I mentioned a variation of this idea to George Mosse, soon after traveling to Israel for the first time in 1985. He smiled. His student Michael Berkowitz smiled a lot, too, at my initial naivete, and also took me for a beer. He showed me some of his research on the Zionist project of constructing a modern Jewish identity. My favorite was the story of Theodor Herzl, Zionism's founder, and an iconic photograph of Herzl looking out over the Rhine Bridge in Basel, the site of the first Zionist Congress, which would eventually be superimposed onto an image of Herzl looking out over Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
|herzl at the rhine bridge, basel|
|herzl, jewish national fund stamp|
My teachers took great humor and pleasure in deconstructing mythologies in pursuit of a truth that was complex, challenging, and endlessly fascinating. The notion that each of us inherits an image of ourselves and the world we live in, and then move into adulthood with an understanding that the engagement in the broader world is about navigating varied visions of reality, makes for an interesting life.
At the initial meeting of our group heading to Israel tonight, someone said about our itinerary, "Look, I'm not going to Israel for my first time without going to the West Bank." So for him, part of the confrontations with the borders of existence are the political borders, the territorial and nation demarcations of Arabs and Jews in their mutually declared homelands. No problem. (We're spending a day in Jericho, by the way.)
But national borders are hardly the only borders one confronts when traveling to Israel. On Sunday several women were yet again arrested at the Western Wall for praying with "male prayer garments" which in our synagogue we call a "tallis." Men or women are welcome to wear them. That's a border that doesn't exist for us here but over in the most sacred city to Jews for three thousand years, you get arrested for wearing one near a site that is controlled by male rabbis who are paid by the State to enforce a singular definition of Judaism.
It certainly isn't what Theodor Herzl had in mind when he envisioned the Jewish State; nor when he created a fictional idealization of that state in his novel, Altneuland. He assumed, naive fellow that he was, tanned in the glorious rays of hope of the late nineteenth century, that strict religious sensibilities would give way to an open tolerance of all faiths in the Holy City. The dawn of a new era. When he looked out over Mount Zion, he saw a liberal democratic Europe, a Swiss watch, as it were of precise civilization.
What's not to love?
When our plane touches down tomorrow afternoon, it lands in an Israel both predictable and impossible to imagine to Herzl. A beautiful beast of contradiction. Choose a point of view and it's basically represented in the Knesset--capitalist, socialist, secular, religious, racist, pacifist, Arab and Jewish. 120 representatives of several million points of view, a traffic jam of mythologies and sensibilities. Israel's borders are arguably less secure these days--massacres in Syria; continued revolt in Egypt; the quiet, ominous hum of uncertainty in Lebanon and Jordan. Palestinian Gaza is on a low-boil, testing its relationship with moderate forces while also attempting to secure arms and weaponry from Iran. The West Bank leadership struggles still to find its voice. And Jewish settlement in the West Bank continues. We'll try to understand all of this. We won't even come close.
Our group is 16 adults and 13 kids. We'll climb mountains, hike near streams, eat good food, have a lot of laughs, and revel in what was practically inconceivable to but a few dreamers a century ago: a vibrant Jewish democratic state of more than 6 million Jews and nearly 1.7 million Arabs. Besides the usual problems not unfamiliar to us here in the United States--a widening gap between rich and poor; a tenuous social safety net; diminishing resources in the education system--there is, of course, the existential reality of internal and external enemies that threaten one's very existence.
Like at an archaeological dig, we will attempt, in ten days, to discover something new--layer after layer after layer.
My friend Mark came on the trip last year. He said to me about half-way through, as we were winding our way up to Syrian border on a cool but beautiful foggy day, "I've discovered that I'm a re-born secular Jew. I just don't see God in any of this. But I'm learning a lot."
Are you having a good time, I asked him.
He nodded thoughtfully.
So that's all you need to worry about, I told him. Learn something and have a good time.
We live in a world that jumps to conclusions too quickly. There's a lot more to be said for listening, observing, asking good questions, and fearlessness in the face of inherited and self-made myths being exposed and reconfigured into new versions of reality.
Tonight we fly. Tomorrow we land. Where we go with what we learn is anybody's guess.