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Israel: There Must Be Another Way

Israel: There Must Be Another Way

Scene of Jerusalem with a lot of buildings made from Jerusalem stone

Life is very short, and there's no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend.
I have always thought that it's a crime,
So I will ask you once again.

Try to see it my way,
Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong.
While you see it your way
There's a chance that we may fall apart before too long.

We can work it out…

-The Beatles

July 18 was a rough day for liberal Zionists.

At 3 a.m. the Knesset (Israeli’s parliament) passed, by a slim majority, the “Nation-State” law. Defined as a “basic law” (with constitutional status), this law cancelled the status of Arabic as one of Israel’s official languages and declared support for the establishment of Jewish-only communities.

At 5:30 a.m. the police came to the home of Conservative Rabbi Dov Hayun, of Moriah Congregation in Haifa, to arrest him for performing a wedding for a couple whose union was not approved by the Chief Rabbinate.

Later in the day, Victor Orban, the new prime minister of Hungary – known for his anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic Hungarian nationalist views – shed the requisite tear at Yad Vashem, like all visiting heads of state. He was accompanied by Prime Minister Netanyahu, just back from Russia.

For those of us who believe that, while Israel should be a “nation like all the other nations,” it should somehow not be too much like all the others, the morning paper has gotten harder to read lately.

As it happened, my wife and I had bought tickets for a concert that same evening, a benefit for a bilingual, Hebrew-Arabic kindergarten (a joint project of Kibbutz Evron and the Muslim village of Mazra). The 600-seat hall was packed to see Ahinoam Nini (also known as Noa) and Mira Awad perform. In 2009, Nini, a popular Israeli singer who often focuses on her Yemenite heritage, teamed up with Awad, a Palestinian Israeli from a village here in the Galilee, to enter the Eurovision song contest representing Israel. Although their song, “There Must Be Another Way,”” did not win, they have continued to perform concerts as a duo now and then over the years. The historical context, their powerful presence – and voices – and the enthusiasm of the audience, combined to make the event something much more emotional than just a concert.  We all needed it that day.

In recent years, I have devoted my time to long-form writing projects (the first of which, Turning Points in Jewish History, was published recently). I am now working on a book on Jewish utopias and have been interested to learn how our current conversation about Israel has such deep historical roots. Already before 1000 B.C.E., Gideon refused the kingship when it was offered, arguing “the Lord alone shall rule over you.” (Judges 8:23); a few centuries later Jeremiah, living in the Kingdom of Judah, waxed nostalgic for the good old days of wandering in the desert, just us and God (Jeremiah 2:1-3). Against the idealization of a perfect nation ruled directly by God, there arose voices insisting that unless we began to act “normal” we would never survive. Thus, the people demanded of Samuel a king, “that we may be like all the other nations: Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles” (I Samuel 8:20).

Later, after our brief experience of empire ended badly, we institutionalized the belief that someday God would restore our fortunes, reestablish a Davidic king, and rebuild the Temple; then we would re-enter history as a sovereign nation-state. And now, here we are indeed, in our renewed sovereign nation-state.

But times have changed. Do we really mean to turn the clock back to 1000 B.C.E.? King? Sacrifices? Empire? Should we as a people be fixated on restoring things to just as they were (How were they actually? What were the borders, really? What kind of a king was David, husband of Bathsheba?)? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about a Higher Authority, about a set of utopian moral values, rather than nostalgic, nationalistic hopes for the good old days that likely never were? But then again, nostalgia for the desert honeymoon is also based on idealized memories, a utopia that never was.

The challenge is somehow to reconcile these two dreams, being a nation state – but not like all the other nation states. Normal enough, but not too normal.

Ahinoam Nini and Mira Awad ended their concert with the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”

Yes, we can.

Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein, the author of Galilee Diary: Reflections on Daily Life in Israel, grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first cohort of the NFTY-EIE program in 1962. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in modern Jewish history, while a Jerusalem Fellow. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee. Until his retirement, he served as executive director of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education, a seminar center that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence, and as director of the Israel Rabbinical Program of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.


Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
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