Born a few years prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, I still feel the thrill of its emergence on the stage of nations.
It was a time characterized by depression and sorrow in the Jewish world. The Holocaust was fresh in everyone’s mind. I can still hear the anguish in the tears and screams of the congregation at Yizkor on Yom Kippur at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst when the chazzan would intone the memorial prayer for the Six Million.
The room was filled to overflowing; many in the congregation had lost brothers and sisters, cousins – even entire families – to the Nazis. As a child I could feel the pain that hung as a dark cloud over the congregation. I felt it pressing on my shoulders as I clung to my grandfather for comfort. When Yizkor was concluded, everyone appeared exhausted from the ordeal. I shall never forget this abyss of sorrow that swallowed up young and old alike.
Countering this was the ecstasy we all felt in the fledgling Jewish state. Though Israel’s existence was precarious – a little nation flanked then as now by enemies on every side – Jews nevertheless felt a joy we hadn’t felt for centuries. Our hearts burst with pride when we gazed upon the noble Israeli, tilling the soil with one hand and defending it with the other.
These proud, idealistic Jews gave us a sense of dignity and worth we desperately needed, specifically in the aftermath of World War II. While there was real concern regarding the viability of the state, it was overshadowed by the sense that Israel was founded on the bedrock of miracles. Even the most secular among us quoted from the Prophets.
But just as the frontier spirit faded in the United States in the late 1800’s, it soon began to ebb in Israel as well. Today a kibbutznik no longer tills the soil; he’s more likely involved in the production of microchips. Those who still cultivate the land do so from air-conditioned tractors. As was true in the U.S., once the frontier spirit was gone, all the negative elements of existence became more pronounced.
For Israel this meant the horrific reality of living in a hostile neighborhood with little possibility of crafting a peace with its neighbors. The initial joy of Israel’s rebirth steadily gave way to the melancholy of day-to-day life. And as Arab nationalism was replaced by Islamist fervor, the situation became ever more glum. Dar Al Islam, the territory of Islam, can never permit a sovereign Jewish state in its midst.
And so an Ain Breira syndrome manifested itself. We saw it at work in Prime Minister Barak’s attempt to extract a peace from Yasir Arafat by surrendering to him more than he’d requested. And yet no peace emerged.
A classic example of the malady afflicting many of our brothers and sisters in Israel and the galut is the about-face executed by Ariel Sharon in his stance on territory and settlements.
Not too long ago, when Sharon never dreamed he would be elected prime minister, he was dubbed the “father of the settlements.” Indeed, he’d had taken upon himself the responsibility of raising funds for the settlements. During his stay in Chicago I accompanied him on several occasions and heard him wax poetic in describing the settlers as modern-day kibbutzniks, the best of Israeli society, the greatest protectors of the Jewish state.
Every settlement was precious to him, and in his various governmental capacities he used every ounce of his strength to advance their number. Yet, as prime minister, he gave up Gaza, going so far as to forcibly remove the same Jewish settlers he had praised. What happened to him? The answer is the Ain Breira syndrome.
The standard-bearer of nineteenth century German Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his classic work The Nineteen Letters, described human existence as having been reduced to “physical enjoyment” and explained the role of the Jews among the nations of the world:
“Therefore there would be introduced into the ranks of the nations one People which would demonstrate by its history and way of life that the sole foundation of life is God alone…”