05 July 2011

A Destination Called Meaning

"Judea and Samaria Is the Story of Every Jew."

This is the popular bumper sticker around Jerusalem this summer, at least in my neighborhood.  Not the "West Bank."  Not the "Territories."  And certainly not "Palestine."  Judea and Samaria.  This is one of the central ideas of the Settler Movement, which has wide support in the capital and so the message of many of the bumper stickers reveal this nationalist message. 

I don't agree with its political agenda but I certainly find its messaging to be factually true--at least to the degree that "every Jew" knows what and where Judea and Samaria are.  But for any liberal Jew who goes to Torah study and revels in the text about the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, not to mention the stories beyond the Five Books and on into the Prophets and the Writings, it is undeniably true that these stories, central to our narrative as a people, find their geographic home in Judea and Samaria.  It's what makes the emotional heart and soul of the Settler Movement beat with such persistent and impassioned pride.  Jerusalem itself is in Judea.  My heart certainly beats for that.

Interestingly, one could argue that several strands of early Zionism were meant to transcend mere Biblical classifications for the Land of Israel and place Jerusalem not in "Judea" per se but in the contemporary State of Israel--modern borders and concepts related to the nation-state; not divinely granted holdings from God to the Jewish people. 

And therein lies the distinction. 

Because one could argue that the towns and villages of the West Bank comprise the "story of the Palestinian people" and slap that message on a bumper sticker as well--and then drive around the city with both messages on the back of one's car.  Who would argue with that?  Both stickers would be factually true.  And the only way you'd be able to read them was by making sure that you didn't put one sticker on top of the other.  They could go on opposite sides of the car; or even right next to each other.  The words "the story of every" could overlap.  It'd be a wonderful co-existence.

Curb your enthusiasm.  It's not going to happen.  But it's a nice thought.

When I teach, it's important for people to know that Judea and Samaria is the story of every Jew.  It's our Biblical ancestry; it's our contemporary challenge.  Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews are endlessly debating what to do with the territories conquered in 1967.  When and how to make peace.  And with whom.  Judea and Samaria is the story of every Jew makes the Diaspora Jew confront Zionism's early claim--we are a people with a land, a language and culture.  Our values do not derive from a place of pure marble, from philosophical mountains of pure revelation; but we are a nation, an identity:  you can locate us and trace the development of what we stand for on a map.  And while Saadiah was in Babylonia; Rashi in France; Maimonides in Spain; the Gaon in Vilna; and Einstein in Princeton--each was able to situate his Jewishness toward Jerusalem, toward those who came before him and lived in Judea and Samaria.

The big anxiety in the Jewish world today seems to be all about the Jewish People.  Yet again, one hundred years after this anxiety reared its head as assimilation and anti-Semitism in Europe engulfed Jewish life, leaders who gather in Jerusalem this summer ask themselves:  What will be?  Who will remain?  What will they know?  What will they stand for?

Values have never occurred in a vacuum in Jewish life.  They have derived from an ongoing narrative that has always been linked to a place.  It's what indeed makes this such a troubling and confusing time.  Because it begs the question:  How much of the place do I need to inhabit in order to fully realize the demand of the values born there?  To fully grasp Rashi ought we to re-inhabit his corner of France?  Should Jews conquer Spain in order truly grasp what it is the Rambam meant in his Guide for the Perplexed?

How I long for the wisdom of the men whose ideas created the modern state!  Ginzberg, Herzl and Nordau understand the necessity for the Jew to be an organic actor on the geographic stage of his own history; but they also understood that the Diaspora taught him to live in relationship with God "outside the land." 

Judea and Samaria *is* the story of every Jew.  But let's be honest:  As a sticker on a car parked outside of a house built by and inhabited by an Arab family prior to 1948, the message becomes more complicated.  You have your narrative; I have mine.  Your God gives you exclusive rights; my God gives me mine.  Where does that leave us?

With hard-headed patience and open-hearted understanding, maybe it leaves us learning--hardly a bad thing. 

Outside my window, as night descends on this holy city, I imagine cars with no stickers, engines humming beneath hoods, Jewish drivers and Arab passengers--Arab drivers and Jewish passengers--fueled by the stories we tell on our way toward a destination we call meaning.


Jeff Nesin said...

"Judea and Samaria is the story of every Jew makes the Diaspora Jew confront Zionism's early claim--we are a people with a land, a language and culture. Our values do not derive from a place of pure marble, from philosophical mountains of pure revelation; but we are a nation, an identity: you can locate us and trace the development of what we stand for on a map."

I have been a regular and interested reader for some months now, but I'm moved to write for the first time because this 19th century European rationale just sounds goofy to me. I think you're tending toward some ambivalence in the post, but I regret I don't have the patience to wait you out.

Should African Americans rejoice & reorient toward a West African ancestral homeland? They're a lot closer to it than we are. You may be vocationally reinforced and informed by projecting yourself back 2000 years, but I'm not. Both sides of my family came from Eastern Europe 100 years ago and for good reason none had any attachment to the past.

In fact, I like thinking of values as coming from an abstract place since, at the very least, the people and texts came from many, many places and eras. Come on home and kvell at Mr. Braun starting in the All-Star Game.

Andy Bachman said...

Hi Jeff

Thanks for writing. Ironically, the last I saw, Ryan Braun didn't very strongly identify with his Jewish roots--whether they are from Eastern Europe or the Land of Israel! But I will join you in kvelling nonetheless.

You are concise in your impatience and I appreciate your skepticism. I will even grant you that there is much about the culture and intellectual environment of Medieval Spain that informs Maimonides thought--alongside his abiding belief that the Jew has his roots in the Land of Israel.

The Zionist project as an intellectual and political *movement* is without a doubt 19th century in its nature. But an ongoing Jewish connection--geographically, literarily, intellectually and of course, spiritually, to the Land of Israel for the past two thousand years is undeniable.

That it is in vogue (yet again, alas) to refer to Zionism as purely European Colonialism (as some opponents do) is intellectual sophistry. The colonialists were the British, whom the Jews and the Arabs fought against.

By the way, the same could be said about Palestinian Muslims and Christians--their religious and cultural ideas come from far and wide as well. Ideas, by their very nature, migrate. But a People still have to call someplace "Home."