I am back in the states after having spent Passover in the place known throughout much of the world as the “Holy Land.” That, actually, is a Christian term for the place also known as “Israel” or “Palestine” (depending on your perspective). When I’m there, life just seems more meaningful. The history seems more relevant, the political issues more momentous, and the religious shrines more moving. Yes, I realize that as a Jew, I have a bias, but you hardly have to be Jewish to think of Israel as the pre-eminent place to do a pilgrimage. As I learned during a tour of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, that land is the center of spiritual life for the Baha’i … in addition to the Jews … in addition to the Christians. Other than the nearby Arabian peninsula, it’s also the holiest spot in the world for the Muslims as well. As religiously significant places go, this one has no parallel.
This past trip wasn’t my first rodeo in Israel, but it was the first time I showed up there with a virus. What I thought was just a mild cold when I boarded my connecting flight to Brussels gradually evolved into one hell of an upper-respiratory infection. First there was the runny nose, then the sore throat, then the bronchitis, then the fever, and finally the laryngitis. So there I was, in the Holy Land, unable to pontificate, or even to question my interlocutors. All I was able to do was to take in the majesty of the land and contemplate what had been going on around me. Frankly, if you have to contract laryngitis, there’s no better place to be than the Holy Land.
More than anything else that I experienced in Israel, I found myself reflecting about the several hour drive that my family took from Jerusalem down to Eilat, at the country’s southern tip. I had been to Eilat before, but this was the first time I made that trip in one sitting. It made me think about how desolate the land was throughout the southern half of Israel. That region receives virtually no precipitation, its topography is rugged, and in places, it looks more like what we’d expect from Earth’s lunar satellite than from Earth itself. The land of “milk and honey” it’s not. To be sure, the Negev (as this desert is called) has some date palms and the occasional settlement, but it is hardly primo real estate unless you are a Bedouin, a camel, or a truly odd plant that needs almost no water.
Why was the enormity and bleakness of the Negev so compelling in my state of forced contemplation? Because it reminded me of just how tiny the “Holy Land” truly is. People in the US often say that Israel is the size of New Jersey, but when you subtract the Negev, it’s more like the size of Northern Jersey. Is such a place big enough to serve as the homeland to a great race of people? Or should that people try to stretch out a bit in the area up north commonly known as the “West Bank”? I continue to answer that question with a “Hell, no!” But every time I think of that drive down to Eilat, I can better imagine why so many Israelis would offer a different response. They feel that they live in a tiny country surrounded by hostile neighbors, and they see no interest on the part of their neighbors to enter into a permanent peace agreement that involves dividing up historical Israel/Palestine into two states. So, they figure, why not expand into the West Bank and grab some more high-quality land? If there’s not going to be a two-state solution and Israel needs more elbow room, why not take what’s available?
What’s more, as I reflected on my drive to Eilat, I was reminded of what I heard from so many Orthodox Jews who I encountered during my stay in Jerusalem. They had different opinions as to whether to share “the land” with Palestinians or to simply figure out a way to pay off the Palestinians to leave, but they all agreed on one point: the West Bank was “our land.” I interpreted that to mean that God gave it to the Jews, and observant Jews should live there, regardless of what their secular brethren happen to think. Once again, I don’t share that perspective, but I can’t deny that it reigns supreme among a large, and growing, segment of the Jewish-Israeli population.
And then, as my contemplation continued, I thought about the Jews of Tel-Aviv. Israel’s second-largest city is also the home of its most Americanized Jews – which is ironic, given that you are much more likely to hear Hebrew spoken in Tel-Aviv than in Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is dominated by religion, and its residents are all-too-aware of the “Conflict,” given that they can see the West Bank without having to leave their city. Tel-Aviv, by contrast, is many miles away from either Gaza or the West Bank, and its residents tend to be highly secular. Frankly, I didn’t feel much different there than I would feel in downtown Bethesda or in Dupont Circle – they may have spoken a different language, but the politics were the same (progressive) and the ethos felt the same (hedonism). For me, the sense of incredible meaning and history that I was referencing before really applies to being in Jerusalem, not so much to being in the “second city.”
The polls suggest that Israelis are fairly evenly split between the left/center-left and the right/center-right. But in traveling through Israel, I felt that those polls are misleading. They don’t measure the intensity of the people’s passion when it comes to issues of war and peace. When I was in “Red” Israel (e.g., Jerusalem), I felt that passion constantly. When I was in “Blue” Israel (e.g., Tel-Aviv), I didn’t doubt that people cared about war and peace matters, but the heat wasn’t nearly as intense. In Tel-Aviv, there’s a bit of an “out of sight, out of mind,” feeling. In Jerusalem, neither religion nor politics is ever out of anyone’s sight, so one, the other, or both will always be at the center of their minds. And what those minds are deciding, it seems, is that unless the Palestinians are going to become strong and vocal advocates of a two-state solution -- which seems unlikely at present -- there is no reason for Israelis to think about two states and every reason to gradually expand the one and only state that the Jewish people possess.
In many respects, I found myself less hopeful about a two-state solution after my trip than I did beforehand. But I found myself no less passionate about the NEED for two states, and the absurdity of connecting the words “one state” and “solution” in connection with that region. Both peoples are tough, relentless fighters. Both feel that they have history and justice on their side. And both are pissed off about what “the other” has made them endure. To quote an Israeli I met with who advocates two states and who heads up a political NGO in Jerusalem, “neither of these peoples are Scandinavians.” Like him, I also don’t see them co-existing as one happy family, especially if it would mean that the Jews (who have the upper hand militarily) would have to voluntarily give up Israel as a Jewish State and potentially position themselves as a minority group in their own homeland.
No, my friends, I see no possibility of a one-state solution to this conflict. But, as I indicated, I also am less optimistic about the likelihood of a two-state solution any time soon. And I had all these thoughts while I was battling an illness that wiped me out from nose, to mouth, to chest.
Nevertheless, there is something about that place – that holy territory – that prevented me from ever getting depressed. In Israel, no matter what is happening, I always feel alive. I always feel like we the people MATTER more. I feel blessed just to be alive.
So maybe we can’t have peace. But we can have existence – human existence – for those of us who are survivors. Whether I was gazing off of a cliff at Masada, floating effortlessly in the salty, low-elevation waters of the Dead Sea, or placing a prayerful note in the recesses of the Western Wall, I was feeling so privileged just to be able to breathe, even if my breaths were compromised by bad health.
And just among us boys and girls, I’ll tell you what the upshot was of my prayerful note at the Well: may the interfaith movement live on forever! You see, even though I might go to Israel to get in touch with my Judaism and only my Judaism, that Judaism teaches me above all else to respect the primacy of universalist values.
“If I am not for me, who will be? If I am only for me, what am I? If not now, when?” So said Rabbi Hillel – just one of many famous residents of Jerusalem. I only wish he were around today. For surely, he would be an interfaith leader, a bridge builder, a man of peace, and a proud Jew.