Israel is a Place: 50 Years of Conversations with my Most Important Zionist Teacher
I have recently returned from a two-week trip to Israel. This trip, like others before it, renewed my Zionist enthusiasm.
Still, it was a bit different since it was the 50th anniversary of my first visit to Israel. And my journey, therefore, was an occasion for introspection and reflection.
I have made almost 100 trips in those 50 years, and in some ways they have all been different. But in one critical way they have all been the same: In every case I have spent time with my cousin David, who has been my most important Zionist teacher and inspiration.
Israel is a place, not a lobbying campaign
When I came to Israel for the first time following the Six Day War, I was a twenty-year-old college student and my cousin was a forty-year-old father of three. David picked me up at the airport, welcomed me, took me into his family, and made me feel at home in Israel. Since I knew a little Hebrew from a college class and he knew almost no English, we spoke Hebrew from the first day, and his patience as I struggled with the language encouraged me to speak and learn more.
But what is important about our thousands of conversations is that David never preached Zionism; he simply lived his life and welcomed me to join in. Living his life did not mean romanticizing his country; he has always been realistic about Israel and vociferous about its shortcomings. Still, his loyalty to the Jewish State is fierce, and despite the trauma of his younger years, his approach to life in Israel is unfailingly good-natured and optimistic.
When I later became a Jewish communal leader, I would do what Jewish leaders often do and talk about Israel as a cause. But David always reminded me that Israel is a place, not a lobbying campaign. And Jews, he said, need that place, together with the smells, the sounds, the arguments, the passions, and the language of the Bible, all of which make it home.
From ghettoes and camps to a home, battles and life in Israel
David was born in Poland. When German forces invaded in 1939, his parents were shot. For the next six years, David and his cousin, both young teenagers, fled from the Nazis. They spent time in ghettoes, in camps, and on the run, sometimes hidden by courageous Gentiles and several times saved from death by pure chance. After the war, they were reunited with an aunt and another cousin who also had managed to survive.
At that point my American family, its Zionist commitment notwithstanding, set out to convince these European survivors to come to the United States. But David was adamant. He had not escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe to take refuge in an American suburb. He made it clear that he was going only to Palestine, to live among Jews in a Jewish state. And his aunt and cousins acquiesced and went with him. The American family responded by collecting money from every family member and sending it along to the new Israeli immigrants.
David used this money to buy a plot of land in a small city in central Israel. With the help of friends he built the home in which he still lives. With the remaining funds he purchased a membership share in the Egged bus cooperative, and began a half century career of driving both city and tourist buses. In more than 20 years of reserve duty, he transported soldiers from base to base, and in times of war, from battle to battle. When he finally retired from Egged, he and a partner purchased a mini-bus and ran a tourist business for another 10 years, until he was nearly 80.
My family’s failed attempts to lure Israeli cousin David to America
My family made other attempts to lure David to America. When he finally visited the States in the 1960s, a prosperous cousin offered him a position in a thriving family business. His wife was slightly tempted perhaps, but he was not. According to our best calculations, 88 family members had been slaughtered by the Nazis in Europe. For David, Israel had been, and remained, the only possible response to that slaughter.
And remarkably, David has lived his life in Israel free of the bitterness and depression that so often afflict Holocaust survivors. Now nearly 90, he remains cheerful and upbeat. He surveys his life and counts more than 40 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They are devoted to him and his ill wife. And most important, they live in a Jewish state that he has helped to build and defend and that they inhabit as their own. His Zionism undiminished, David has no regrets. He is content.
Israel’s undignified, wasteful, visionless leaders
And what of politics? David lacks my obsession with politics and views the political world with skepticism. The greatness of Israel, he says, is not found in its politicians but in its people. Still, we never avoided politics, and on the occasion of my “50th anniversary” I pushed him for his thoughts. After some hesitation, he offered three observations.
First, he saw Israel’s current leaders as a sorry bunch. In 50 years, it should be said, David and I had never had an ideological discussion. He looks for character and consistency in politicians, and I had heard him praise Prime Ministers of both the right and the left. But how to explain Bibi’s greed and self-indulgence, soliciting gifts from rich donors and craving cigars and champagne? How to explain the corruption, the unrestrained ego, the attacks on the media, and the constant threat of elections? There was something undignified here, unworthy of the Jewish state. David shook his head in dismay and disgust.
Second, at the height of the Amona crisis, he found no logic in the position of the settlers. David is not a religious man, but one of his daughters is Orthodox, and many of his grandchildren live in the settlements. And he loves and admires the Orthodox segment of his clan not a bit less than the non-Orthodox. Still, he has seen more of the Land of Israel than almost anyone. For almost 60 years, he drove from one end of the Land to the other, missing hardly a single inch. And he knows that vast stretches of the Negev lie empty while in the Galilee the Jews are a minority. Why then focus so much time, attention, and money on the territories when Jewish settlement and resources are needed within the pre-67 borders, in both north and south?
And third, he worried about plans for the future. David is more than anything else a practical man. Suspicious of Palestinians, to be sure. Cautious about compromise, yes. Still, when we had first met, 50 years before, a new reality had been created by victory in war, and 50 years later there is still no plan. Where are the borders to be? What is to become of the Palestinians? How will we move toward peace? David did not pretend to know the answers, but he thought that the politicians should offer some. Wasn’t that the practical thing to do? Wasn’t that their job? Wasn’t that what we paid them for?
David’s questions were sobering, and the absence of answers from Israel’s leaders was more sobering still. Nonetheless, when our time together was over, I found myself sharing yet again David’s innate optimism. There is an Israel because of Jews like my cousin David, who suffered much, lived simply, worked hard, and believed in the renewal and rebirth of the Jewish state. I have been blessed to know him for 50 years. And eventually, Israel will produce leaders who are worthy of him and other Israelis like him.