To Be a Zionist Is to Wrestle with Jerusalem
I do not travel to Jerusalem, I return (to paraphrase the poet Yitzhak Yasinowitz). I pick up where I left off, visiting friends, arriving at former stomping grounds to find them still pulsing or torn down and rebuilt in the ever-evolving life that lays down strata upon strata of this city.
I’m not sure what a unified city would look like. Is Paris unified? London? New York? Bangkok? Madrid? One thing I can say is that Jerusalem is not. Not to contradict the psalmist: "Jerusalem built up, a city knit together."
There is West Jerusalem and East, Arab Jerusalem and Jewish Jerusalem, Jerusalem of Haredim, Masortim, liberals, secular, mizrahim and Ashkenzaim. The Yekkes of one neighborhood vs the hippies of another. There is the Jerusalem of poets, philosophers, professors, and politicians. There is Jerusalem of Halakha and Jerusalem of Aggadah. Jerusalem of on-high and Jerusalem of down below. Each Jerusalem identity boils over onto another, blurring the lines of people, characters, and stories.
Today is the 28th of Iyyar, when the State of Israel and Jews around the world celebrate the unification of Jerusalem. I returned to Jerusalem last week, for the conference of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, and on Yom Yerushalayim, I’m thinking of its meaning and my experiences of the past week.
All Quiet on the Western Wall
In the Eighth Chapter of the book of Nehemia, we read about what is likely the first documented public Torah reading in our history. Ezra, coming from Bavel, had it as his mission to bring a new Torah to a nation recently returned to their home. He assembled all the people at the water gate, read the Torah, translated it, and celebrated. The people, overwhelmed with emotion, wept.
Learning from Ezra, this week we held our own public Torah reading in the main plaza of the Kotel. After a moving t’filah where 12 women from Brazil became b’not mitzvah and were called to the Torah for the first time, we brought Torah scrolls to the main plaza and heard Rabbi Naama Kelman read aloud. (Check out the video.)
And you know what? Nothing happened. The sky didn’t fall, and the Haredi hecklers largely ignored us. No, it wasn’t Rosh Chodesh, just a Thursday morning. Imagine if we didn’t have to protest and wonder if they’ll let us in with Torah scrolls! The plans exist; now we just need to make it happen.
50 years of…
Leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, I took a group of young people from around the world to get a very basic understanding of the diversity and complexity of the Jewish communities over the Green line. There is much discourse around the question of settlement; it’s always on the news and at the heart of debate among Israel’s critics and those that love her. But how often do we stop and ask those who live there what they think and how they feel? That was the goal of our day, and our conversations with our hosts touched at the very core of the debate about the sanctity of the Land, the nature of how we relate to our neighbors, and the prospects for a one- or two-state arrangement.
The details and conversations were passionate, lengthy, and enlightening, and I listened with great intent to the pragmatism and conviction of my Judean friends. There were some things I agreed with, others I didn’t – and, due to time constraints, they were all presented too simplistically. Let’s be clear, there’s no question that all of Judea is the Land of the Bible, the Land of our forefathers and mothers. This is where much of Jewish history took place, but does that necessarily have to dictate where the Jewish future takes place?
There’s of so much more to be said, books to read and lots of discourse on this quintessential discussion on the future of the State of Israel, but this quote from Amos Oz captures my sentiments:
“In a nutshell, I am a Zionist in all that concerns the redemption of the Jews, but not when it comes to the ‘redemption of the Holy Land’. We have come here to live as a free nation, not ‘to liberate the land that groans under the desecration of a foreign yoke’, Samaria, Gilead, Aram and Haran up to the great Euphrates River. The word ‘liberation’ applies to people, not to dust and stone.”
Whether you’re a Jerusalem of Gold person or a Jerusalem of Iron person, whether you have hope or despair (or sometimes both), Jerusalem has been the symbol of our people for the past 3,000 years, and it’s now the center of strife, tension, and celebration. To be a Zionist is to wrestle with Jerusalem. It is to spend time there, to leave it, and to return again and again.
I leave you with a poem by Yehuda Amichai that wrestles, despairs, and tries to hope:
In Jerusalem, hope springs eternal. Hope is like a faithful dog,
sometimes she runs ahead of me to check the future, to sniff it out,
and then I call to her: Hope, Hope, come here, and she
comes to me. I pet her, she eats out of my hand.
And sometimes she stays behind, near some other hope,
maybe to sniff out whatever was. Then I call her my Despair,
I call out to her: Hey, my little Despair, come here,
and she comes and snuggles up, and again
I call her Hope.