Four Reasons I’m Bound to Israel

Loving Israel – its people and its land – and the role it plays in Jewish identity transcends politics and government policies

by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

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I write these words on board a plane flying to Israel. In our time that fact is neither unusual nor noteworthy. But what is remarkable is my excitement every time I board this flight, the thrill I get when I hear the announcements made in Hebrew, the diverse faces, attire and lifestyles of the Israelis who bustle around me, the sheer reminder of how unlikely – and miraculous – Israel’s reality remains.

In our time, simply loving Israel has become enmeshed with attitudes toward policies of its government and the sentiments of some of its citizens. But this blurring is an error. There is nothing wrong with even strong disagreements. But my core convictions about Israel, and the large role Israel plays in my own identity, transcend politics, policies or partisanship. I love the United States without supporting everything it has done or does, and certainly without agreeing with all of its citizens’ political preferences. Why can’t we feel the same way about our many ties to Israel?

Of course, there is a difference: most of America’s enemies want it reformed, not obliterated. They don’t seek to drive Americans into the sea or to wipe it from the face of the earth. Israel’s enemies want Israel removed, terminated, destroyed.

In the face of that venom, and in the face of so many well-meaning people whose disagreements with particular Israeli policies or claims have distracted them from their core affection and identity, I feel impelled to speak out, to re-assert the possibility – no, the necessity – of affirming the pervasive, fundamental shared bonds that both transcend and make permissible raucous dissent and debate.

Why is it that despite our diverse politics and passions, so many American Jews continue to feel a special tie to Israel? And why is it unlikely that that bond will fade? I believe there are four primary reasons why our own identities are so inextricably linked to Israel.

Reason One: The Land

Painting by Avner Moriah

Painting by Avner Moriah

I love the hills that rise from the coastline ascending to the culminating heights of the Judean mountains with Mount Zion. I love the red clay soil and the pine trees that lend the air a distinctive, tangy scent. I love the way the golden sunlight bounces off the sandstone of Jerusalem and makes the city shine. Watching the waves of the Mediterranean dancing on the shores of Tel Aviv and Jaffa makes me smile, and I love strolling the gentle hills of the Galilee, wandering the valleys near Safed, contemplating the alluring wadis and deserts of the Negev.

In a deep way, those hills are a part of me. This land has woven in and out of our people’s memory throughout the millennia, and permeates our spirit, too.

I know we are not the only people to have fallen in love with this place. Most recently Palestinians, but in antiquity the Jebusites, Hittites, Philistines, and others have loved it and love it still. Jews and Palestinians will have to find a way to each love this land in their own ways.

It is a beautiful, soul-gripping land and my Jewish groundedness is inconceivable without it. I know what it means for land to be holy because I love this holy land. I know how land roots us in hope and possibility because I love this promised land.

Reason Two: The People

Just as one cannot love land in the abstract without loving particular lands, one cannot love humanity abstractly without loving actual people. I love all humanity (most of the time), but I do feel a distinct fellowship with my fellow Jews, the children of Israel, around the globe and throughout the ages.

Jewish unity integrates my own identity with large and dynamic Jewish population centers. As a Los Angelino, I live in one such vibrant center. I feel an emotional tie to New York for the same reasons. To the degree that human identity extends beyond our own individual chronology, my imagination draws me to large Jewish centers in ages past: Warsaw, Berlin, Vilna, Cordova, Granada, Baghdad, Alexandria – these centers have all been home for us at different times, all have made a permanent contribution to what it means to be Jewish. But in every age, Israel has been the home par excellence. Throughout the ages, we looked to Jerusalem, to Acco, to Safed, as our home of origin and of destiny.

Even if the other reasons didn’t hold, the fact that Israel is fast emerging as the largest single center of Jewish population would be enough to make it a central focus of my identity as a Jew. Many of my people are there, among them family and  dear friends, and so is a piece of my heart.

Reason Three: The Culture

Painting by Avner Moriah

Painting by Avner Moriah

So much of Jewish culture springs from Israel. The stirring visions of the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah were garbed in speech from this place. The conversations of our earliest rabbis, stylized in the Mishnah, emerged on their walks through its fields and orchards. While the Jews of Babylonia were specifying the law, the Jews of Israel created synagogue poetry (piyyutim) to spice up the service, and generated the playful, wondrous rabbinic legends and stories that became the Midrash – ancient Israel’s bounteous play with Scripture. In the Middle Ages, Israel’s north became home base for a renewed Kabbalah – a mystical theopoetics so compelling that it attracted Christians and Muslims to its orbit and continues to enchant many in their search of spirit.

The cultural renaissance centered in Israel flowers today. Israeli poetry renews a language that once was the exclusive provenance of rabbis and sages. Leah Goldberg, Yehudah Amichai, Admiel Kosman, and others weave that venerable language in astonishing garlands of new insight and human transparency, and Israel’s novelists are among the world’s best. Israeli artists, musicians and authors shine a light that lets me see myself more clearly, and they speak of contemporary Jewishness that extends our ancient culture into new, uncharted waters.

I am bound to Israel because these cultural creators are helping me remake myself as a Jew and a human being.

Reason Four: Self-Determination

The final reason I am bound to Israel is more stark: after two thousand years of living under the rule of others, the Jewish people is today asserting its self-determination. Other peoples are imperfect in their governance but retain the right to govern themselves. After millennia of persecution, Israel represents a unique way for the Jewish people to lay claim to that same right.

I know that Israel and Zionism are not the only way that Jews engage with power. As a proud American citizen, I am inspired by the way Jews have been involved in every social justice movement in this country. I am moved by the extent of Jewish participation in the electoral process and of our effectiveness in conveying our perspectives to our officials. Thanks to the treasure of democracy Jews are taking their place as agents of their own future.

Israel is a democracy in process. Israel reflects the sustained effort of the Jewish people to be self-determining, and Israeli democracy can never give up on the struggle for social justice and for peace, security and dignity with the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors. Israel is the only state in which Jews wrestle with such challenges in a Jewish democracy, which itself claims my attention, my honest response, and my deep, deep gratitude. Jews, like other people, now wield power, too.

Bound to Israel

I am on a plane bound to Israel, and my heart is bound to Israel. I love that land. I love that people. I love the ever new, ancient culture that continues to bless the world with insight and wisdom. And I believe in the right of the Jewish people, as with all peoples, to exercise self-determination in our own land.

I look to the day when Israel’s neighbors offer their own version of these four assertions, not as the triumphalist obliteration of others, but as the common core of what human belonging means for all of us. When Jews stand connected to Israel, we are living our own version of the universal reality that only when we recognize every people’s access to  these grounding claims, we make room for our own humanity, for a shared and diverse world, and a worthy future.

This article is adapted from one that first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. He is also Vice President of American Jewish University.