Israel Matters

why-israel-mattersI have just concluded a multi-post series about our February trip to Israel. I don’t even want to count the number of posts. It started as a “Greetings from the Holy Land” postcard kind of thing, and it just snowballed.

You might wonder why I took nearly two months of my blog time to describe a vacation. What do a couple of weeks of tourism have to do with the Jewish-Christian intersection, with interfaith dialogue? The simplest answer is this: Israel matters. Israel matters to a Christian understanding of Jews and Judaism. Israel is territory, both actual and figurative, that Jews and Christians share with each other and with Islam. We share an interest in Israel, and a responsibility for its well-being. Moreover, the founding and continued survival of the State of Israel has shaped our dialogue. Israel has made the dialogue possible.

This is a lot to chew upon. So I’ll start slowly.

Israel has been central to Jewish self-understanding, going back to before there was Judaism. G-d’s first words to Abram (before he was renamed Abraham) was to leave his country, kin and father’s house to go to “the land that I will show you,” where G-d could make of Abram “a great nation.” Before there was an altar to G-d, or a promise to make Abram’s descendants as numerous as the stars, or a covenant, or a circumcision, there was the land. There are three religions that trace their lineage through Abraham: Judaism, of course, but also Christianity and Islam. Yet there is something unique about the Jewish relationship to Israel. Much of Jewish law can only be performed there. Jews pray facing Jerusalem. Jewish life outside of Israel is frequently referred to as galut, meaning “exile.”

But for Jews, Israel is more than an ideal. It’s also a fact of life, on the ground, as they say. It’s where we live – 43% of us, by best estimates, a larger percentage than anywhere else in the world. The United States is only a close second in terms of numbers. More than 80% of the world’s Jews live in one of these two countries. This is a dramatic change from prior to World War II, when more than 60% of the world’s Jews lived in Europe, or in 1950, when the second-largest Jewish population lived in the Soviet Union. Even in 1950, there were still substantial numbers of Jews living in North Africa, Iran and Iraq – roughly 600,000 then, but fewer than 15,000 today. It’s a fact of Jewish life in the new century – the diaspora is not as dispersed as it used to be. Speak of Jewish life today, and (with apologies to the nearly 1 million Jews living in France and the U.K.), chances are that you’re talking about Jewish life in North America or Israel.

If we look at these numbers in a different way, then the importance of Israel grows further. There are exactly four countries where Jews consist of 1% or more of the country’s population: the United States (1.74%), Canada (1.09%), Gibraltar (600 Jews out of a population of 31,000) … and Israel (74%). Worldwide, Jews are a much smaller “minority” than other groups typically described as “minority”, such as African-Americans (13.6%), or French Muslims (10%). There is a significantly higher percentage of Christians in Egypt (15-20%) than Jews in New York City (9.6%). Jews are a tiny presence on the world scene. Only in Israel, the 153rd largest nation on Earth in terms of size (just behind El Salvador), are Jews present in significant numbers.

This is the easiest way to see how Israel matters. If Jews and Judaism matter to you (and they must, or else why are you reading this blog?), then Israel is where we are, in absolute and relative terms. It’s the only place on Earth larger than a community or a small town that can claim a Jewish character. This creates a problem for those of us (Gentile or Jewish) who feel both a commitment to the Jewish people and are critical of Israeli policy. It pains me that my people, in Israel and the United States, cannot declare a simple fact in a single voice: the thrust of our history, our law and our ethical system all demand that we recognize the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. We may argue, perhaps, how to best make this self-determination a reality, in a way that provides for Israeli security and Jewish self-determination. But it is intolerable to me that a people like mine, a people that mark its beginning at our escape from the rule of a foreign empire, could consider maintaining foreign rule over anyone else.

I am not naïve. While I pray I am wrong, I don’t imagine that peace between Israel and Palestine will follow on the heels of Palestinian self-rule. The roots of this conflict run too deep; there is too much hate; we are not reconciled to the reality that we each must live with the other.  But the primary lesson I learned in Jericho and the West Bank is this: the Palestinians may not comport with what I expect from a people desiring freedom and self-determination, nor should they be required to do so. Human rights are owed to everyone, not just to those who behave in accordance with my standards.

My attitudes towards Israel have led (more than once) to accusations that I am a “self-loathing Jew.” Please don’t get me wrong; I am no hero. Frequently, I have turned my back on Israel to focus on my own community, my own country. But if the government of Israel fails to learn the lesson I learned in Jericho, the solution is not for me to disown the Jewish land and roughly half of the Jewish people (my land, my people). At least, not so long as there are Jews in Israel devoted to fighting for my vision for what the Jewish people can and should be. The ultimate reason why Israel matters to me is because of groups like Rabbis for Human Rights, and the Israel Religious Action Center, and B’Tselem. If these groups (and there are many more of them) represent a minority in Israel at present, all the more reason why I need to support them. And if I am in the minority among American Jews (and if I am in the minority, I believe that this minority is growing), that only shows the need for me to speak out.

It is easy enough to stand up for our values when we read them in a house of worship. Our values mean something when we stand up for them when it’s inconvenient or unpopular or difficult to do so. Israel matters because it’s Judaism in the real world, Judaism outside of the four corners of our sacred texts. So, let me cite some sacred text. If I said the following in synagogue, it would not be controversial, so long as I stated it abstractly. The controversy comes when you say the following as Rabbis for Human Rights does, in defense of the rights of Israel’s poor, its Arab minority, its refugee population, and occupied Palestine:

The essence of the Torah, as summarized by Hillel’s statement: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” (Shabbat 31a), reflects the experience and ethical consciousness of the Jewish people. The Torah states explicitly: “Do not wrong a stranger who resides with you in your land. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens: you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Our historical experience of exile and redemption, as well as our ethical consciousness, must sensitize us to the suffering of others and compel us to defend the rights of all who dwell among us.

