide conversation about service, education and economics, and about what a secular state does with its religious and cultural inheritance. Hopefully these parties can outgrow the old Israeli tribal politics and stop disenfranchising the easy targets — ultra-Orthodox Jews or Arab citizens of Israel — as has happened so far. Sixty-five years in, Israelis are pushing to get out of the shallow crisis management mode and into a truly inclusive “grand debate”: What is it that we want Israel to be about?
And it is time American Jews engage seriously in this conversation as well. Israel’s friends and allies often get caught up in celebrating the state’s existence and fretting about its external challenges, but lose patience and nuance when it comes to suggesting a vision for what Israel should actually be about. American Jews need to do two things at once: jump into the debate with their own values and visions, while remembering that the Judaism that is right for America is not necessarily what’s right for Israelis.
How exciting would it be if the Salute to Israel Parade in New York would be not just a show of support, 
but also a wide discussion of visions for the Jewish state. How fitting would it be if the week of Yom Ha’Atzmaut would be a time in which American Jews educate themselves on Israel’s challenges and opportunities. Of course we would quickly discover — as Israelis do when having this conversation — that we disagree on what that vision might be. And that discovery would seem to interrupt the superficial unity of the moment. However, this is “Jewish unity” we’re talking about, one that becomes stronger when each of us voices our own opinion while listening to those of others. From its earliest days, Zionism has been a vigorous debate between competing visions, voiced both from Israel and from abroad. While the internal vision for the Jewish state is not an issue for the American president to opine on, it is very much a debate for American Jews to take part in.
Sixty-five years in, something big is happening in Israel, which is finally taking us beyond Mt. Herzl. It is time to for American Jews to turn up the heat and join the conversation.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mount Herzl is Not Enough: The Next Israel Conversation

Published in honor of Yom haZikaron 2012

One. The Mountain of Memory
Jerusalem has not one, but two holy mountains: The Temple Mount in the east, and Har Herzl in the west. Har Herzl, or Har haZikaron, “the Mountain of Memory” has a very deliberate architecture:
On its highest point rests Herzl’s grave. It is surrounded by the graves of Israel’s presidents, prime ministers and leaders. On the slopes of the mountain is the national graveyard for fallen soldiers. Follow the path down the mountain to the west, and you’ve arrived at Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Take the winding road down from the Yad VaShem museum, and you are at the bottom of the mountain in the “Valley of the Communities,” representing the exilic communities of the Diaspora that were destroyed in the Holocaust.
Topography is used to tell a story, embedding an ideology in the mountainside. When you hike this mountain, you are climbing the contours of an argument: from the depths of exilic reality, doomed to destruction, through the flames of anti-Semitic hatred, up past the sons and daughters of the nation who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and onwards to the top, where a visionary’s dream is enshrined in black marble: an autonomous Jewish state.

Two. Israel’s Holy Week
Herzl's grave at the top of Mt. Herzl
There are moments when the Jewish calendar opens the faceless ticking of time to reveal a beating heart at its center.  Secular life barely uses time in such a way – this approach is normally left to the religious and their holy times. But in Israel, the secular state created a “civil religion” with its own High Holy Days. Israel’s “Yamim Noraim” fall this week, the seven days betweenYom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day commemorated last Thursday, and Yom haZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s eerie pair of Memorial for Fallen soldiers, which at nightfall becomes the Day of Independence, to be celebrated this Thursday.
While the way these days flow into each other was a kind of fluke of history, they create a powerful statement. There are seven days between Yom haShoah and Yom haAtzmaut, as if the entire country sits shiva, mourning the loss of the Holocaust, and then arises to be comforted by the existence of the State of Israel. Add Passover to the mix two weeks before, and you have a full ideology, as Prof. Don Handelman has shown, one that is often evoked in the speeches given by Israel’s President and Prime Minister on these days. As Israel’s Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, put it in 1964:
"Holocaust memorial day falls between the ancient Festival of Freedom and the modern day of Israel’s Independence. The annals of our people are enfolded between these two events. With our exodus from the Egyptian bondage, we own our ancient freedom; now, with our ascent from the depths of the Holocaust, we live once again as an independent nation." (Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Holocaust day Address, 1964)
Yom haZikaron begins with a blaring siren which is sounded across Israel at exactly 8pm, piercing walls and hearts, and a nation stands still to commemorate those who fell in its honor. It is the most powerful time to be in Israel’s public space: stores close, communities come together, and the radio plays the saddest Israeli songs. The nation turns from a collection of citizens into a family that together remembers their fallen.
Like the mountain, the chronology makes a powerful argument: the tragedy of the Holocaust has taught us that Jews need their own state in order to be free and to be safe. In order to achieve that independence we must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice—our sons and daughters in exchange for independence. Only after that lesson has been engrained, can we celebrate our independence.
Three. Fissures
Of course, in reality, this clean narrative is riddled with question marks:
Is the Holocaust really to be owned and subsumed by the State of Israel? Zionism existed before the Holocaust and is more than simply a response to anti-Semitism. Perhaps the Shoah should not become a point in an ideological argument, but a historical memory that belongs to humanity as much as to one group of victims.
Yom haZikaron claims to turn the nation into a family, but soldiers of minorities struggle with the Jewish face of this day, and the country is increasingly facing the fact that a diminishing demographic is doing the work while Ultra Orthodox and Secular elites skip out.
Yom haZikaron opening ceremony at the Kotel, 2012
Yom haAtzmaut is challenged both on the left, by anti-Zionist Israelis who seek to release  Israel from its ethnocentric bias, and on the right, by religious groups, betrayed by the evacuation from Gaza, who see not the 1948 secular declaration of independence, but the 1967 unification of Jerusalem and greater Israel, as the high point of the narrative. This ideology subsumes Herzl’s mountain back under the Temple Mount.
Some feel threatened by these dissenting voices, which find issue with the argument put forward by the Memorial Mountain. I’d rather see in this the natural and healthy debates of a country that is trying to do many things at once. These voices should not be pushed out, but rather seriously engaged. We need to have this debate together, and the calendar and topography must be used to further this discourse.
Four. 50 Days
The timeline of Passover-Yom haShoah-Yom haZikaron-Yom haAtzamut needs to be extended to include one other holiday: Shavuot, the anniversary of the Jewish people coming together to become part of a covenant. The secular Zionist calendar loved Passover, renaming it the Festival of Freedom, but had no patience for the rabbinic Shavuot, the festival of Torah and its exilic progeny, Halakha. In the early days of the State, Shavuot was returned to its Biblical agricultural roots as a celebration of first fruits. Now that agriculture got sidelined in Israel all that is left for most Israelis is a consumerist celebration of dairy products.
But to me, Shavuot represents the day in which we get to discuss and decide what we want to do with our previously achieved freedom and independence. Sefirat haOmer, the quirky ritual of counting 50 days from Passover to Shavuot, represents exactly that process: the move from Freedom to Covenant, from childhood dreams to mature decision making.
Israeli independence, and the celebration of its achievement, is important. But it is not sufficient. We need to continue the process, counting up the days to the time where we discuss, agree and sign a covenant of what we – Israel’s stakeholders: citizens and diaspora Jews - want Israel’s existence to be about. Har Herzl is not enough, we must find Israel’s new Mt. Sinai so that this exciting project can take flight.

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Tazria-Metzora / Yom haAtzmaut 2012 | Text and the City