Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 25, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
We read this morning that at Har Sinai God was already teaching the people rules for settling the Land and how the people would institute rules of land management into a future none of them would probably see. “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you” and the continuation of the parasha describes the Seventh year Sabbatical for the land and the 50th year Jubilee observance when land acquisitions were returned to the original families who inherited these portions. But this eventuality was years in the future. 38 more years of wandering and then another 50 years until the first Jubilee. Nevertheless it must have emboldened the people to know that settling this land for generations to come was to be their legacy.
Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav made aliyah in the 18th century and lived there for a few years before returning to East Europe. Hasidim had already begun to move back to Israel at this time. When he arrived he took note that the verse “The Land that I am giving you now” is in the present tense. Said he, “When a Jew moves to Israel, living in this holy and lovely land, he tastes the sweetness of the land. Each day is sweeter than the next and every day is like a new day as if it was only just now given to him by the Holy One. This is why the verse is in the present tense.”
The connection between the Jewish people and the Land did not cease when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 586 CE and exiled its leaders. The Jews returned. The connection between the Jewish people and the land did not cease after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 nor after they put down the Bar Kochba revolution in 135 and made Jerusalem forbade Jews to live there and renamed Israel Palestina. The community remained. In fact Ben Zion Dinur the great Israeli historian of the 20th century states that the period of Israel in the Diaspora really only begins in the 7th century with the Arab conquest of the Land of Israel. But even then he points out in contradistinction of earlier Diasporan historians, that Israel was a focal point for Jews living in the Diaspora and assisted in creating Jewish unity for a people spread over the earth. Even today when Jews are divided as never before over the State of Israel, the connection to the Land of Israel, its place in our history, a land in which the calendar and language are unique to our people, a place filled with historical memory of our people, fuses the links between Jews of different cultures, religious perspectives and politics.
And this is why it is important to acknowledge yet another controversy stirred up by one of the new Muslim congresswomen. We have all heard enough from Ilhan Omar who even when she apologizes for saying impolitic things about Israel she ends up saying something more insulting. But last week Rashida Tlaib, a Congresswoman from Michigan, who is of Palestinian ancestry, got into controversy on a podcast for saying something about the Holocaust and Israel’s founding.
There's always kind of a calming feeling I tell folks when I think of the Holocaust, and the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the fact that it was my ancestors, Palestinians, who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence in many ways, have been wiped out, and some people's passports. I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time, and I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right, in many ways.
Immediately right wing media attacked Tlaib – “She gets a calming feeling when she things about the Holocaust? That is disgusting, she is an anti Semite!” But when read in the context of her remarks it was a clear misappropriation of what she was trying to say. She was actually trying to be sympathetic. And of course Jews on the left immediately defended Tlaib as Raphael Magarik did in Forward magazine: “By centering on the Holocaust, Tlaib acknowledged Jewish vulnerability. She described Jewish migration to Palestine not as a colonialist imposition of power but more, in the old metaphor, as a man jumping out of a burning building who lands on a bystander. She sounds, frankly, like something which these days is far less popular than an anti-Semite: a liberal Zionist.”
Okay, Tlaib does not sound like a liberal Zionist. Neither she nor Raphael Magarik sound like a person who have an understanding of Zionism at all because Zionism is not about Jews jumping from a burning building on to a bystander. And this is why Tlaib’s comments while not anti Semitic were condescending and patronizing and a completely insulting.
To appreciate what Tlaib was saying depends on how one understands the existence of the State of Israel. While at least Tlaib did not refer to Israel as a European colonialist effort by white people to exploit brown natives, the usual cynical explanation on the left for Israel’s existence, her comment that while she is sad that Jews took her people’s land and lives in an effort to save their tortured remnant after the Holocaust, she is grateful that her people’s sacrifice gave solace to another suffering nation, exposes her denial of Jewish history and its deep deep connection to the actual living experience in the Land of Israel/Palestine.
Dinur in the English translation of his book Israel in the Diaspora notes that throughout the 1400 years that the Jewish people survived in Diasporan cultures, the Land of Israel and its Jewish population played an important part in the history of the people. It was not only emotional. The uniqueness of the Jewish settlement and connection to the Land resulted from three basic facts: its historical continuity, its individual character and its Jewishness.
For there never ceased to be a Jewish population in the Land of Israel. Until the Crusades, the Jewish population was numerous and even after the Crusades which was the only period in which the Jewish community there was completely decimated, Jewish settlement in the land continued. Waves of immigration throughout the centuries continued unabated. Dinur writes “The strongest forces in Judaism from all the land of the Diaspora were at all times drawn to Palestine – starting with such men as Judah HaLevi and Jonathan of Lunel (11th C), Shimshon of Sens and Yehiel of Paris (12th C), the Ramban and his disciples (13th C). Ishtori HaParhi (Jewish traveller and geographer 13-14th C) and Obadiah of Bertinoro (15th C), Isaac Luria and Joseph Caro, Moses Cordovero and Isaiah Horowitz (16th C mystics and Halachist) and continuing right down to Hayyim Ibn Atar, the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and the pupils of the Gaon of Vilna, the orthodox Jews of Hungary and the Lithuanian Mitnagdim. All these and many other by doing their creative work in Palestine , or continuing there , helped to make the country into a center of intensive Jewish life”.
And though true most Jews in the world did not choose to suffer the rigors of travel and living under the harsh conditions of servitude in their own homeland, they did attach themselves to the history of Jewish settlement in the Land through continuous charity work. Dinur notes that in almost every period, the Jewish population in the Land of Israel was dependent on the Jewish communities in the Diaspora due to the political situation in the Land of Israel. He explains that the whole existence of the Yishuv was something sui generis resulting entirely from a ceaseless, generations-long struggle, carried on by the whole of Jewry and from the repeated and constant efforts made by unknown individuals and organized groups who, by their unflagging determination, kept the Yishuv in being, despite all obstacles and in the face of all attacks.
So Rashida Tlaib is wrong. It is unfortunate that her political enemies tried to twist her words into some anti Semitic attack. Tlaib’s comments were not anti Semitic but they were insulting. The State of Israel was not created because after the decimation of the Holocaust landless Jews needed somewhere, anywhere to land. The State of Israel was created because for well over a thousand years Jews lived and maintained a Jewish presence in their homeland and only in the 19th century and the dynamism created by nascent nationalist cultures spurred a growing movement that had waited patiently for the proper God ordained moment for the Jewish return to sovereignty over its land.
Tlaib is correct though. The Jewish return to sovereignty caused pain and loss to the Palestinian Arab community that had lived in the land for generations. The great tragedy of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is that the political leadership on neither side has been able to truly acknowledge the other sides’ history in the land or bereavement from forfeiture. Rashida Tlaib’s willingness to express sympathy for landless Jews settling Palestine is a start though she should be informed that Jewish settlement existed long before there were Palestinians. Activists on the Israeli side like Arik Ascherman defending Palestinian farmers show a willingness by some Israelis that Palestinians have a connection and a special right to the Land, too.
It is hard to believe in these desperate times in world history that a solution to the sharing of the Land of Israel that will be fair to both sides is possible. But just like the Jews at Har Sinai, suffering from two years of wandering in a barren desert, could have been excused from believing that a Jubilee would ever be actualized in the Promised Land so we too must wait for that divinely inspired moment when 2 nations will live side by side in one land.