Why can’t Israel be better?

When it comes to Israel: "relationship complicated." The case against perfectionism.

Why is Jerusalem always plural – the heavenly and the earthly?

For I want to be in the Jerusalem of the present

Without my head in the heavens and my feet down below

And why is Jerusalem always coupled,

Like yadayim, hands, and reglayim, feet,

I want to be in one Yerushal

Because I want to be just one “I” and not “I’s”

Yehuda Amichai, Open Closed Open

“That’s it!” my friend told me over coffee. “I am so done with Israel! The corruption, the situation with the Palestinians, the racists in the government…How can you still support them? How can you even want to go there this summer?”

That was a nice 75th birthday gift for the state of Israel, wasn’t it?

So, Hebrew nerds — this one is for you.

The Hebrew word for Jerusalem is Yerushalayim. For the sake of rhetorical flourish, let’s use Yerushalayim the way that the Bible often does: as a synonym for the land of Israel itself.

Have you ever noticed that the Hebrew word for Jerusalem – Yerushalayim — is in the plural form?

Why? Because that is exactly what the late poet, Yehuda Amichai, was asking in the first place. As he put it: Lamah Yerushalayim tamid shtayim?

My interpretation: In fact, there is not one Jerusalem; there are two.

As we observe Yom Yerushalayim, the anniversary of Jerusalem’s re-unification during the 1967 Six Day War, let us affirm that duality.

Politics: There are two Jerusalems — the “new city” of west “Jewish” Jerusalem (and this is an over-simplification of the situation), and the Old City/east “Arab” Jerusalem (again, an over-simplification)  — two entities forged into one after the Six Day War in 1967.

Demographics: Many west Jerusalem neighborhoods have two names — the “new,” post-1948 War of Independence Hebrew name, and the older, pre-1948, Arabic name.

Hence, the upscale neighborhood of Komemiyut (Hebrew) is also the Arabic Talbiya — which, paradoxically, is the name by which it is still known. Signs with the names of those areas bear both names: the modern Hebrew name, and the older Arabic name in parentheses. The “Arabness” never disappeared; it became parenthetical, but still present — as visible as the old Arab villas that still line the streets, which are embassies, apartment buildings, and private homes.

Linguistics: There are two Jerusalems – Yerushalayim in Hebrew; al-Quds (“the holy city”) in Arabic.

But, it goes beyond this.

Jerusalem is the plural Yerushalayim because of a duality that permeates sacred Jewish literature — the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah) and the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel maalah).

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem exists in Christianity as well.

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is Jewish and sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem, Christian and righteous. In the book of Revelation, John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband in gold and precious stones.

For Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem was not real. It was an ideal. In the Middle Ages, there were many fanciful descriptions, maps, and paintings of Jerusalem, each one showing Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the Jewish sages themselves imagined it – as axis mundi.

The idea of the heavenly Jerusalem finds its way into even the very architecture and design of the modern city of Jerusalem.

Why, for example, is the deliciously pristine, white Jerusalem stone the “official” building material of the city?

The idea came from Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, starting in 1917 with the beginning of the British Mandate, who happened to be a vicar’s son.

He noticed that the Jerusalem sunset transforms the stone into shades of purple – what he imagined the heavenly Jerusalem must look like.

In his memoirs, he recalls the medieval hymn “Jerusalem is built in heaven/ Of living stone.” He believed that the earthly Jerusalem should be a replica of the heavenly Jerusalem.

A number of years ago, back in the days of land lines, a member of the Israeli Knesset was visiting Africa. He dialed the hotel operator, and asked for instructions on how to make a telephone call to a number in Jerusalem.

After a moment of silence, the operator responded that this would be impossible.

The Knesset member asked: “Why?”

To which the operator replied, as politely as possible: “Sir, surely you know that Jerusalem is merely a spiritual place that exists in heaven and in our prayers. It is not an actual place on earth. You cannot call there!”

What happens when people think that Jerusalem, and by extension and implication, Israel, is not a place on earth, but merely a zone of the spirit?

You pay a spiritual price for that. The spiritual price is that people train a moral magnifying glass on everything that happens there.

As Daniel Gordis notes towards the beginning of his new, excellent book, Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After Its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled Its Founders’ Dreams?”, Israel is the one hundredth largest country in the world, but it gets the sixth largest attention in news media.

Israel not only gets a lot of attention. It gets the most criticism — of any country in the world.

To some ears, some of the sharper critiques might sound antisemitic.

But, it might be something else — something paradoxical.

It’s not antisemitism — an irrational hatred for the Jewish people, that goes beyond reality.

Perhaps, it’s actually philo-semitism — an irrational love for the Jewish people — that also goes beyond reality.

Some criticism of Israel is not antisemitic.

Rather, it is a weird form of philo-semitic.

It’s not hatred. It’s actually disappointment.

What is the source of this disappointment?

It is simply this. Throughout their history, the Jews have championed their texts, their ideas, and themselves as heralds of an exalted ethics.

And now comes the state of Israel. It has not (yet) fulfilled the advertisements of moral excellence that the Jews have created for themselves.

Not only this. The philosemite (as well as many Jews) says: “The Jews, of all peoples, have been the target of injustice and hatred. How, then, can they…?”

Here, Daniel Gordis does a wonderful job of explaining how Israel sought very hard to somehow lift itself up above that abyss. In particular, I appreciated his analysis of the military practice of havlagah, restraint, which culminated in the Israel Defense Forces’ Code of Ethics.

Even, and especially, when it was not possible, or when attempts failed, or when the baser instincts of soldiers rose to the surface.

I commend Daniel Gordis for the most painfully honest assessment of Israel’s inner dynamics that has ever flowed from his pen. He holds back nothing, especially his anguish over the lingering, frustrating inequalities that exist in Israel today — the plight of Palestinians, and Israeli Arabs, and mizrachim (Jews from Arab lands) and women, and Russian Jews, and Ethiopians, and even Holocaust survivors.

But, Daniel Gordis is a realist. True — we live with the prophetic and apocalyptic ideal, in which the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 11: 6-9, with parallels in the New Testament, Revelation 21: 1-4).

But, many critics of Israel forget that the Jewish state has real enemies who never got that prophetic memo.

In the Jewish soul, we live with the vision of a heavenly, perfect Jerusalem of our ideals.

But, in real life and in real time, we live with the imperfect, morally tainted, earthly Jerusalem.

Which brings me to my – what is the right word — anger? disappointment? despair? — over the current situation in Israel.

While I firmly affirm Israel’s democratic process (that whole “only democracy in the Middle East” bragging point), I symbolically tear my clothing in mourning over the electoral decisions that Israelis have made.

It is a source of almost unspeakable anguish that the government contains xenophobes, Arab-phobes, Islamophobes, LGBTQ-phobes, and, frankly, American Jewry-phobes. My heart sinks.

And, yes, the constant sight — daily — of Israelis taking to the streets in protest causes my Jewish heart to rise.

When I go there in July, I will be joining the protesters in the streets. To be in Israel is always to be a character in Jewish history, and I want to play my part in that drama.

I will be protesting, and joining those who are saying: “This is our state, too! This is our Zionism, too! You cannot besmirch it! It belongs to the entire Jewish people!”

I live with a certain set of expectations about the Jewish state. Those rest upon the State being what it had long advertised itself to be, and what the Zionist founders wanted (or, at least, the most vocal majority of them at the time) — a liberal, Jewish democracy.

I refuse to allow the desire for the perfect (the heavenly Jerusalem) to eradicate the reality of the good (the earthly Jerusalem).

Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem.




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