Israel and I

Israel and I photo image
The author, middle row right, with his family and Israeli relatives during his first visit to Israel as an eight-year-old, in 1961.

In celebration of Israel@70, JUF News is running a yearlong series of stories to provide a unique window into Israel.

"Israel and I, 13 years old," was the opening line of my brother's bar mitzvah speech.

Our temple had broken with mainstream Reform over a decade before over the movement's rejection of Zionism. Now, in 1961, my brother was in the congregation's first generation reared on Israel and Zionism as core elements. It was a new, American brand of Jewish liberation theology, with Israel and justice as central facets of its worldview.

We sailed for Israel that summer to experience the return of the Jewish people to our homeland, and to meet our relatives who had moved to Israel in the early '20s.

What had Israel's pioneers, my relatives included, wrought? What were the fruits of their efforts, stretching back to the 1860s, of labor Zionists, revisionists, observant and non-observant Jews? Were they achieving the goal of normalizing a people who had been alternately humiliated and tolerated, hunted and protected at the whim of rulers from Ukraine to Uzbekistan, Morocco to Moldova, Prussia to Persia, Russia to Rhodes?

Who were these people who had wrested a novel Jewish reality from the mad idea, that a "new Hebrew" could take root in an Ottoman backwater?

My great uncle was a pioneering scientist, who helped found the Weizmann Institute. His children were farmers, thinkers, and defenders of the tiny nation being willed into existence from a dream. Taking root was their life's mission.

"Israel and I, 13 years old" embodied a new Jewish truth. In the year that Adolph Eichmann was whisked by Mossad agents from Argentina to stand trial in Jerusalem, my brother's words acknowledged Israel's place as the instrument and protector of Jewish will, self-determination, and identity.

Two millennia in the making, a Jewish nation with its own language, institutions, army, and political agency was irrevocably shaping the destiny of Jews in every corner of the globe. Even where we lived, on Chicago's North Shore, Jews were turning for inspiration to their brazen brethren who dared to take command of their fate.

Many Jews, including the Reform movement, adopted Zionism retrospectively, in the shadow of the Holocaust, correcting course as Enlightenment promises crumbled under the Nazi boot.

Zionists like Theodor Herzl had seen dreadful tidings in the late 19th and early 20th Century; they believed Jews could alter their precarious standing only by changing their footing, to relate to the world as an equal among nations.

The European Enlightenment had promised Jews a path to equality and citizenship, if only they would behave like any other religion. The Zionists saw the only solution to the European "Jewish problem" through political independence like any other nation, but whose wellspring was the ancient prophetic worldview, of Jews as a people living justly in their own land.

As an eight-year-old arriving in Israel, my own awareness of all these forces was being shaped by those closest to me: my parents, who had fought the scourge of Jew hatred and went on to march with Dr. King; my grandmother, a Zionist since her youth under Czar Nicholas II, for whom working to create a Jewish national home was her life; our closest family friends, survivors of the Nazi camps, and veterans of Israel's War of Independence, with whom we spent every Passover and who gave grave meaning to "Next year in Jerusalem."

Through my young eyes, Jewish sovereignty took human form in Israel. Vividly I recall docking at the Haifa port, where some 600,000 Holocaust survivors had disembarked not so long before. I tried to imagine what they felt at their first sight of the land of their redemption.

Vividly I recall ascending the twisting road to Jerusalem littered with the hulks of armored trucks. Never had I seen the detritus of war, but I had heard the story of how young Jewish fighters had broken the siege.

Vividly I recall my relatives' spartan home in Ra'anana, nestled among fragrant orange groves. Our Israeli cousins took us to a neighbor to witness a rare marvel -- a refrigerator -- signaling that the pioneers indeed were taking root.

Vividly I recall riding buses with wooden seats, crammed among passengers carting live chickens, jabbering in Hebrew, to chickens, to children, to anyone within earshot.

On our trip to the Negev, vividly I recall my relatives' amazement when we visited Sde Boker and waved to the kibbutz's most prominent member, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, just as he was leaving.

Now Israel is 70. The pioneers and founders mostly are gone. We Baby Boomers are the youngest people with vivid memories of Israel's early days.

Fading, too, is comprehension of Israel's historical imperative.

When Siren voices lure young Jews with a far-left call, casting Israel as pariah, I bristle at the irony and vividly recall the righteous purpose of Jewish self-determination, which my generation learned at the bosom of relatives and family friends. They experienced pogroms, survived genocide, fought tsunamis of anti-Semitism, and, through individual and collective effort, put the Jewish people on a different footing.

Israel's errors and sins could be forgiven, for we had witnessed the end of Jewish exile. Israel, with the help of Jews in America, had rescued millions of refugees. In Israel they started a new life, and built one of the world's most dynamic, innovative, and progressive societies. If that wasn't justice, what was?

Despite her travails, and barring, God forbid, any cataclysm, Israel will celebrate her 80th anniversary of independence, and many more beyond that.

We celebrate her independence for the very reason that Israel is no dream, but rather a thriving nation inhabited by a vibrant, diverse ingathering of people -- Jews and non-Jews -- who call her home.

All things considered, the state of the Jewish people will continue to vindicate her righteous purpose for many decades to come.

Aaron B. Cohen is JUF Senior Communications Advisor.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.