A safe haven? Is this really all there is to it? Is this the only reason for us to support Israel, teach about it and engage with it? Is this the reason for us to fly to the other side of the world for a visit, just so we will have a potential safe haven in case of need? If you seriously believe the state of Israel was created so the American Jewish community will have an insurance policy for a cloudy day, then I am sorry to be the one telling you this but: No! That is not the reason! That is not why the modern state of Israel was created nor is it the reason why I, as an Israeli, wake up in the morning, go to work, send my kids to school and, later on, to the army before I send them to university.
True, Israel also serves as a safe haven for Jews at risk. Yes, as a state and as individuals Israel and Israelis sometimes do heroic things to rescue Jewish communities around the world. The Jewish Ethiopians were one example. But this is just one element, I might say a side effect, a bonus, of Israel’s existence. If all we want is a safe haven, why in Israel? Why not in New Zealand or New Jersey? Why bother with all this Middle East challenge, the malarial swamps in the early days of the state, the desert, the surrounding unfriendly neighborhood? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a safe haven someplace more safe?
For generation after generation, Jews around the world have been promising on their wedding night, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Psalm 137: 5-7). This is not a quest for a safe haven; it is a promise to remember something deeper and more significant. For generation after generation, every Passover we bless each other with “Next year in Jerusalem.” It was in the land of Israel that our forefathers and foremothers became a people. It was in the land of Israel where David fought against Goliath and King Saul lost his temper. It was in the land of Israel that we created our heritage, culture, faith and ethnicity, where we grew from the family of Abraham to a people. It is only in this land of Israel that we can fully fulfill the wish “To be a free people in our land.”
Lately there are voices coming out of some academic sources, parsing life in the Diaspora, claiming that living in exile is the true role of the Jewish people, the only way to really teach people how to repair the world, how to do tikkun olam. Those voices are going so far as to claim that the biblical Israel is a utopia, an imaginary concept. The truth is, that anyone who reads the Bible clearly sees that Israel is not a utopia and never was. Israel was always real! It was never the perfect land of milk and honey. It is very comfortable to sit on a sofa in a fancy university somewhere and preach to the world what is and what is not moral behavior; mainly because you are not really accountable for anything, you do not have the power in your hands and you do not bear the weight of responsibility.
Only through the creation of the modern state of Israel did the Jewish people gain the deep responsibility and challenges that power brings. Through the creation of the state of Israel we became once again a free people in our land, we reconnected to our heritage and historical sites, and for the first time in 2,000 years we can stop being the scholar on the sofa and become the real person doing the work.
Israel is not perfect, it has significant issues, but it is a fair and decent country with fair and decent people facing challenging realities and hard, real-life moral dilemmas. Israel definitely handles things better than most other nations would under the same circumstances. My strong connection to Israel is not because I was born there and am an Israeli citizen, but because Israel allows me to be a better Jew and a better person; it allows me to be free, be real and be responsible.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (emissary from Israel) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.