The story on the morning news show as I drove to Ben Gurion Airport last week had made headlines throughout my 12-day visit to Israel: the imminent deportation of some 30,000 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan. To the Netanyahu government, they are “infiltrators” who entered the country illegally or have long overstayed the temporary welcome once afforded them. To a growing chorus from Israel and abroad who are opposed to their expulsion, many of the immigrants are “refugees” entitled to asylum. To me, the distinctive terms of the Israeli debate over immigrants furnished another example of longstanding differences between what Jewish identity and Judaism mean in the sovereign Jewish State of Israel and the very different meanings attached to Jewishness and Judaism in the North American Jewish community.
Today marks 70 years since the momentous vote by the General Assembly of the United Nations to create two states in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. Jews in Palestine and around the world danced in the streets upon hearing of the UN’s decision. Arabs in Palestine rioted, killing seven Jews on the first day of violence. David Ben Gurion, who had reluctantly supported the partition agreement as the best the Jewish people could hope for at that juncture, warned his aides that blood would soon flow. He was right, of course, and the conflict with Palestinians and some of Israel’s Arab neighbors has not ceased from that day to this. Even Ben Gurion could not have foreseen that 70 years after the vote, issues of partition and division would remain at the top of the agenda for Jews in the Land of Israel, in two related but very different forms.
This month we mark two anniversaries of momentous events in the history of Zionism and the State of Israel: 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, issued by the government of Great Britain on November 2, 1917, and 70 since the United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, for the partition of Palestine. It’s safe to say that had either of these events not occurred, there would be no State of Israel today. It is no less true that both created problems and dilemmas for which a solution is still nowhere in sight.
For many Jews in North America this year, the awe felt during the Days of Awe contains a greater measure of fear and trepidation than usual. “Who will perish by fire, and who by water . . . who by earthquake and who by plague . . . who will be at peace and who will be troubled?” The High Holiday liturgy reminds us, if reminder is needed in 2017, that uncertainty is our lot as human beings.
The great sociological theorist Peter Berger passed away earlier this summer, just as thousands of Jewish kids were heading off to immersive camp experiences that build and sustain identity in ways that Berger’s ideas brilliantly help to explain. Visiting Camp Ramah New England right after reading the obituary for Berger in the Times, I could not help reflecting through the lens of his theory on the magic taking place before my eyes.
JTS marked the hundredth yahrzeit of Solomon Schechter last week with a short service of commemoration at Minhah, a moving visit to Schechter’s grave at which I was joined by executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer Marc Gary and several recent JTS alumni, and a historic gathering of rabbis, educators, and leaders of all the major Jewish religious movements.
I walked the halls of my high school last week for the first time since I graduated 46 years ago. It was, no pun intended, a real high: not only for reasons of sentiment and the pleasures of nostalgia—the cafeteria exactly as I remembered it; the corridors and lockers the same except for fresh coats of paint; the English class with the blackboard where I knew it would be and the desks scattered in proper disorder—but because the students of today were every bit as motivated, talented, and happy in their learning as I remembered my classmates were way back when.
Jerusalem was on edge this week, its Jews fearful of the next knifing or shooting that would come soon and without warning; its Arabs subject to added inspections and fearful of police and Jewish popular anger alike. Fewer people than usual were on the sidewalks; busses had fewer riders, with soldiers prominent among them.
What I will most remember about the recent multireligious gathering with Pope Francis at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is the hush that awaited and greeted him. I don’t remember anyone giving a direction for silence.
Forty years ago this fall, I moved into an apartment in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem and began participating in a program called Mishmar Ezrachi, or civil guard.