Last year I attended the Irish Fest in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The music and ambience make it one of most unforgettable days of the year.
Listening to a concert, I struck up a conversation with someone standing next to me. I told him I was a rabbi, and once we got past the usual incredulity and discussion of why I don’t have a beard, he turned serious.
“I’m Irish,” he said, “And I love Irish music. I’m here celebrating being Irish. But I don’t plan to move to Ireland. I don’t talk about it all the time. Why do Jews care so much about Israel? It’s all I hear—Israel, Israel, Israel.”
Judging by his tone and manner, my new friend did ask this question in a pejorative way. He simply did not know. He thought Israel functioned for American Jews in the same Ireland functioned for Irish-Americans or Italy for Italian-Americans. A place of fondness and sentiment, but not of existential concern.
His question is asked by many others. And it is of critical importance today, when Israel faces existential concerns, and when one of America’s largest church groups, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to divest from several companies operating in Israel.
I found the very best way to sum up my answer is with an insightful joke from Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann. Someone asked Weizmann why the Jewish people would only accept a state in the land of Israel. There are so many other places where you could live.
Weizmann replied, “That’s like asking why you would drive 50 miles to see your grandma, when there are so many other nice old ladies in your neighborhood.”
Israel is not just another country. It hold a unique place in our hearts. It is where the Bible was written. It is where Moses led a people scarred by slavery but enlivened by God’s promise. It is the place the prophet Isaiah described as God’s holy mountain, the source of truth and righteousness.
The Jewish people left only because they were forced out. And each time they were forced out, they sought to return.
Without Israel the Jewish people may not have survived the physical and psychological destruction of the Holocaust. Without Israel, there would be no Judaism, and the world would be poorer for it.
Feeling the Pain
Robert Frost once defined “home” as the place where “when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” Israel is that place for the Jewish people. Even those of us who do not live there recognize this truth.
Israel is not perfect. No country is. But Jews care about Israel in the some way a mother cares about her children. The Prophet Isaiah makes this very comparison, proclaiming “As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you and in Jerusalem you will find comfort.”
When others unfairly attack our children, we feel pain. In the wake of the Presbyterian vote to divestment, we feel that pain.