Only One Lifeboat

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What better time to contemplate the state of the Jewish people today than on the eve of our birth as a nation on Pesach? (I shall confine myself to the state of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael.)

The immediate external threats to the Jews of Eretz Yisrael — well-armed proxies of the jihadist Iranian state on both our northern and southern borders, the distinct possibility of a Hamas takeover of much of Judea and Samaria as well, and a soon to be nuclear Iran — absorb most of our attention. Yet precisely because of the magnitude of the external threats is the greatest danger facing the Jews of Israel today internal.

The Palestinians have long predicated their strategy on the belief that time is on their side, and that no matter how downtrodden they are today, they will ultimately prevail. Their goal is to wear down the Jews of Eretz Yisrael by making their lives so miserable that they can no longer bear living here.

Nothing better captures the Palestinian game plan than a story that I have told before, related by Palestinian legislator Selah Temari. While imprisoned in an Israeli jail for security offenses, Temari came to the conclusion that Israel was far too powerful to ever destroy. He decided that when he got out of jail he would devote himself to tending his own olive tree and abandon the struggle against Israel. He even began to study Jewish history to gain insight into the perseverance of the Jewish people in the face of so much adversity.

Then one night he was looking through the bars of his cell, and he saw his Jewish jailer eating a pita. “How could you be eating bread?” he asked. “Don’t you know it is Pesach?” The jailer answered him: “Do you really expect me not to eat bread, because of something that happened 3,300 years ago?”

That night, records Temari, he twisted and turned all night. By the morning, he reached the conclusion that the Palestinians could expel the Jews. A people that had lost its sense of connection to its past and to the Land could be defeated.

If that story encapsulates the essence of the Palestinian strategy and hopes for the future, nothing better captures the success of that strategy than a speech given by Prime Minister Olmert prior to his becoming prime minister. Speaking to an overseas audience, he said, “We are tired of fighting, tired of winning … ”

Israel’s weariness of ceaseless war and threats of war is understandable. And it is reflected in a number of worrying trends. After Yasser Arafat’s decision to go to war with Israel in 2000, monied Israelis began buying up homes abroad and moving their money out of the country. Brain drain among academics has reached near crisis proportions. The rate of emigration of researchers and professors almost doubled between 2002 and 2004 — from .9% to 1.7%, according to a recent study of the Shalem Institute.

In a recent letter to Azure, Professor Aaron Ciechanover, a 2004 Nobel Laureate in chemistry, lays the blame for the latter phenomenon on the bankrupt educational system. “Science and technology are universal subjects,” he notes, “Independent of nationality … Israel is certainly not the best place to learn or build a career in these professions.” Thus only a strong sense of “national responsibility” can, in the long run, prevent the mass emigration of those in these fields. But that is precisely what modern Israeli society in its “attempt to copy, unsuccessfully, the developed societies of the West in an effort to be like every other nation” has not provided its young.

In a similar vein, Haaretz‘s Ari Shavit attributes the failures of the Lebanon War to the country’s elites, who, in his analysis, sapped every ounce of national will in the insane believe that Tel Aviv could be another New York on the Mediterranean, a “fun” society, to quote Prime Minister Olmert’s most famous campaign promise.

What both the Palestinians and the Jewish critics of the current direction of Israeli society agree on is that without a national identity, a sense of purpose, a connection to the Land and to Jewish history, weariness will ultimately sap the Jews’ ability to defend themselves.

THAT ANALYSIS IMPOSES A RESPONSIBILITY ON THE TORAH COMMUNITY. For apart from a connection to Torah it is impossible to imagine where the requisite national will and purpose will come from. Yair Sheleg once wrote in Haaretz that chareidi yeshivah bochurim contribute more to Israeli society than they would in the army because they are the last repositories of an unadulterated Jewish identity.

On the one hand, there is a widespread sense among secular Israelis that something has gone terribly awry. And there are indications of a new openness to Jewish tradition as a source of the answer — e.g., dozens of Gemara shiurim in the heart of Israel’s financial and hi-tech districts, mikvaos being built on the most left-wing kibbutzim, over 4,000 telephone chavrusos pairing secular Israelis with chareidi study partners.

On the other hand, significant barriers remain to be overcome. The first is convincing secular Israelis that we care about them, not just as potential baalei teshuvah but as our Jewish brothers. And that requires truly believing it ourselves.

The fact that we do not share equally in army service, and the insularity we have of necessity adopted to protect against a spiritually toxic environment make it harder to convince secular Israelis of our concern. But the first step from our side is acknowledging our responsibility.

In addition, we must demonstrate to secular Israelis that the Torah is a Toras Chaim — that is not only a set of texts to be studied in the beis medrash, but that it provides guidance for every challenge confronting us as individuals and as a nation. That requires, inter alia, producing compelling material, based on Torah sources, that addresses both societal and individual concerns. It also means being prepared to denounce quickly and forcefully ugly behavior, even when perpetrated by those who have adopted the cloak of frum Jews.

