Our three Israels


Many, if not most, of us American Jews carry in our heads and hearts a sense of three separate but interrelated Israels: Am Yisrael, the people of Israel – that is, all Jews everywhere; Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel; and Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel as represented by its government. Part of the complexity of our Jewish identity results from the interplay of these three Israels in shaping who we are.

Speaking personally, as a teenager in the late ’50s and early ’60s, I immersed myself in Conservative Judaism’s United Synagogue Youth (USY) on both a local and regional level. As young American Jews, we were inspired by the accumulating achievements of our fellow Jews in Israel, 6,000 miles from the U.S., on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. We celebrated our sense of unity with young Israelis by singing such Hebrew folk songs as “Am Yisrael Chai,” (“The Jewish People Lives”) and “Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash” (“A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”). 

But more than anything else, what connected us as American Jewish teenagers with the land of Israel and the people of Israel was the attendance of shlichim and shlichot – young Israeli men and women trained to serve as emissaries to diaspora communities – at our regional conventions, for which we used the Hebrew word kinusim.

Three years after leaving USY, during the summer of 1965, I worked for 10 weeks at Kfar Menachem, a left-wing Mapam kibbutz located more or less in the center of a triangle formed by Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba. I spent most of my working hours there in the mishchatah, where I assisted the Orthodox shochet in the Kosher dispatching of thousands of chickens.

In the middle of my stay at Kfar Menachem, I took 10 days off to tour the land along with two British co-workers. It was during this journey by foot and by bus that I developed a deep and abiding love for Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. I was particularly taken by the Negev, the desert wilderness that comprises roughly the southern half of Israel – a largely barren land of sand and magical formations of rock suggestive of parts of our American Southwest. In 1965, Eilat, at the Negev’s southern tip, was largely empty; my travel companions and I spent a night of uneasy sleep on Eilat’s deserted beach on the northern lip of the Red Sea.

My first trip to Israel was followed by a visit with my wife in February 1972, and then a visit in November 1995 to Jerusalem, where my son was spending the first semester of his junior year in high school. During that 1995 visit, the whole world was shocked by the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

My last visit to Jerusalem was in March 2002, during an especially violent phase of the Second Intifada; I was attending, under heavy security, a convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

In addition to bringing home a treasure trove of memories from my four visits to Israel, I brought back with me tangible pieces of the land: two Jerusalem stones that will one day be placed beside me in my casket. In the words of one of Israel’s greatest Hebrew poets, Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), “Jerusalem stone is the only stone/that feels pain.  There is in it a web of nerves.”

Throughout my life, I have often applauded actions taken by the government of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel: in particular, its protecting her citizens from Arab attackers during the wars of 1967 and 1973, as well as planning and executing the heroic Entebbe hostage rescue on July 4, 1976. On the other hand, along with the majority of American Jews, I have been deeply disappointed by the government’s policies regarding the settlements in the West Bank. 

I would be the first to admit that the Arab-Israeli conflict teems with moral ambiguity; one of the saddest and most bitter paradoxes of 20th-century history is that a burgeoning Jewish nationalism has kindled the flames of Palestinian nationalism. None of us can emerge morally pure in word or deed from the witches’ brew of past and current events. 

During these troubled days, Israel has been forced to choose from among the least bad options. And so it is that the State of Israel, Medinat Yisrael, continues to confront excruciatingly painful choices as it attempts to safeguard its citizens from hostile attacks and at the very same time address the legitimate demands of an angry and dissatisfied Palestinian population.

It follows, then, that Am Yisrael, the Jewish people the world over, are deeply divided over the recent decision of the Netanyahu/Gantz government to annex portions of the West Bank beginning July 1. It should come as no surprise that the liberal majority of the American Jewish community condemns this decision – with many arguing that it is crass political opportunism to move to annex disputed territory now, during a pandemic, when the entire world is focusing on defeating the coronavirus and avoiding a worldwide economic catastrophe.

What has raised more than a few eyebrows, however, is that Daniel Pipes, the well-regarded conservative president of the Middle East Forum, penned an op-ed piece in The New York Times on May 8, under the title “Annexation would hurt Israel,” in which he writes: “I don’t fret over the Israeli ‘occupation’ of the West Bank: in my view, the Palestinians long ago would have enjoyed self-rule had they stopped murdering Israelis. Contrarily, I do encourage Israeli steps that signal the Palestinians that the conflict is over, and they lost.

“Despite these views, I strongly oppose Israel annexing any of the West Bank.”

While I, along with the majority of American Jews, strongly disapprove of Medinat Yisrael’s decision to begin unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, it is not my intention to disparage those in Am Yisrael who happen to disagree with me. Neither they nor I are in possession of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So, I invite all of us who care about Israel to engage in a mamlochet l’shem Shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven.  It is time for us to take seriously the oft-repeated Talmudic adage: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Israel is responsible for one another.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.

Israel, James Rosenberg