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No Right to Exhaustion

This piece was originally published on October 9 on the blog of Daniel Gordis, and is reprinted below with permission from the author.

Dear Jay,

We don’t know each other, though I’ve known of you and your work for some time. Like many others, I recently read your “How I’m Losing My Love For Israel” in the Forward. Because you write so articulately, and because your column has attracted such widespread attention, I’m taking the liberty of responding.

The truth is, you and I agree about a lot. We’re both worried about some of what’s happening to Israeli society. We’re both tired of all the equivocating (though probably for different reasons). We’d both love some real leadership around here. We’d both like peace. And we’re both exhausted.

That exhaustion is the first reason you give for that fact that your “love [for Israel] is starting to wane.” But frankly, Jay, when you began to write about your exhaustion, I began to lose you. For, I have to confess, I don’t see the connection between exhaustion and losing love, or between exhaustion and committing oneself to what’s right and just.

I suspect that the Partisans were pretty exhausted, and they might even have debated some of their own tactics; but those were the least of their problems. Their main worry was that evil might triumph and transform their world into an uninhabitable hell, and their bone-aching fatigue notwithstanding, they committed their lives to making sure that human freedom survived those who wished to eradicate it.

The GI’s who slogged their way across Europe, up the cliffs of Normandy and across the frozen, bitter winters of that blood-soaked continent, were pretty exhausted, too, I’d imagine. Yes, many of them were kids, following their orders. And many of them were probably distraught that innocent Europeans were getting killed by the thousands in the process of saving the west. But many, I would also like to believe, knew that what they were fighting to preserve was infinitely more important than their own personal exhaustion or the tragic innocent losses that war always entails. Or even their own lives.

That clarity of purpose was, in the end, why we won, and why you and I live in democracies where we can write and say whatever we like. Had the Partisans and those GI’s given in to their fatigue, would you and I have the very liberties we so easily take for granted? I doubt it.

So, yes, we’re exhausted. And, if you’ll forgive me, I suspect that those of here are more exhausted than are those of you over there. Life here is conducted under a pervasive cloud of exhaustion that my most of American friends simply don’t comprehend. It’s the exhaustion that comes from coming home at the end of the day and finding on your door a diagram distributed by the Home Front Command showing you how many seconds you have to find shelter if a missile should be aimed your way. What do you do with that information? Ignore it? Or put it on the fridge as the sign instructs you to, so you can live with the looming warning every time you go to get a glass of OJ?ScudWarningVLoRes

But that’s really the least of it. The real exhaustion here comes from sending a smart but relatively naïve nineteen-year-old daughter off to the army (in Intelligence, in this case) and have her begin to learn things about Israel’s enemies that she will never be able to discuss. The exhaustion comes from the hollow look of an unfathomable sadness in her eyes when she’s home, from her bewilderment at the evil of which human beings are capable – an awareness a young woman shouldn’t have at that age. And you grow exhausted because you want to take care of her, to protect her. But you can’t.

You can’t take care of your kid because this is Israel. Because she can’t tell you what she knows. She can’t talk to you about the human capacity for hatred that she now confronts every single day. And because this is Israel, you can’t take of her – because here things are reversed. She’s out there taking care of you. So you get into bed each night knowing that you’ve sacrificed a part of her innocence and her youth on the altar of your beliefs and ideology, and you wonder, each and every day, if what you once thought was a noble life choice might have been the most unfair thing you ever did. That, Jay, is more exhausting than I’d ever imagined it would be.

She’s out of the army now. But her brother’s not. And there are those days, only once every few months, when I’m either leaving the house in the morning to go to work or coming home at the end of the day, when on the sidewalk outside our building are two IDF officers, and it appears that they’re walking to our entrance. Then comes that split second moment of breath-stopped horror, the fear that they’re coming to our house, bearing tidings that would be ­wholly unbearable. It’s only happened three or four times, but it’s enough. They walk past the building, Jay, barely even nodding to me because they’re in the middle of a conversation, unaware that I’ve even noticed them. But I’m a mess. Drenched with sweat. Shaking slightly. Knowing that the rest of the day or the evening is going to be a utter waste of time.

And at moments like that, you want to call your kid. Not for anything in particular; just to tell him that you love him. That you miss him. That there really isn’t a moment when you’re not thinking about him, or praying that he’s OK.

But you can’t. Because he can’t use his phone. Because he’s busy. Because he’s out there protecting his parents. And his brother. And his sister, who used to protect him. Simply because when he was a very little boy, we decided we wanted to live here; and now he’s out there, doing this, year after relentless year. Loving Israel is exhausting, Jay, you’re right. But really, it’s way more exhausting here than it is over there.

So the real question isn’t whether or not we’re exhausted – lots of us are tired. (I keep this picture ExhaustedSoldierson my desktop for those moments when I feel exhausted … to remind myself that no matter how tired I am, there are people out there (this is not my kid) who are way more exhausted than I am.) The real question, I think, is not whether we’re exhausted, but rather what we do with our exhaustion. What makes all the difference is not our fatigue, but what keeps us going when our tank feels empty, when it feels like all that’s left is fumes.