Our responsibility derives not only from our obligations to our secular Jewish brothers but also to ourselves. If the state of Israel goes down at the hands of our enemies, chas v’shalom, it will take with it the more than five million Jews living here. We are all in this boat together.

The looming threat of a nuclear Iran is but the most glaring example of that general rule.

Chag Kasher v’Sameach

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8 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    mb, Tamari’s story is statistically likely.

    If the 81% figure represents the Jewish population of Israel, then 10% of that is Charedim. Charedim mostly do not serve in the military, and are therefore unlikely to be hired by the jail service. This means that the releveant figure is (81-10)/(100-10), or 79%.

    79% is still pretty high, but that is per individual. The guard-prisoner relationship is not one to one. It makes sense that an individual prisoner will see at least 10 guards a day. This means that the likelihood of all guards avoiding Chametz is 0.79^10, or 9.5%.

  2. mb says:

    I’m not sure why you so quickly believe Tamari’s comments about his jailer.I do not. And a poll today suggests that 81% will NOT buy bread on Pesach.

  3. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Hillel #5,
    The removal of the ring, the immediate fear of the physical threat, is a bandaid for Jewish survival throughout history. It is clear, however, that the geula, the final redemption, is only going to occur with a change in the hearts of all of us, and Hashem is dragging us through all of history to get us to finally work that out for ourselves. He doesn’t want robots, he wants real people. Until we all get it as a nation and change fundamentally for more than a short time, the struggle goes on.

  4. HILLEL says:

    “GedoLa HaSaras HaTaBaas MiMemChes NeviIm!”–A clear and presnt threat is the best way to unify the Jewish People, so that they will return to authentic Judaism, in preparation for the Final Redemption.

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Additional signs of awakening in Israeli society are the increased commitment of post-Hesder yeshiva graduates to continued Torah study, the high-level RZ kollels such as Eretz Hemdah for dayanut and others, as well as the increased involvement of the RZ community in kiruv and outreach. There are garinim toraniim going out to outlying areas and communities with social problems as well as work in Tel Aviv and other major cities. We in the hesder yeshiva in Ma’ale Efraim (Jordan Valley) have some of our boys working with kids from the community during the afternoon and evening breaks helping them with homework, tutoring for bar-mitzvah, etc. From reading the accounts of activists in the cities, there is great enthusiasm and the activity is well-received. It is important that all the different groups each do what they do best. The keys to the hearts of different people are all different.

  6. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Beautiful sentiments and well written. (See, I don’t just criticize) There is indeed very little in this piece I can disagree with but I would like to note one thing.

    A few visits to Israel ago I recall spending time with both Chareidi and Chiloni friends. Each group essentially said the same thing: The OTHER was the source of all their problems. The OTHER had to change if they were to all get along. And when one listened to the complaints each side had, they were almost all legitimate.

    Perhaps it is time both sides put down their defensiveness and self-assuredness that there is nothing wrong with how they are, that they don’t have to change despite wanting rapprochement with the other side. Perhaps there has to be a sea change in the Chiloni world to return to a sense of Jewish identity and pride that will allow Israel and the Jewish people around the world to endure what our enemies have planned for us. But there must also be an acceptance on the Chareidi side that they must change as well, an acceptance that perhaps that those truths that they hold so to be self-evident just might not be.

    Perhaps if both sides approach each other and ask “What can I do to show my bond to you?” we would finally see the achdus we need.

  7. Derek Fields says:

    I think that the Chareidi community needs to do more than acknowledge its responsibility. It needs to acknowledge that forcing secular Israelis to believe as the Chareidi believe and do as Chareidi do will never work. The violence that the Chareidi community engages in and the aggressive imposition of Jewish observance on the non-observant community is not a path to kiruv. It will only widen the gap between observant and non-observant. If the Chareidi community were willing to live and let live, demonstrating the beauty of Jewish life through their actions and not through threats and intimidation, maybe more Israelis would be willing to take a look.

  8. Ori says:

    In a similar vein, Haaretz’s Ari Shavit attributes the failures of the Lebanon War to the country’s elites, who, in his analysis, sapped every ounce of national will in the insane believe that Tel Aviv could be another New York on the Mediterranean, a “fun” society, to quote Prime Minister Olmert’s most famous campaign promise.

    Then wouldn’t Israel be better off if those elites left instead of sticking around and influencing the rest of the society? People who don’t want to live in a fortress country in the Middle East have no business living in what can only survive as a fortress country.

    In addition, we must demonstrate to secular Israelis that the Torah is a Toras Chaim — that is not only a set of texts to be studied in the beis medrash, but that it provides guidance for every challenge confronting us as individuals and as a nation.

    This is precisely where Charedi insularity damages the Chiloni opinion of Judaism. If you close yourselves in Charedi enclaves, that implies you need enclaves to survives. When the Torah appears to needs to avoid the challenges of everyday chiloni life, then it appears irrelevant to chilonim.