We start with two stories.
The first story, eight years ago: We’d just moved into our apartment in Jerusalem. After almost two years of living in three different rentals, we were more than anxious to settle down, to have our own furniture once again, to unpack our books, and to make a “real” home. We also wanted a treadmill, which we’d put off buying as long as we kept moving around.
So shortly after we moved in, I went out to “MegaSport” (Eliezer Ben-Yehudah must be spinning in his grave) with a very close friend, Levi, who’d already been here for years. Having narrowed matters down to a few choices, I called my wife on my cell and asked her which one she wanted. We chatted for a few minutes and made a decision. I paid, arranged for delivery, and we went back to the car. As he was backing out of his space, Levi turned to me and said, “You know, when I moved here, I certainly didn’t call my wife on my cell to ask her what model treadmill I should buy.”
I’ve no doubt that by the time we exited the parking lot, Levi had already forgotten that comment. But I never have. I can still picture our location, what the storefront window looked like through the windshield. The image is frozen in my mind. Because though Levi may or may not have meant it, what I understood him to be saying was that we’d gotten here too late. “You’ve moved to a ready-made country,” he essentially said. “ATM’s. Cell phones. A decent opera company. Museums and string quartets. Six universities. A good job in a stable economy. But you came too late to actually build something. You’re too old for the army. The Hula swamps have been drained. Other people did all that, and now, you arrive.”
OK. Maybe he didn’t exactly mean that, but that’s how it felt. True, he didn’t sing that old Zionist ditty Anu Ba’nu Artza, “We came to the land, to build it and to be built in it,” but he might as well have. His point was clear. What’s the point of living here if you don’t actually build something?
So I’ve often wondered, “Did we really come too late to build something, to make a real contribution to what this country can become?” I’ve tried to assuage my discomfort by telling myself that raising decent, thoughtful and committed kids here is its own kind of contribution. Or that my place of work was doing very important things for Israeli leadership. But still, that comment in the parking lot about cell phones and treadmills has never quite stopped nagging at me.
The second story, this past summer: Together with my son, Avi, and a friend visiting from Los Angeles, I drive up north to visit two Sudanese refugees recently released from Israeli jail, just as the Darfur story is starting to become headline news here. By the time we make it to the moshav where they’re living, working as day laborers on a farm, it’s getting a bit dark. We sit outside the converted shipping container in which they’re living (it’s only a metal shipping container, but I notice that it has an air conditioner and a satellite dish on the “roof”), and they begin to tell us their story.
One, whose English is a bit better (and whom we’ll call Ibrahim for our purposes), does most of the talking. He’d had four-hundred head of cattle in Sudan, which I assume made him a wealthy man. He’d also been a teacher, and had a library of some consequence in his home. He didn’t tell his story in anything resembling a chronological account, but we cobbled it together. He was one of eleven siblings, from a respected family. But his wealth and his position did him no good. The Janjaweed attacked his village, killing most of his siblings, forcing him to flee into the wilds with his father. His father eventually died, and he himself was later captured.
His captors, he told us, would burn one or two of the captives alive each night in front of the others, allegedly to get them to reveal “information.” On the eve of the night when he was to be burned alive, his captors ran out of wood. So the captives, under the watchful eyes of their armed guards, were dispatched into the thickets to bring back more wood. Ibrahim knew what would happen if he returned to camp. So he and another man, working in the shoulder-high brush, plotted their escape. The details are complex, but suffice it to say that they evaded their captors, and walked for three days with leg chains until they could find someone to help them saw the chains off.
Eventually, “Ibrahim” made his way to Egypt. There, he met and married another Darfur refugee. A few months later, she was pregnant, and they applied for refugee status from the United Nations. In December 2005, though, they attended a large rally outside the UN headquarters in Cairo, pressing the UN to process them more quickly. But the Egyptian army broke up the demonstration using water canons with ice cold water (in December). In the confusion, Ibrahim was separated from his wife, and as he was pushed onto a bus, he saw her being shoved into a police car.
After several days in an Egyptian prison cell with sixty other inmates (the space was only large enough for thirty to sleep at any one time, so thirty would sleep on the cement floor for a few hours, while the rest stood and then they would switch), Ibrahim was released from prison, and went looking for his wife. At first, there was no sign of her. Eventually, after searching all over the city, he found her name on a list of the dead, affixed to a Church door.
Now, Ibrahim could barely speak. Neither could we, of course. For it was a story we’d heard before, only before, it had been about us. Families, secure and respected, suddenly torn asunder and murdered. Husbands separated from wives. Cruelty that defies description. Entire communities scattered and murdered.
Ibrahim continued. “I knew I must go to Israel. I have read in the Bible that the Jews are good to strangers. Israel will take care of me, I know.”
