Israel: A Real Country with Real People

June 16th: Shelach Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, once famously said that Israel will be a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes and the Jewish policemen arresting them will all conduct their business in Hebrew. In this rather earthly statement, he was echoing Hayim Nachman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, and other visionaries who knew that the Jewish State would be a real state with real people—and not a utopian Disneyland of Jewish culture and religion. In other words, the earthly manifestation of the Zionist dream would be less than perfect and subject to the full range of human thoughts, emotions, faults, and experiences.

This is not a new situation. In our Torah portion, we have perhaps the original debate about the dream of the Promised Land and its reality. In Numbers 13, Moses sends twelve scouts to the Land of Canaan to report back to the Israelites on their divinely assigned destination. The scouts/spies tour the land and find it an amazing place. In one particularly impressive area, the Wadi Eshkol, they cut down a single cluster of grapes that is so large that it takes two men with a carrying frame to bring it back to the Israelite camp. When the scouts return, they all agree that the Land is wonderful, but there is a difference of opinion about the realistic possibilities of taking it.

“We came to the land you sent us to scout; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted saying, “The country that we traveled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim (giants) there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13.27-33)

Most of the people believe the ten pessimistic scouts and break into cries, weeping all night. “All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron, ‘If only we had died in the Land of Egypt…rather than we die in the wilderness!’” The end of the story is that they do end up dying in the wilderness: God decides that they are not ready to take the Land of Israel and so they are doomed to wander the desert for forty years—until the current generation dies out and a new, stronger, braver, and more resolute generation arises which will pursue God’s mission.

The people who built the modern State of Israel were, by and large, very tough people—strong, brave, resolute, and perhaps even fanatical in their drive to save themselves and Judaism by creating a Jewish State. They were not perfect. In fact, some of the greater Zionists had some significant faults. It is like the old Hebrew saying, “The greater the man, the greater his evil inclination.”

It is very fashionable to revisit Zionist history and dispel the myths of the heroic Zionist leadership—pointing out that pretty much every single Zionist hero had significant flaws. Some were egotistical while others were impatient. Some were greedy, while others mistrusted all non-Jews. Some were adulterers, and others suffered from various forms of mental illness. And, as their decisions are deconstructed and analyzed, some, it turns out, were less than perfect. Information was sketchy or incorrect. The graveness of the threat seemed existential when it was not. Some decisions were made in haste, and many brought unintended consequences. There were times that the Zionist endeavor wrought great morality and nobility to the challenges of human life, and there were times of tragic failure. The people were not perfect. Nor were the situations they faced. And, with the benefit of hindsight, criticisms abound.

The question, it seems to me, is what we do with this information. Do we use it to give the Jewish State a failing grade and devalue the Zionist process? Or, do we use it to analyze the discrete causes of current problems—unraveling them to find solutions? Do we revel in the toppling of heroes, or do we dismiss the analysis, repelled by the meanness in each stage of revisionism?

And, don’t forget politics. Depending on the perspective of the analyzer, the quality of historical figures can vary widely. A few years ago, I had the chance to visit the Menachem Begin museum, a beautiful facility near the old Train Station in Jerusalem. In my liberal (Labor Zionist/Mapam/Ratz/Shinui/Meretz) circles, Begin was a villain—a plague on the Zionist house. In his museum, however, his is a singular heroic life that brought life to the nation and to countless individual Israelis. As I went through the museum, I found myself wondering about their sources of information—and my own!

I believe that Zionism is akin to our American patriotism. It is possible to analyze and disagree and still be supportive and loyal. However, it is also possible to overdue the criticism and to follow it down the road to hateful de-legitimization. I hope we can stay on the loyalty side of this divide and maintain our constructive support of both our United States and Israel.

Israel is not perfect, but it is a wonderful example of how dedicated and imperfect people can create a democratic and successful state. It is not perfect, but, among human institutions, it is striving toward the ideal and making significant progress. Israel’s continuing quest to be the “land flowing with milk and honey” deserves our support.