Gilad Shalit came to my school.
He didn’t speak. He sat patiently – quietly – while being praised by an array of Jewish academics and members of my school’s faculty. He looked nervous and scared, as though he would rather have been anywhere but there, at America’s most Zionist university, warmly embraced by students who had joined the rallies calling for his release.
I chose not to stay for the entire event; I returned early to my studies, instead.
Death and near death experiences are powerful, and they shake us. Each time I hear about a terrorist attack which took place in Israel, I immediately become a stronger Zionist, further solidifying my relationship with the Jewish people. But sometimes I find this trait to be a flaw in my Zionism, a weakness in my Jewish upbringing.
In an article written in the Beacon, one author asked of modern Holocaust education, “Who defines themselves by a horrific genocide?” Yet for many American Jews, the Holocaust and other tragedies are sometimes the greatest determinants of their Jewish identities. The impacts of traumatic recent – and non-recent – historical events often affect us more significantly than anything else. As history has shown, tragedies and times of crisis define our beliefs and actions.
A few years back, I was offered the opportunity to attend the funerals of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two Israeli soldiers who were killed in the midst of a long standoff between Hezbollah and the IDF. I was on an Orthodox summer-camp program, based in Beit Meir at the time, and my camp-leaders and counselors had been encouraging me to go. While I felt deeply saddened by the deaths, as myself and other optimists had anticipated seeing the soldiers alive and well after the prisoner exchange, the fact that I suddenly felt so passionately about Israel made me uncomfortable. It was as if years of Zionistic apathy had been unnaturally reversed due to a sudden, unpredictable trauma.
Perhaps the very fact that Gilad Shalit is alive prevents me from feeling the same way about him. He stands gaunt and emaciated, perpetually anxious and tired. Because we witness him as a living person, no part of him is left to the imagination: there isn’t any revered heroism or mythologized battle for which to remember him. He’s just a boy who’s been through a lot: a grueling five years of tragic captivity. Like Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York, Gilad is shy and doesn’t play according to the pre-programmed hero’s playbook that the politicians would force on him.
When I consider my own Zionism in light of Shalit, I can’t help but realize that it is often marked by events that conjure up images of tragedy and fear. From one Yom Ha’Zikkaron event to the next, I feel inextricably linked to my heritage in ways that sometimes I wish I could ignore. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a Jewish Modern Orthodox philosopher, argued that modern Zionism is primarily important for pragmatic reasons: it acts as a formidable combatant against violent anti-Semitism. However, this mentality doesn’t sit quite as well with many of my peers and me in America, where we feel safe and secure. The fear of annihilation can’t possibly relate to my younger community in the same way it might relate to a son or daughter of survivors.
To this day, I consider myself an ardent Zionist. I appreciate Israel for its democratic values and, more poignantly, for my family’s heritage that it embodies. However, the Zionism with which I wish to identify can’t be based on fear or tragedy, because those themes shouldn’t be the central ways that Israel relates to many of my peers and me. While tragedies have the ability to shake our emotions and increase our commitment to Israel, the overall impact they have can’t be healthy or meaningful if not first understood in a greater context involving our heritage and modern morality.
When I reflect on my own experiences with Israel advocacy, I feel that the Zionism we advocate must be aimed at my generation of Jews, the new post-Holocaust flag bearers of democracy and Jewish values. My community doesn’t want to see itself as victims of an oppressive world, but as the creators and innovators of a new and moral Zionism.
If the Jewish people intend to be the Biblical Or La’Goyim, or brilliant light upon the world, it’s about time we help Shalit return to normal life and begin readdressing our current approaches to Israel advocacy seriously and candidly, with an eye towards the future.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.