An alleyway in Tel Aviv

Israel: A Story Greater than the State

By Rabbi Josh Beraha

The first time I remember longing to make aliyah, I was in high school spending a semester abroad in Israel. I lived some of the time with a family in Gilo, a neighborhood outside of Jerusalem, where conversations with my host brother, Yoav, awakened these feelings of longing that linger to this day.

With each bus ride from Gilo to merkaz ha’ir, the city center of Jerusalem, and back again in the evenings, I became increasingly enthralled by Israeli society, seen through the variety of people on the 31 bus. If I wasn’t looking at them, studying them, wondering who they were and how they made their way to this complex, tense, historic city, I’d be looking out at the street signs and trying to comprehend Jewish history—for how many generations of Jews was Israel only an idea, a dream, but never a reality? How many generations did Jews live without political autonomy, in lands not our own? And yet there I was, with an opportunity no Jew had had for two millennia. But I was also achingly aware that I was just a visitor: in two years I would begin university back in the United States, and Yoav would enlist in the Israeli army.

In college I was still captivated by the story of the modern state of Israel, and began to wonder if I wasn’t obligated to take a more active role in the unfolding of the closest thing to a miracle I might experience in my lifetime. These feelings reached a climax when I learned about the Kishinev pogrom, the 1903 massacre of Jews in what is now Moldova, in my first-year Hebrew literature class.

The Kishinev pogrom inspired Hayim Nachman Bialik to write his shocking poem, “City of Slaughter.” The shock of what Bialik wrote was not in the horrific details of the pogrom, but in his accusation that it happened because of weakness among the Jews themselves. “You are the sons of Maccabees?” he wrote, as if to say, “Where is your strength? Stand up for yourselves!”

Bialik’s poem would soon become part of the ideological foundation for the “new Jew,” and it would inspire emerging young Zionists throughout Eastern Europe. A century later, Bialik’s poem would inspire me, too. In an alternative reality, maybe Israel could have been my home. But that was not to be because of choices my ancestors made.

My great-great grandmother, Bubbe Esther, was raised outside of Kiev and was one of nine children. When she was already grown, and married with two children, she witnessed the murder of her father, Berel Lezer, during a pogrom. I don’t know what the family discussed afterward, but eventually Bubbe Esther left for Romania, then Argentina, and eventually made it to America. She settled in Chicago, and her daughter, Frances, had Lorraine, who had my dad, and here I am, five generations later.

Like Bubbe Esther, the majority of Jews who left Eastern Europe came to America. Only a small percentage immigrated to Palestine. Did my family even consider Palestine as an option? Was it ever a realistic possibility for them?

As I’ve gotten older, and as an American Jew, I realize that I don’t need to live in Israel and serve in the army like Yoav to participate in Israel’s story, because her story is greater than the state. And if there exists a tension within me, so be it. That tension is a feature of being Jewish, not a bug.

After the founding of Israel in 1948, its first prime minister David Ben-Gurion thought that every Jew should immigrate to Israel. Jacob Blaustein, of the American Jewish Committee, disagreed: “American Jews,” he said, “are profoundly attached to this, their country. America welcomed our immigrant parents in their need. Under America’s free institutions, they and their children have achieved that freedom and sense of security unknown for long centuries of travail. We have truly become Americans, just as have all other oppressed groups that have ever come to these shores. We repudiate vigorously the suggestion that American Jews are in exile. The future of American Jewry, of our children and our children’s children, is entirely linked with the future of America.”

Blaustein was and remains right. American Jews are profoundly attached to this country. But the tension between American Jews and Israel continues, and with the recent rightward shift in the Israeli government, that tension is only going to grow.

Last year, a book by Yossi Shain, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and a former member of the Israeli Knesset, maintained that Israel “has displaced the United States as the center of global Jewry and as the longterm definer of the Jewish people’s interests and identity.”

My college self would have been inspired by Shain’s argument, but I see the world differently now. What’s most important is the Jewish story in its entirety, and I see it as a privilege to take part in it, as a visitor on the 31 bus or as a rabbi in Washington, D.C. What a shame, then, that many progressive American Jews are turning their backs on Israel as exemplified most recently by a prominent Conservative rabbi who announced that his congregation would no longer be reciting the prayer for the state of Israel. American Jews need to see that we have a central role to play in the future of the state. After all, we are all “the children of Maccabees,” and that power cannot be held only by those who live in Israel, especially with a new government that is destroying the unity of the global Jewish community.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of the Vine.

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