But the obligation to speak out for justice in Israel is not solely a Jewish obligation. It falls equally on those Christians who participate in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. Israel may represent a Jewish dream realized, but Israel came into being because of Christianity’s failure to tolerate the presence of Judaism in its midst. Nearly 2,000 years of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism ended not just with the Holocaust – not just with the murder of 2/3 of European Jewry – but also with the European failure to attempt to reabsorb the miserable pittance of Jews who survived the Nazis. Instead, the European and Western powers dumped the survivors of the Holocaust on the doorstep of the Middle East.

Ignore for the moment that we Jews had no desire to remain in Europe after World War II. By all rights, the people displaced by formation of the Jewish State should have been German, French, Polish, Dutch – European – and not Arab.

To their credit, many Christians acknowledge a responsibility to work for Middle East peace and the well-being of the State of Israel, even if they do acknowledge this responsibility in a bewildering variety of ways: from evangelical “Christian Zionism,” to Presbyterian calls for “divestment,” to more mainline support for a “two State solution.” Personally, I would urge Christians to increase their support for Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations. I think that the chances for peace are greatest if the Jewish and Arab organizations struggling for peace within Israel are given the greatest possible support from the outside.

So … Israel matters because it matters for Jews, and for Christians, and for those who seek peace. But Israel also matters because it makes our current dialogue possible. Israel makes possible my presence in dialogue as a representative (albeit an extremely unofficial representative) of a religion that commands respect and admiration in much of the Christian world. The status that Judaism enjoys today in the Christian mind is something very new. For most of Christian history, Judaism was viewed negatively, as the religion of a “miserable and accursed people,” in the words of Martin Luther. As explained by Augustine, Christianity’s most important theologian, Jews survived the advent of Christianity in an abject state of persecution, as testimony to the truth of the Christian message. The suffering of the Jews was seen as G-d’s way of indicating what happens to those who reject the Gospel. Augustine compared the survival of the Jews to the survival of Cain after his murder of his brother Abel:

So to the end of the seven days of time the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who … put the Lord to death.

Augustine’s view of Jews as a “witness people” survived through the centuries, and persisted up until World War II in Bible commentaries that still appear on the internet without explanation or apology. So if you Google “Matthew 27 commentary,” you’ll come across the gem that “The Jews’ curse upon themselves has been awfully answered in the sufferings of their nation.” Or that G-d’s curse on the Jews “is to be seen in their miserable, abject, and captive state; and will be, until such time that they look to him whom they have pierced, and mourn.”

The idea that Jewish suffering was the will of G-d hung on to the Christian imagination until very recently. But this ideology became impossible in 1945, when Christianity got an up-close look at Auschwitz, and Treblinka, and Babi Yar, and the unspeakable evil of the Holocaust. I am certain that the murder of 6 million Jews did not look to Christians like a “witness” to the truth of the Gospels. And what was the Christian take on the formation of an independent Jewish state in 1948, and the continued survival of this state after multiple attacks by the larger Arab countries that surrounded this Jewish state? What was the reaction in 1967, when this Jewish state gained control of Jerusalem, its holiest city? I will not try to trace this history here, but I think it’s clear that the new realities forced a change in Christian attitudes. Today, you’re not likely to hear current Church leaders and theologians talk about how the Jewish people are cursed. Instead, you’re much more likely to hear how the continued survival of the Jewish people is proof of G-d’s faithfulness and the enduring nature of G-d’s covenant.

Israel matters, because its formation and survival forced a change in Christian thinking about Jews. It helped break Christianity free from the horrible idea that Christian truth was connected to Jewish suffering. For those people determined to interpret worldly events in terms of G-d’s will (and to make it clear, I am not one of these people), the presence of Israel is powerful evidence that G-d has not abandoned the Jews. The result of this change is what we see: Christians seeking to understand Jesus in terms of his Jewishness, the Catholic Church’s repudiation of its long-standing doctrine that Judaism is responsible for the death of Jesus, and (most important for what I do here) Christians inviting Jews to meaningful dialogue about matters of mutual interest, without the presence of the old agenda of proving our religion false or forcing our conversion to Christianity.

This is why I wrote seven blog posts (OK, I counted) about our trip to Israel. Israel matters enough to our dialogue that I thought it was worthwhile to share as much of my experience as I could: my pride in what my people have built, my joy in immersing myself in a Jewish land, and my pain that my Israel (born of the persecution of generations of Jews) is itself unwilling or unable to avoid persecuting others. To understand my Jewishness, you must at least try to understand this experience … and the experience is something we must talk about as we seek meaningful dialogue together.

  • I was very glad to see your series. Thank you. You were featured in the miscellaneous section of the Biblical Studies carnival for March – I hope that some others see the series from those links.

    • lbehrendt

      Bob, sorry not to have seen your comment until now. Very nice to have been recognized in your carnival! And, congratulations for your production of this site. Can I link to it here? It’s a treasure trove of must-reads.

      • Larry – no apology needed. I am delighted that you are interested in my site. Thank you. And please feel free to link to it. I am having a lot of fun with the musical interpretation of the Hebrew text.