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As an American Jew living in New Jersey in the late 1970's, I made friends with many young Israelis post military age who were part of a wave of Israelis immigrating to the USA in the aftermath of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War to find a better and quieter life. Right away I noticed that their views of Judaism were not like mine. For instance, there was the Israeli who would not wear a yarmulke (traditional skull cap) to his brother's Jewish wedding. He was anti-religious and would not submit to even this simpliest of religious mandates. I thought that strange. Here was an Israeli, coming from the Jewish state only 30 years after the Holocaust, refusing to wear a yarmulke at a religious ceremony- something no American Jew would even think of refusing to do. I learned from that conversation that there is no separation of "church and state" in Israel and that there are religious political parties that use the political system to impose orthodox standards on all Israelis. Thus, there are tensions between secular and religious Jews and a remarkable difference in how Jews in the USA and Jews in Israel experience religion.
There seemed to be something fundamentally wrong in the way Israelis were being taught about their Judaism. When I was employed by one of the major universities I was amazed that the only two people in our department that adhered to the laws of Kashrut (maintaining Kosher dietary rules) were myself and one other American. We sought in Israel a place where kosher food was the norm, while our Israeli colleagues were seeking out the best restaurants serving shrimp and pork. This was a rude awakening for someone who moved to Israel to live in a Jewish country. I began to wonder, "can a house divided - stand?" Can Israel, as we know it and cherish it, survive without a clear vision and purpose? Could Israel survive without it maintaining its position of necessity in our Jewish lives?
In reading Daniel Gordis's book "Saving Israel" I was relieved to learn that yet another American had strikingly similar experiences to mine and had come to draw similar conclusions. The very premise of Daniel Gordis's book is that "to survive and function as a 'Homeland for the Jewish people' Israel must strengthen its own sense of purpose as a Jewish State." Gordis places the centrality of Israel as essential to the continual meaning of the Jewish people as a whole, to Jewish survival, Jewish recovery, and Jewish being. Israel cannot be a "mini America", but rather Israel must come to accept and embrace its identity as a Jewish state. Gordis places this matter of the soul of Israel at the center of its survival, even granting it priority of the peace process, which he derides as a discussion more of what the Palestinians will receive as opposed to the mechanisms of establishing peaceful coexistence.
Mr. Gordis expresses his ideas passionately and maintains his focus on his contention that "for the Jewish state to survive...Israel must strengthen its own sense of purpose as a Jewish State". This is, I would imagine, a proposition that most identifying Jews would be able to support. Yet, not everything in his presentation is as agreeable. For example, Gordis places a great deal of Israel's current trials on what he perceives to be a failed war effort in the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Hezbullah. He writes; "In 1967, Israel had won decisively; in 2006, Israel had lost." He rests his analysis on Hezbollah remaining intact after the war, Israel's inability to end Katusha rocket fire on the northern border, the intelligence failure that led to Israel's surprise by a determined Hezbullah, and other operational disappointments. Using terms like Israel was "incapable of winning", or "Israel fared poorly during the war" Gordis leaves little room for alternative views of the war and its outcome. To him "what was at stake was the future of the Jewish state, nothing more, nothing less."
This is a somewhat exaggerated view of the war and its outcome. I was living in Israel at the time of the war and what I witnessed was resolve, not defeat. I believe many Israelis lean toward this view, with most researchers and experts, if not emphasizing Israeli dominance, resort to calling the conflict "undecided". For example, The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), incorporating the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel-Aviv University, published an article by Yoram Schweitzer called "Divine Victory and Earthly Failures: Was the War Really a Victory for Hizbollah?", which concluded that " the violent clash between Israel and Hezbollah of July - August 2006, ended indecisively ...."
Mr. Gordis overlooks the many accomplishments of the war, including the deployment of Lebanese forces in the south and the passage of a U.N. resolution that restricted Hezbullah operations. So, if Mr. Gordis' assessment of the war and its outcome are questionable, does it damage the overall foundation of his contentions? The answer is no, because while the path he takes to his conclusions may be subject to debate, the conclusions themselves - primarily that Israeli survival is dependent on the Jewish state focusing on its Jewishness - are correct almost to the point of being self-evident.
In an uplifting chapter called "The State That Reinvented Hope," Gordis shares the story of a pre-Holocaust Torah scroll smuggled out of Poland by a group of Israeli students who, while visiting on a Jewish history tour, discovered its existence when a man offered to sell them "Jew Dolls" featuring bits of a genuine Torah scroll. The students, defying Polish law, returned the Torah scroll to Israel. When Gordis' daughter's class, on a similar trip, heard of the Torah scroll, they raised the money needed for its repair.
To Gordis, the redemption of this Torah, indeed its rescue from the Holocaust killing fields, is the appropriate analogy for the Israeli experience. Israel, to Gordis, is about life, about recovery, about a "vital Jewish future". It was a meaningful coincidence that the Torah rescued bore an inscription from Jeremiah that read "There is reward for your labor...hope for your future ...." The students, Gordis suggests, understood the significance and that "Israel has done for the Jewish people what these girls did for the Torah scroll." The Jews were brought home tattered but in Israel they were repaired and now in their national sanctuary they would thrive again.
Maybe the stories reconstructed aren't wholly appropriate. Maybe the logic used to support the propositions is subject to debate. But the idea that making Israel more Jewish is the path to "Saving Israel" is a solid and fundamental notion. Gordis makes his case in a compelling manner.
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