September 26, 2011

The Weight of History

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When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium at the United Nations last Friday to argue against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, he did so with the weight of Jewish history on his shoulders.

He didn’t only speak for his countrymen. He spoke, as he said in his U.N. remarks, for “a hundred generations of Jews who were dispersed throughout the lands, who suffered every evil under the sun, but who never gave up hope of restoring their national life in the one and only Jewish state.”

With that in mind, it’s important to point out that the Prime Minister of Israel isn’t merely a political figure. He is, in a larger sense, a steward in the latest chapter of a 4000-year saga of a people yearning to return to their ancestral homeland; he is a witness to a miracle of rebirth and renewal unparalleled in Jewish history, and perhaps modern history as well; and he is largely responsible for safeguarding that miracle in the face of unthinkable pressures and assaults.

There is but one explanation for why, in the year 2011, the leader of a modern nation felt it necessary to go to the U.N. and talk about King Hezekiah, who ruled the people of Judah in the land that is now Israel roughly 2700 years ago: because for Netanyahu and Zionists the world over, the Jewish future in Israel is inextricably linked to its past. And it’s impossible to understand the Israeli stance in the conflict without understanding that reality.

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refers to the Holy Land as a place holy to Muslims and Christians, but omits Jews from that list as he did during his oration to the U.N. on Friday, he attempts to deny Jews any historical claims to their land. By commenting on his and Israel’s role in Jewish history — and making clear how the understanding of that history affects his thinking — Netanyahu renders Abbas’ denial of the Jewish claims to the land untenable. He becomes a living, breathing refutation of Abbas’ mendacious “omissions” regarding a historical Jewish presence in the land of Israel.

To some in Israel today, the Jewish history of the land is a moot point. This past Sunday, Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, lashed out against Netanyahu for his repeated references to Jewish history in his General Assembly speech. Levy dubbed the speech little more than an overly sentimental distortion of reality. He argued that Netanyahu’s invocation of the biblical figures of Abraham, Isaiah and Hezekiah, as well more recent Jewish history like the pogroms, the Holocaust and the tragic plight of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, were little more than “fodder for the tear wringer that assuredly didn’t bring forth a single tear anywhere on the planet, with the possible exception of a few Jewish nursing homes in Boca Raton, Florida.”

What Levy fails to understand is that Israel can’t be divorced from Jewish history, and that by attempting to do so, he is the one distorting reality. Because the reality is that Jewish history informs the Zionist ideas. Whether the understanding of history manifests itself as a religious desire to cultivate the land, a desire to establish a safe haven for Jews in their ancestral homeland after centuries of persecution or something entirely different, the basic fact remains that a collective memory of the past very much informs Israeli conceptions of the future.

The Jewish New Year begins Wednesday night, and I certainly hope that this is the year that will bring peace to the region. But as another year in the drama of Jewish history unfolds, I refuse to accept the false narrative that the Jewish people have no claim to the land of Abraham, Isaiah and Hezekiah, or that Jewish history is irrelevant to the future of Israel and any peace it will, one day, enjoy with its neighbors.

Thank you, Mr. Levy, but I think I’ll carry the weight of what you call those “irrelevant chapters of history” after all.

Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nrosen@cornellsun.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.  ­­

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen