Israel: Coming to Terms With the Broken and the Unbroken



Two weeks ago in Parshah Ki Tisa, Moshe comes down the mountain after receiving the word of God, whereupon seeing the Israelites dancing around the golden calf, he smashes the Ten Commandments. Later, he will receive a new set, and place the broken shards of the first one with the unbroken and "perfect" set in the Kodseh HaKodashim ("the Holy of Holies") and travel with Bnai Israel ("the Israelite people") to Canaan.

From my earliest memories, Israel was a part of my life. My view of the notion of Jewish peoplehood, my feelings toward Arabs and the importance of Jerusalem were formed at home, at day school, in the music I heard, and in the stories that were shared. A pivotal moment came at age 15, when at summer camp we studied Jewish heroes from the Bible through modern times.

Naturally, many of those heroes had a connection to Israel — people like Joseph Trumpeldor, Hannah Senesh, Eli Cohen and Yonatan Netanyahu. Not coincidentally, all of them were somehow connected to the military, and all had died serving to protect Israel or in the Holocaust or both.

I left that summer with a gloriously oversimplified and somewhat narrow view of what a Jewish hero was and could be. At the same time, I returned home filled with a deep love for and pride in Israel that in some ways could never live up to the expectations it created, let alone the reality I would face years later as an adult choosing to make aliyah.

I moved to Israel in my mid-20s and lived there for the better part of the '90s. It was a euphoric, joyful, terrifying and sobering time to live there; it was a time of peace accords, suicide bombings and everything in between. I returned to the United States for many reasons, but ultimately, I knew that to continue to grow I needed to be in America.

I have spent much of my adult life trying to come to terms with the two Israels that I know to exist: One is the brave, tiny country, surrounded (still) by more enemies than friends, with real threats to her security, if not her very existence.

In spite of this, Israel flourishes in so many ways. I am proud of the freedoms it affords its people, inspired by the incredible diversity of opinion it allows, of the remarkable minds and souls that populate it, and by the never-ending fight that Israelis pursue to promote justice, equality and fairness.

I am most connected by my family, who simply live and raise their families there; my friends for whom there really is no other home; and by those who serve and fight for Tzahal — the Israel Defense Force — with integrity, pride and courage.

The other Israel is more troubling for me: It is the Israel that is broken, sometimes I fear hopelessly and endlessly so. It is those citizens in Israel who stoke the coals of religious intolerance, coercion and intimidation. It is those leaders of the government of Israel that continue to promote settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza.

It is those in Israel who treat foreign workers with terrible disregard, and who treat those whose skin is not white with equal measures of contempt and suspicion. I am shocked when I read about soldiers who act with hatred toward other human beings, yet I believe this to be an exception and not part of some plan. I wonder how long Israel can continue at this pace before something precious is lost forever. Is this the same Israel that I sing about, dream about, worry, pray for and cry about?

After reading in the Torah about the broken and unbroken tablets traveling together in the holiest place, I am making a new resolution: That I will never stop holding the two Israels — the broken and the unbroken — together in my heart, knowing that both are real and true, as they always have been and always will be.

I will continue to challenge my own beliefs, but not abandon the fact that with all that is wrong, there is so much that is right with Israel, so much that creates the potential for greater justice, humanity and compassion — for Israel's citizens, her neighbors and the world.

I will continue to support Israel, to challenge it when I see injustices, and to never forget that I have no other Jewish homeland.

Harold Messinger is the chazzan at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.


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