He paused, and suddenly, I was unable to look at my son I wished that I hadn’t brought him. Because I knew what was coming. Ibrahim was going to tell us that the Bible says that the Jews are good to strangers, but look what we actually do. We throw them in jail, don’t we? I found myself gripping the arms of the plastic chair on which I was sitting, listening to Ibrahim, but staring straight into the ground.
He described how he and another refugee (the quiet man now sitting next to him) had slowly made their way across the Sinai desert, without flashlights or candles. In the day they would sleep and stay still so as not to be detected, and at night they would inch their way forward, trying not to head too far west (and end up in Gaza) or too far east and thus (in their understanding of the geography) end up in Jordan. Eventually, after weeks of wandering at night, they came to a barbed wire fence. They knew it was a border, but they weren’t sure which border it was. They crawled through it with no trouble, he said, and stood up, surveying the new country in which they’d arrived.
Within seconds, Ibrahim told us, army jeeps streamed towards them, spotlights flooding the area with glaring white. Soldiers jumped out, their guns at the ready. It must have been terrifying, I imagined. But Ibrahim said, calmly, pointing at the spot on his shirt above his breast pocket, “I see on the soldiers writing I do not recognize. And I know this is Israel. I know I am OK.”
I almost laughed. He sees Hebrew, so he thinks he’s safe. But I knew that Ibrahim had been arrested, and I just knew that there was going to be a nasty story about these soldiers. I glanced at Avi, and his eye caught mine. Just having graduated high school, he’s not far from getting drafted himself, and I felt for him. They were going to tell us about the army he’s soon to join, and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
Ibrahim continued. The soldiers, having no idea what to do with these men (this was before the flood of refugees began), put them in their jeep, and took them to base. There, they told Ibrahim and his friend, “We’ll figure this out in the morning.” In the meantime, they gave them dinner, made them some beds, and let them go to sleep.
Now, that wasn’t what I’d expected to hear.
The rest of the story is complicated. Because he’d entered the country illegally (and as a Sudanese citizen, he’s a citizen of a country formally at war with Israel), Ibrahim was eventually arrested. When our friend from Los Angeles asked him how it was in Israeli prison, he smiled and said, “Yes, very good.” “No,” our friend said, assuming he hadn’t understood the question. “In prison. How was it in prison?” “Yes,” Ibrahim insisted. “Good. They give us food. The guards are kind.” At last, I allowed myself a brief glance at Avi.
Eventually, a judge let him out of prison, and he was permitted to work on this moshav, which had taken in a number of refugees. In a few weeks, he told us, there would be no limits on his freedom. He would head to Tel Aviv, he said, to try to find a job, and to start his life anew.
“Do you think you’ll be allowed to stay in Israel?” my friend asked him. Ibrahim’s smile disappeared. “I must,” he said. “This is wonderful country. People here are very kind. I rather die in Israel than go back to Egypt or Sudan. They will kill me there.” He’s seen them do it, we should recall.
We took some pictures, exchanged cell phone numbers. Ibrahim had forgotten my son’s name, and asked him what it was. “Avi,” Avi said. Ibrahim looked at his friend, and they smiled. He turned to us and said, “Avi was the name of a guard in prison. He was very nice man.”
Driving home along the coast, we talked about what we’d heard. How do some Israelis not see that we simply have to let the Darfur refugees in? Does the story about crossing the desert from Egypt to a promised land not speak to us any longer? Why don’t we get the UN to beef up its forces at the border with experts who can tell the real refugees from genocide from those simply seeking a better life (the latter being probably too numerous for Israel to accommodate)? Why doesn’t the Foreign Ministry get stories like this into the press, instead of succumbing to using absurdly scantily-clad women to allegedly improve Israel’s image abroad?
But something else was bothering me. It wasn’t the government’s pathetic non-policy regarding these refugees, or even the Foreign Ministry’s desperation. It was me. Why had I been so certain that Ibrahim was going to tell us how misanthropic Israelis were, how abusive the soldiers had been? Why did I assume the soldiers had done something wrong, when in fact, they’d been extraordinarily kind? Why was I so positive that here, too, Israel had failed? The Israel that Ibrahim knows is a kind, decent place. If he was so certain, why was I so unsure?
Cynicism is a dangerous disease, a cancer of the soul. Often, we don’t know we have it, until it’s too late, until part of us has died. It’s also contagious. And this country has stage-three cynicism. By cynicism, I don’t mean the occasional snide joke at a cocktail party. I mean a low-grade but constant self-loathing among many of the people I know at the elite of Israel’s intellectual and academic circles, for whom discussion of the Jewish State is more than passé it’s absurd. If you say something about the values inherent in Zionism, you sound odd. If you insist that the Jews have something unique to say and that having a State is our platform on which we can begin to articulate that “something,” they look at you as if you’re “cute.” As if you’d referred to a young dating couple as “courting,” or as if you’d just called a pair of jeans “dungarees.” You’re an anachronism, and no one “in the know” will take you, or your ideas, very seriously.
