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They're Still Heroes!

August 25, 2005 By:
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A teenager settler is comforted by an Israeli soldier, as the southern Gaza settlement of Shirat Hayam is evacuated.
For Jewish youngsters of past generations, Israel has always provided two invigorating symbols for the future.

One was that of the pioneering Jewish farmer, who had shaken off the dust of a debilitating Diaspora and returned to the land of our ancestors. The second was that of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces - tough Jews whose victories would somehow compensate for any indignities suffered by their not-so-tough cousins abroad.

Such was the stuff that fired the imagination of American Jews eager to applaud the heroic image of Zionism, even if relatively few had the gumption to actually move to Israel and join the ranks of the heroes.

This was the Israel of the 1958 Leon Uris novel Exodus and its super-Jew protagonist Ari Ben Canaan, which, despite its less than stellar literary quality, played a significant role in building across-the-board support for Israel among American Jews in the postwar era.

Though 45 years have passed since the film version of that novel set Jewish hearts aflutter (the miscast Paul Newman as Ben Canaan more than compensated for his inauthenticity, with good looks that made girls of all ages swoon), a world in which Israeli soldiers were the unquestioned good guys seems a lot farther away than that.

After the Lebanon fiasco, two Palestinian intifadas, a failed peace process and decades of media coverage that transformed its image from that of a plucky David to a hulking Goliath, it's little wonder that polls show more and more Jews have become alienated from Israel.

If Israel's rebirth and its subsequent and seemingly miraculous military victories once enabled every Jew - whether they considered themselves a Zionist or not - to hold his or her head up a little higher, we now see the inverse of that truth at work.

Rather than choosing to identify with a country that's routinely vilified in the secular media, many Jews prefer to distance themselves from it.

Different myths
And just as Diaspora Jews have changed, so too, has Israel.

Once the kibbutznik - the ultimate secular Jew that Uris used to create his cardboard stereotype Ben Canaan - was the avatar of Israeli patriotism.

But as post-Zionism and materialistic values swept over Israel's secular population, it has been the religious sector that has increasingly become the place from which many of the Israeli army's elite derived. In the paratroopers and commandos, the kipah sruggah - the "knit skullcap" indicating a Modern Orthodox Jew - became ubiquitous as the new role model even as animosity towards Haredi Orthodox Jews who did not serve in the army grew.

As for the return to the land, the laws of economics made no exceptions for the deluded socialism of Labor Zionism. Most of the kibbutzim either went bankrupt or became hotels or factories rather than true collective farms.

And in their place a new type of Jew became the symbol of the return to the land: the settlers who built and populated Israeli communities built on the disputed West Bank lands of Judea and Samaria, as well as Gaza and the Golan Heights.

But for these religious soldiers and those settlers, there would be no Exodus to make them into Diaspora heroes.

Instead, they were assigned the role of villain in the Western media's melodrama, in which mean Israelis oppressed the poor suffering Palestinians.

Instead of Paul Newman as the always victorious Ben Canaan, the media began to portray gruff Israelis pitilessly harassing Arabs at checkpoints and shooting at Arab children, even if most of the stories of such incidents turned out to be more myth than truth.

And in the aftermath of Gaza, some secular Israelis have claimed it means the end of both religious Zionism and the settlement movement. The crushing of the messianic hopes of the settlers will, they hope, return Israel to its pre-1967 culture in which Judaism was marginalized.

This view is strangely echoed by some on the right, who now say they cannot believe in an Israel which would evict Jews from their homes in Gaza. Such a state they say is no longer Zionist or Jewish.

If we in the Diaspora listen to the taunts of both the left and the right in these culture wars, we might imagine there is nothing left for us to believe in and little in Israel worth admiring. But, as is often the case, both extremes are dead wrong. That's because the painful yet moving spectacle of the withdrawal proved the reality of the Jewish state was far from the stereotype.

For one, rather than being the focus of a much-anticipated civil war, the soldiers of Israel's army, both religious and secular, went about carrying out their orders with patience and competence. Theirs was an unenviable task, as a retreat deemed in the nation's long-term interest forced them to pull Jewish families out of beloved homes.

That they were shown doing so, not with contempt and anger but with tears and understanding, showed Jewish values and the traditional concept of purity of arms are still alive in the IDF. The soldiers of the IDF showed again the same valor they exhibited under live fire during the intifada and in wars of the past.

On the other side of the divide, for once the vast majority of the settlers came across on American newspapers and broadcast networks as real people, and not stick figures who existed only to be cruel to the Arabs. If nothing else, the full-court press coverage of disengagement produced a sympathetic portrait of these Jews as people of hard work and faith, whose homes were sacrificed for the hope of peace.

Cynics will point out that it took their dispossession to accomplish this, but with the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jewish homes in the territories (including the quarter-million in Jerusalem also deemed settlements by the international community), this is not an unimportant point. If anything, this ought to inspire both Israelis and American Jews - no matter where they stand on the political spectrum - to make sure that the strong legal, historical and moral factors that underlie the Jewish claim here is not ignored in the debates that lie ahead.

No matter where its borders are drawn, the Jewish state is filled with people who are still united by a common past and future. And it is defended by an army of compassion and valor.

Divided it may be, but the pictures of soldiers and settlers embracing in tears together should remind us that there is still plenty of life in Zionism and plenty of extraordinary people there we can still claim as heroes.

Jonathan S. Tobin is reachable via e-mail at: jtobin@jewishexponent.com.

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