Sunday, May 20, 2012

Advice for Hasbarists 1: Don't trivialize or understate the Jewish connection with the Land of Israel

Advice for Hasbarists seems to be the rage currently. So I thought I would try my hand in a multi-part series, mainly as an opportunity to write down things I often write in comment threads on other people's blogs but not necessarily here, where I often let the things I post speak for themselves. The most obvious place to start is something that often strikes me in the statements of both anti-Zionists and defenders of Israel: a rather lame-sounding account of what the actual connection is between Jews and the land of Israel. The anti-Zionists, of course, often begin sentences something like this: "Just because your ancestors lived somewhere 2000 years ago, that doesn't give you the right to blah blah blah . . ." What makes things worse is that well-meaning supporters of Israel will write that Jews "Yearned to return to Israel for 2000 years." That may be true, but it hardly captures the significance of Israel to Jews and the Jewish part of Israel's significance to the world at large.

To cut to the heart of the matter, the connection between Jews and Israel is Divine in origin and essential to G-d's intent in creating the world. That says it all for me, but I understand the impulse to express the Jewish connection to Israel in secular term, especially since there is a whole raft of secular lies out there that should be countered. The would-be secular hasbarist who wants to tackle the subject of the Jewish connection to Israel should realize he has a subject which is hard to describe adequately in a short space.

The importance to civilization at large of the connection between Jews and Israel is impossible to overstate. The two religions in the world with largest numbers of followers, Xianity and Islam, are both spin-offs of Judiasm. Both claim to be the true religion of Moses, David, Solomon, and not surprisingly, both revere Jerusalem. You may remember those diagrams printed in many editions of Dante's Divine Comedy with Jerusalem as the center of the universe. You may recall that Blake wrote of building "Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." Neither of those giants of world literature were thinking of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as I once jokingly remarked, although the reverence shown by Muslims for the Al-Aqsa Mosque does derive from the same thing that inspired Dante and Blake

Another problem with stating that "Jews yearned for Israel for 2000 years" and leaving it at that is the implication that Israel was off the Jewish map for 2000 years and was not the site of any actual Jewish history during that time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Ba'alei Mesorah (or Masoretes) were still living in Tiberias and preserving the biblical text for most of the first 1000 years of that 2000 years. At the end of the 13th century, the Ramban (Nachmanides) was living in Israel, rebuilding the Jewish community in Jerusalem, and composing one of the two or three most famous Biblical commentaries in the Jewish tradition. He wrote his commentary in the world's only surviving uniquely Palestinian language: Hebrew. There was an eager audience of diaspora Jews equipped to read this Palestinian commentary since they were mostly putting more emphasis on Hebrew education than on education in the languages of the lands they inhabited. Some of these Jews were in Egypt, just across the border from Israel. Many were in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

In the 16th and 17th centuries the author of the Lecha Dodi prayer, the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the primary modern code of Jewish law), and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal, the most famous Jewish Kabbalist of the post-ancient world) all lived in Safed. Safed was repeatedly destroyed afterwards by natural disasters and various Arab raids, but the Jews kept returning there. And it took more than yearning to return. Jews gave Palestine its first printing press. Jews have been the majority population in Jerusalem, the crown jewel of Israel's towns and cities, since about 1840, i.e. from many decades before the first Zionist olim arrived until the present, since before the time we describe as "in living memory" you could say, since nobody from that time is still alive.

I could go on for a long time and I still have not touched on matters that will be familiar to many readers: the constant mention of Israel in the Jewish liturgy and scripture, the halachic distinction between chutz la'aretz (outside of Israel) and Israel and the many precepts of the Jewish religion that are only operative in the land of Israel. Israel may presently have the largest concentration of Jews in the world and quite likely, the largest concentration of Jewish children in the world. I will stop here, however. Stay tuned for Part 2.

1 comment:

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