Can love (of Israel) conquer all?

By BARBARA SOFER
Photo by: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM

For decades, I have taken on the jolly job of buying the candy bags for the children who stand under the tallit and say the Torah blessings on Simhat Torah. The palpable and somewhat puzzling excitement of the children, most of whom hail from homes where candy isn’t a rarity, remains a highlight of the day of prayer and celebration.

My pleasure is increased because the supplier of the festive candy bags is a grandson of a family that made me feel at home in Israel.

I was a student from the University of Pennsylvania on my junior year abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In ulpan, educational researchers named Bracha and Ptachia recruited me as a volunteer to explore the impact on first graders who had student tutors in their homes. The project was aimed at the pre-gentrified Nahlaot neighborhood near Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda. Many residents operated fruit and vegetable stands. Seeking my assigned family, I peeked my head into a sukkah on Lod Street and asked where #9 was. 

“They’re not home,” the mom answered. 

She shrugged when I insisted on seeing for myself, unfamiliar with a neighborhood where everyone knew each other’s daily plans. When I sheepishly passed their sukkah again they insisted that I come in for tea and cookies. Every Shabbat morning for that university year in Israel, I joined them for early morning cholent: Kurdish kubbeh made of soaked and hand-broken rice mixed with ground beef stuffed with more meat, and cooked with even more meat and chicken. Although they were a large family, there was no first grader so they didn’t qualify for a tutor. Nonetheless, I stopped by whenever I was at the neighbors’ home.

Like so many Israeli sagas, theirs was marked with tragedy. In 1978, a terrorist bomb planted in their market stall murdered their son Shimon, 23, whose wedding I had attended. Other sons took over from their heartbroken parents, and switched from vegetables to kosher candy. Ami Hayim – My People Lives – Candies was born.

I CAME to Israel because, as a Zionist, I thought I should. But love of Israel made me stay, a love that was nurtured by the tastes, sounds and stories of Israel, a place where I could be welcomed into the sukkah and become forever friends with a family from the hilltop Kurdistan city of Amadiya, known in ancient times for trade in gallnuts used in printing, that moved here as soon as they could after our sovereign state was created.

Is instilling love a necessary element when teaching about Israel – and is that even possible from afar? That’s a question raised in a recent intriguing and disturbing podcast in The Forward’s Bintel Brief advice column. Writes the questioner: “I’m the mother of two kids who are now in high school and college, respectively. We sent them to Jewish camp, and now that they’re older, they say we and the camp lied to them about Israel. These so-called lies seem to be about Israel’s right to sovereignty as the Jewish homeland, its violations of human rights and treatment of minorities. “

The specific “lies” aren’t listed, but the teenagers have obviously been confronted by Israel-bashers who have opened their eyes to the supposed sins of Big Bad Israel. 

Without giving away the column’s interesting reply, I ask how you, Dear Reader – how would you respond?

Israeli children's hold Israeli flags ahed of Israel 73rd Independence day, at a kindergarten in Moshav Yashresh, April 13, 2021.  (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

How would I answer? My own children, brought up with the strong ideology of nationalist religious Israeli schools and youth movements, serving as IDF officers or devoted volunteers in National Service, have matter-of-factly grown up to embrace social justice, work together with Arab colleagues in the sciences and medicine, bring up their own children who, for example, play soccer on mixed Jewish-Arab teams. Living here doesn’t allow for rose-colored glasses. They’re hard-working Israelis who pay taxes, find time for volunteering and love Judaism and their country, despite recognizing the flaws.

The word “narrative” comes up, of course, in the Forward answer: the not-new idea that each side of an argument has its own truth. I’m guessing that despite their exposure to Israel and supposed indoctrination in Hebrew school and summer camp, the teens in question may be shaky on their own narratives. When I meet Diaspora youth, I ask about their roots. No, I don’t mean where in New Jersey or not even great grandma’s shtetl. I suggest that their ancestors may have been exported as Roman Empire slaves at the market in Hebron in the second century, and that we’ve been trying to get back ever since. It doesn’t occur to them that they, too, come from Israel.

A SHORT version of my narrative: Breaking a glass at weddings is a pledge not to forget Jerusalem, not a good luck charm. Documentable statistics reveal that post-Oslo a majority of Israelis were willing to take risks for peace. Uncomfortable research shows that a majority of Palestinians supported the bus bombings of the Second Intifada. We are, of course, the only country ever to dispatch our soldiers to evict our own citizens from their homes to try for peace. We’re only able to invent cellphones and produce Netflix series because teen soldiers are protecting us 365 days and nights a year. And that’s without talking about the Holocaust, when so-called enlightened countries murdered the Jews who contributed to the arts, education, industry and medicine of their lands.

Like every country, we have inequalities that need to be righted – an ongoing process that’s an engaging challenge. Not to mention that love of justice isn’t a self-laid egg, that caring about human rights is part of Jewish values, yes – both in Israel and the Diaspora – although it’s easier to be certain of the correct answers when you’re far from the conflict – or any conflict for that matter. I like to bring them to Hadassah Hospital and to meet feisty Jewish and Arab medical and nursing students for straight-talking panels. I like that model better than visiting Palestinians and Jewish spokespersons in their homes, which, to me, exacerbates the sense of irreconcilable differences.

But then, I’m wondering if all the above is less important than falling in love.

Of course, coming to Israel often with family, educational groups and just hanging out matters. Every Birthright Israel trip participant I’ve interviewed – most of them first timers – has said that the part of the trip they loved best was meeting the accompanying Israeli soldiers – young men and women with a wide range of opinions who love our country enough to risk their lives for it. Love is contagious.

One podcast speaker suggests that inculcating love of Israel may not be a worthy educational goal. I disagree. As Louis Pasteur says, chance favors the prepared mind. Love favors the prepared heart. Passionate Zionist educators, without glossing over the many challenges, can inspire love. It’s important. As my candy-seller friends remind me, bittersweet is also scrumptious. 

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.  


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