Like you, Jay, I know that I was raised on an image of Israel that doesn’t really exist. Maybe it never did. Like you, there were open fields in Jerusalem that I used to love (for you, it was Churshat Ha-Yaraeach) that are now filled by large apartment buildings. But when we lived in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, our older neighbors used to reminisce about the days when our neighborhood had been all orange groves. Did they stop loving America because fields got built on? I didn’t sense that. When we live in America and watch fields get built up, we sense progress. But when it’s a field in the Israel of our youth that’s now gone, we feel betrayed. What’s that about? Maybe it’s time we all moved beyond puppy love and ventured into something more mature, a sort of love that knows that the object of our love cannot, and should not, remain unchanged year after year, decade after decade.

Like you, Jay, I am concerned about some of the injustices that Israel commits. But unlike you, I could never be “more relaxed [in Berlin] than in Jerusalem.” You wrote very compellingly that you felt relieved that though there was political baggage in Berlin, “none of it was mine.”

But you know what I love about this place, Jay? I love that all the political baggage is mine. The Palestinians. The Israeli Arabs. (Some of) the Haredim. A collapsing educational system. Murders on the streets with a constancy we never used to have. A nation of roads and drivers that kills many more Israelis than our enemies do. That’s all my baggage.

But living here, my baggage is also the sight of young secular and religious Israelis going from restaurant to restaurant, inspecting not their kashrut, but how they treat their workers, and depending on what they find, giving them a “social kashrut” certificate. It’s the sight of many hundreds of people coming out to hear Rabbi Benny Lau on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur in a synagogue that couldn’t begin to accommodate them all, because, they knew, he would be the one guy in the city among all the derashot that afternoon who would tie whatever he was saying to a vision for a different kind of society, and call on them to do something about it. Living here is about spending a morning on Sukkot, going to the Church in Kiryat Yearim and joining a capacity crowd of Jews and Christians, largely secular but also some people wearing kippot, listening to the choir perform Bach motets on precisely the spot where the Ark of the Covenant once rested. It’s about the vision of people who, no matter what CNN will tell you, really can live with people who are different from them; it’s about a blending of the ancient past and the complicated present, of setting aside the equivocations of which you write so articulately for a beauty about which you say very little. Living here is about feeling the pulse of people who still have hope, who desperately want to build something different here, and who would never dream of saying aloud that they’ve given up.

Which is why, Jay, I can’t imagine leaving this place, and angry as I sometimes get, I could never write about losing my love for what we’re building here. Because I know that this is our last chance, and I know without a shred of doubt that the robust Jewish life that exists everywhere – in Manhattan as well as in Los Angeles, in London no less than in Johannesburg – exists because of Israel. Two generations ago, Jewish life in America wasn’t the Jewish life that you and I were raised on. It wasn’t nearly so secure after the war. And though 1948 made a bit of a difference, the secure and self-confident American Jewish life that you and I take for granted really emerged in 1967, when Jews around the world finally stood tall because they were no longer the objects of history, but were now the shapers of their own destiny.

Would that 1967 war prove to have a very complicated aftermath? Yes, it would – we’re still trying to figure it out. But it changed everything, Jay, for me and for you. For my neighbors and for yours. I can’t imagine a world in which I’d want to be alive in which this country didn’t exist; which is why I’m constitutionally incapable of saying that I’m losing my love for it.

That’s the real difference between us, Jay, and it’s the reason that your exhaustion leads you where it leads you, and mine leads me to dig in my heels. You write that as you notice your love starting to wane, you feel a “sadness that accompanies the end of any affair.”

That’s a fascinating metaphor. Because at the end of an affair, most people put their lives back together by telling themselves that despite the pain of the moment, there will be someone else. “A lot of fish in the ocean,” we told each other in college when relationships broke up, which was to say, “she’s not the only one out there, and she’s not the last one you’ll love.”

Which may have been true of our youthful relationships back then, but it’s not true of Israel. This is the only one. This is the last chance we get. We lose this, and the Jewish people heads into dark, uncharted territory that I don’t think you or I can begin to imagine. You yourself wrote that you “still awed by the tkuma, the resurrection and rebirth of my ancient people.”

You’re absolutely right. This country is the very foundation of the resurrection and rebirth of our ancient people. Given that, how dare we not love it, even with all its faults? Is love Israel exhausting? Of course it is. Does it require lots of equivocation? Yes, it does. Is it very unpopular in lots of circles? No question.

But it’s bigger than me. And it’s bigger than you. It matters more than all of us. So given that, I don’t think we have a right to exhaustion. Or, if exhaustion is inevitable, then the only thing I think we have a right to is a few hours of sleep, until we get up the next morning, roll up our sleeves and get to work again.

Because loving Israel isn’t like an affair. It’s a totally different thing. In a relationship, the person I love and I both matter – more or less equally, I guess. But not here. In this, I don’t matter. You don’t matter. Only justice matters. Only the future matters. Only the Jewish people’s survival matters. And without this place, there is no future, no Jewish people.

Given that, what’s the alternative to a deep and abiding love? I can’t think of one. So tonight, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and head off to shul. I’m going to put the news out of my mind, and for a few hours, I’m going to forget about the equivocation, about the fatigue. I’m going to hold on to my son, the one kid still left at home – and when the singing starts, I’m going to dance.

Shabbat Shalom, Jay, and Chag Same’ach.

Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President of the Shalem Center, where he is also a senior fellow. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel.

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