This self-loathing manifests itself in a relentless discussion of the occupation, with no reference to why the occupation began or to the fact that Israel doesn’t exactly have many sane choices that might end it. You see it when people insist Israel should “just sign a peace agreement already,” with no consideration of what’s unfolding in Gaza, in complete denial of the obvious fact that there’s no way that Abu Mazen can deliver on anything he promises before or during Annapolis. It’s the culture in which post-nationalism is taken as an obvious truth, with no recognition of the fact that it’s only when discussing the state of the Jews that people insist that the nation-state should be dismantled. It’s the conversational style in which every mention of an Israeli soldier has to be followed by an account of some act of barbarity, lest you appear overly nationalistic.
You see it here, too: in the past few years, more than one colleague has told me, with a wink and a smile, about his/her able-bodied son who figured out a way out of military service. “It’s not for him,” they say. He wants to work on his music, his art, his athletic prowess. Because it’s not as if defending the first homeland that the Jews have had in two thousand years is actually a value, is it? But the saxophone? Now, there’s a value.
They’ve gotten to me, I realized as we turned inland from the Mediterranean and started the long climb up to Jerusalem. That night, listening to Ibrahim, I just knew that we’d wronged him –even when we hadn’t. Of course I was appalled by those draft-evasion stories, and yes, I knew which friends and colleagues to avoid after a bombing so I could spare myself the comments about how “the evils of the occupation” justify blowing women and children to smithereens in a cafe. But other than avoiding those people, I asked myself, what was I doing about it? Nothing.
In the quiet of the car, I wondered about this country, and how you cure a society that no longer engages in any serious discourse about why its existence matters. And I thought about that treadmill, and about Levi’s question – “Isn’t building something the reason you’re here?”
And then, unbelievably, the phone rang (more truthfully, an e-mail made its way into my inbox). It was the Shalem Center (www.shalem.org.il), a Jerusalem-based research and education institute that engages in research, education, and publications on Jewish moral and political thought, Zionist history and ideas, democratic theory and practice, strategic studies, and more. “How about coming over for a visit?” they suggested. Having read their journals and books with great admiration for years, I hastened to accept.
One conversation led to another, and relatively quickly, I was shown one of the most exciting documents I’d read in a long time: a proposal for a College. A four-year liberal-arts college (a model which does not yet exist in Israel), with a core curriculum that will include history, philosophy, the philosophy of science, Greek thought, Jewish thought, Jewish history, Zionist history and thought, religion and morality, and more. “It’s pretty amazing,” I told them. “It could change the country.” “So how about coming on board and helping us build it?” they proposed.
As I’d done with the treadmill, I asked my wife what to do. “What, I should just drop everything out of the blue, and leave a great job at a superb foundation, with fabulous people who’ve become good friends, walk away from it all? Who in their right mind would do such a thing?” I asked her. “You would,” she said. “You should. What are you even wondering about? Remember when you used to say that the main thing you regretted about leaving America was that our kids wouldn’t get the kind of liberal arts education that we did? What if this project could change that?”
“What if,” indeed. What if we could produce generations of university students who didn’t succumb to cynicism, who did believe that the Jews’ greatest contribution to the world has been in the realm of ideas, and who wanted to study and discuss those ideas? What if we could produce students who were profoundly prepared to be citizens of the Jewish State, of the Jewish people, and of the world, who could speak intelligently about nations and states, and political philosophy, and religion and morality, and who eventually rose to become Israel’s political leadership, its great jurists, academics and social entrepreneurs? Could that possibly be less of a contribution than the work of previous generations?
I don’t know what most parents do in situations like this, but we included our kids in our musings about what to do. They’re old enough, I thought, to learn about how you think about these sorts of decisions. We talked about careers and salaries, job security and the ongoing need for challenges. And most importantly, we talked, again, about why we’d moved here in the first place.
There’s an important anniversary coming up here in a few months. And I thought that this would be a good opportunity to remind them that even though, at their age, sixty years might seem like a long time, for a country that’s just a bare beginning. Which is a blessing, when you think about it. Because it means that even if the country appears to be already built, that’s just an illusion. In reality, everything’s still forming. And if you really believe in this place, I wanted them to understand, and you really believe that the future of the Jewish people depends on this still forming State, then some of life’s big decisions are actually relatively simple. You pick a project you believe can make a huge difference, perhaps even change everything. And then you just roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Isn’t that, after all, precisely why we’re here?
© Daniel Gordis, reprinted with permission of the author. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice-President and Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center (www.shalem.org.il) in Jerusalem, and the author, most recently, of Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). Visit his website at www.danielgordis.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.