Illustration: A soldier comforts a resident during evacuation of Gush Katif community by Israel Defense Forces [CC BY-NC 2.0] via Flickr
“Before you destroy my house, I want one more blessing to be said in my home, and I want that blessing to come from you. Is that okay?” I asked the officer with the rehearsed empathetic look on his face.
“Okay,” the captain responded. I sent my son to pour him a cold cup of Coke; the refrigerator, like the rest of the household appliances, were still present and functioning three days after the dead-line for leaving Gush Katif voluntarily.
Matanya, my son, returned to the living-room and handed the officer his Coke. With the other three soldiers dolefully looking on and after a pause of expectation, the captain finally asked, “What is the blessing?” Taking the cue, Matanya responded in Hebrew: Baruch Atah HaShem, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’Olam shehakol nihiyah be’dvaro (Blessed are You, The Name, our G-d, King of the universe, by Whose word all things came to be.)
Not allowed to use G-d’s name in vain, my son inserted “The Name” in its stead, as is customary. The complying but wholly adrift officer repeated verbatim after him. This went on twice more, until I told Matanya: “Pour yourself a cup and say the actual blessing (including G-d’s name).”
The captain at last got it right, but it was only when I asked him his name that I at last understood the tragedy that played itself out during that year-and-a-half struggle for Gush Katif. Baruch — “Blessed” — was the name of the Israeli officer who did not know the simplest, the most basic blessing a Jew can utter over the most mundane of foods.
Eight thousand Jews were expelled from their homes that week, their communities destroyed, but the tragedy that enabled it was Baruch. No non-religious parent would have called his son Baruch unless it was after a grandfather or other relative who was forced to give up his soul during the Holocaust. Two generations later, Baruch was sent to notify Jews that because they are Jews they must leave their homes; homes built on barren sand dunes that had lain vacant for centuries, before finally being reclaimed and redeemed by Jewish pioneers who turned the area into an oasis of prosperity.
The popular maxim during that year-and-a-half campaign to save Gush Katif was: “A Jew doesn’t expel a Jew.” Was Baruch a Jew? Absolutely, but he was raised an “Israeli,” and an Israeli obviously responds differently — he entertains alternate concepts, he adheres to a surrogate conscience. An Israeli expelled a Jew.
Today, over 14 years later, we are in the aftermath of elections; elections ostensibly over the soul of the State of Israel. The non-religious extremists have gone to war against the “overly religious nature” of the country. Their battle-cry is “no to a country of religious law.” Feeling threatened by anything that smacks of Judaism, they created a straw-man, a punching-bag to blame all that might fill the vacuum of their hollow fantasies of denied imagined freedoms.
This is not a uniquely Israeli thing; the entire Western world seems to be going through the throws of escaping supposed shackles, like many adolescents who just want to reject everything, because they blame everything for their own personal perplexities.
Ousting ballast that keeps you from flying high and reaching new heights sounds enticing, but quickly enough people, societies, and countries as well learn that life doesn’t exist in a stratospheric vacuum. Devoid of tradition, they will grab onto someone or something to land their hot-air-balloon. The fix is usually hate — hating people, hating “threatening” ideas, hating others’ way of life, even hating good if it is the “wrong kind” of good.
As Jews, we stand before a choice: become part of the blind who follow the blind, or become what we are intended to become.
Israel can be either a state of Jews, or a Jewish state. As the former, it can be a country like all countries, a Hebrew speaking Portugal. It can claim legitimacy from the Holocaust and legacy from the victory of the Six-Day-War. It can call for an “Israeli Shabbat,” as a substitute for a halachically (lawfully) Jewish one, like the head of the now largest political party did in a pre-election radio interview, supporting the convoluted idea that “Whatever a Jew does is Judaism.”
Or Israel can be a Jewish state — a state based on its roots, and not on its branches, or worse, on its leaves that have dried up and withered like any other seasonal idea. A Jewish state’s legitimacy comes from the Torah and the legacy from keeping that Torah. Israel can certainly allow new branches of ideas to grow, but not without recognizing that its dependence is on its deepest roots.
The Jewish dream of Israel is a nation of believers who want to earn the right to be governed by Jewish law — a nation whose goal is to set the standard as Jews and be a light unto the nations, not a pale reflection of those who expect from us so much.
The author moved to Israel in the 70’s, making aliyah from New York. After serving in an armed infantry unit in the IDF, he lived in Gush Katif for 23 years until its destruction. Married with four children and 11 grandchildren, he works as an ESL teacher and is writing a memoir of his life. This article appeared previously on the author’s blog.