Thursday, September 28, 2006

Road Show, Israeli Style. (Daniel Gordis)

Road Show, Israel Style

22 September 2006

Sometimes, a simple drive on a highway in the Jewish State is all is takes to restore perspective, to revive hope. A road, its exits, the places to which they lead and the history they recall – and you suddenly find yourself with faith in the future restored. If only all of us could take those drives. For especially light of these past months of
grief and of disappointment, of coming to terms with the war that we lost (as a senior IDF general admitted publicly yesterday), what we need is perspective, a reminder of where the Jewish people was just decades ago, and how far we’ve come.

I remember the feelings of Israelis a month into the war. We didn’t know what to name this new and unanticipated conflict (Lebanon II? The Hezbollah War?), but it was consuming us. History, it seemed, had had turned on us. Unilateralism had failed. Our worst fears about Gaza and the disengagement had come to be. Even the departure from Lebanon suddenly seemed like it had been a bad idea. Hope gave way to despair. Were we really in a war that we couldn’t win? What would be if we lost
this war? Would we lose the next one, too? And then what would happen to us?

Everything had changed so quickly that we weren’t even entirely certain what had happened. How, we wondered, had we gone from a peaceful (though painful) disengagement in August 2005, to the election of Olmert and his promise of yet another major move towards peace, to suddenly finding ourselves at war? How did we go from the confidence of the first days of the war when a passionate and convincing Olmert promised to dismember Hezbollah, to the messy, unrelenting and costly battles that dragged on for week after week, to the days filled with funerals and grieving parents at the side of freshly dug graves in military cemeteries across the country?

We feared for our sons at war, for the fathers who still couldn’t come home at night. We longed for our captured soldiers, and prayed they were at least being treated humanely. We wondered when the next missile would hit, and what damage it would do. We struggled to understand how it was that the mightiest army in the region could have been at war for weeks, and was still unable to put a stop to the barrage of rockets. And perhaps most importantly, we worried about the future, about what kind of lives the citizens of the Jewish State would have.

Would we become a fortress state, eternally vulnerable to threats to our homes and villages from the outside? Had Israel lost its deterrent edge? Was power in the Middle East now more evenly divided than we’d allowed ourselves to believe? Would bomb shelters once again be part of the fabric of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives, as they were for Israelis a generation ago? Were we no longer moving forward, but instead sliding back into the past from which we’d thought we’d finally escaped?

Jerusalem fared much better than the north of the country, but even here, you could feel the heaviness in the air, and I was consumed by the same despondency that had begun to characterize much of the country.

And then, one day in the middle of the war, I was driving the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv highway. This time, staring aimlessly out the windshield, I found myself looking at the metal remains scattered alongside the road. I drive the road so often that I hardly ever notice them anymore, but this time, I did. Immobile, but carefully painted so as to preserve them, lay the shells of the trucks that were destroyed as Jews tried to break the Jordanian siege on Jerusalem in 1948. The carcasses of these trucks were a reminder, a source of perspective. If you had told someone in 1948, when Jews in Jerusalem were besieged -- and out of food, water and medicine -- that we’d be OK, you’d have sounded like a dreamer. You’ve have had nothing on which to base your confidence. Except, perhaps, for perspective, and for the knowledge that in the end,
the Jews have always figured out how to survive. That there is something about our people that defies explanation, but which is real, no less real than any of the challenges we face.

The highway is a reminder of that. The road from Tel Aviv to the capital road still snakes its way up through the hills to Jerusalem. And Israel is still surrounded by enemies. But the difference? Jerusalem is rebuilt, and thriving. And the main problem that we have on that road now is the traffic. Sixty years after the siege, our problem is too many Jews in Jerusalem. Jerusalem overflowing with Jews, living in and visiting the Jewish State. It’s a good problem to have. And not one that we thought we’d have back in 1945.

Further on down the road, I pass the exit for Latrun, the site of devastating battles in the War of Independence, the same Latrun that Ariel Sharon tried to conquer when he was a young commander. But he failed. His troops literally dying of thirst in the sun-scorched battlefield because they didn’t even have canteens, Sharon had to withdraw. And today? There’s a tank museum there. And at the amphitheater there, Israeli soldiers are inducted into their army units in ceremonies overflowing with pride and with confidence, a reality wholly other than what witnesses of Sharon’s battle would have believed the future would hold.

Off the road is also Beit Horon, the site of Maccabee battles during their revolt against the Greeks. I imagine that things looked grim during that period, too. The Greeks were determined to break the backbone of the Jews who lived here then. And who would have imagined that the Greeks might not win? A small, if determined, band of priests was going to stand up to the Seleucid empire and recapture Jerusalem? The mere idea was entirely absurd. And it happened. Strength, Jewish tradition reminds us, can be measured in a multiplicity of ways.

And even further down the road, had I continued driving that far, I’d have hit the turnoff to Yavneh, the seat of rabbinic learning during the period of the Romans. By all accounts, Judaism should have died under Rome. A religion centered on Jerusalem saw its sacred city destroyed. Its citizens were exiled. A nation for whom the Temple was the very center of its identity saw the Temple Mount go up in flames, for the second time. A people whose Torah taught them that sacrifice was key to their relationship with God, could no longer perform the sacrificial rite. The Roman conquest should, by all accounts, have been the end.

But the Jewish story wasn’t done. Over the course of time, the synagogue developed and became the focus of our communities. Prayer substituted for sacrifice. And we learned to survive in exile. We yearned for Zion, but we continued to develop our civilization so that it could thrive in the Diaspora.

And now we have Zion, too. Not without travail, not without cost. The price we pay for staying, and the toll we exact from our children, is huge. The pain is sometimes unbearable. And it seems that just when that we’ve solved one challenge, another seems to rise up. Such as the war just ended, a war we lost.

But this war was only one battle in the long campaign for Jewish survival. For even if we lost the war, what matters on the eve of Rosh Hashanah is perspective. As the new Jewish year begins, and as Jews across the globe prepare to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, we’ve got much reason for concern. An army desperately needs to be rebuilt. A country urgently needs visionary leadership. We’re still under the threat of Hezbollah’s missiles. Our kidnapped soldiers have not been returned. And Iran is on the verge of becoming nuclear while Europe adopts Chamberlain’s failed posture. We have been bruised this year, and badly so.

But the response can’t be despondency. It has to be to roll up our sleeves and to get to work. It will take a very long time to rebuild Israel’s deterrent capacity and image, but it can be done. We’ve been dreaming of peace, but now we must begin to prepare for war, and in earnest. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy offers a reminder that ha-yom harat olam, “today is the birth of the world.” Today is pregnant with possibility. Today, anything is possible. We’ve been in trouble before, and we’ve always emerged. Dedicated, wiser. Stronger. Better equipped to face the future.

That can happen, if we recognize our failures and begin to respond to them. This is a season of the recognition of personal failures, of course, but now there are communal failures to acknowledge as well. How did the Jewish state allow the sick, the infirm and the poor to languish in bomb shelters, day after day, week after week, for a month, with no plan for how to care for them? How did we send our sons to the front to have them run out of water, to run out of bullets? Why were the orders issued to reservists changed so many times in the space of a few hours that they literally had no idea what they were supposed to be doing?

(And there are questions for those Jews who live abroad, too. Did those of us who live in the Diaspora give enough? Speak out enough? Care enough? Visit enough? If Israel’s survival were dependent on what we had done during the war, would Israel be here for the next generation?)

This is a sobered country, more sad than angry it seems to me. Sure, there are people clamoring for Olmert and Peretz and Halutz to resign, but not everyone’s all worked up about them. Perhaps because no alternative seems much better. And perhaps because people understand that it’s much more than these three guys … Hezbollah stockpiled missiles for years and years, and we just watched it happen. Ariel Sharon is more responsible than Olmert. But there’s not much anyone can do about that. Most people, I think, want to focus on the future, not on the past.

So during Sukkot, I’m going to take some days off with my family. Rent a place in the north, to give the people who lost so much this summer a bit of extra income. And mostly, perhaps, so we can get on the highway and drive. And on the highway, watch the exits, and see the history, and get reminded …

The Babylonians. The Romans. The Crusaders. The Ottomans. The British. The Arab Legions. They’re all gone, and we’re still here.

For now, at least. The challenge is to make this year into a year when we begin to do what we need to, to try somehow, to keep it that way.

NOTE: This “dispatch” is a revised version of an article that appeared recently as “Israel – the Eternal Nation” in the World Jewish Digest
(, Vol. IV, No. 1 (September 2006).
That version, which deals more with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is posted
on the "Articles" page of Daniel Gordis’ web site,

(c) 2006 Daniel Gordis

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