My brother recently posted a question on his Facebook page: Why don’t American Jews go to Israel?
To paraphrase what he wrote: For almost 2,000 years we were a small, persecuted minority not permitted its own national vision of how to live as Jews, not afforded the chance to uncover what living a fully Jewish life could mean. Living as a majority in Israel, he wrote, we can now finally do this. And indeed, he has explored these questions his entire life.
He is not condoning the present Israeli government and its policies. He is simply pointing out that Judaism and land—specifically Israel—can’t be separated, and an exploration of Judaism’s deepest values must occur on the land.
I pointed out to him that many indigenous nations tie their spirituality to their land. This past week Zen Peacemakers spent 6 days with Lakota elders going from one sacred place to another in the Black Hills, bearing witness to this intersection of land and Lakota spirituality.
I was born in Israel, brought to the United States by my parents when I was 7, and have spent almost the rest of my life here. My immediate family—mother, brother, and sister—live there, not to mention the broader family, and for this reason I’ve gone back many times.
Often I have wondered if I could ever make my way back there. I love my family and wish I was closer to them. You don’t relate to this culture, my sister good-naturedly warned me a few times, you’ll feel a stranger in a strange land. I agreed with her, so instead live among the Yankees of New England.
But today I saw the following words from the moderate Washington Post columnist, Anne Applebaum, who has written extensively about far-right parties in Europe as well as about Russia. This particular column, however, was about the United States:
“We are not, and never will be, a nation held together by ethnic blood ties. In its way, this is what gives us our strength. All nations are, at base, imagined communities, and our imagined community is based on a uniquely inspiring set of principles. Americans have proved that they can be loyal to, and will fight on behalf of, a more complex, more cerebral national ideal, one derived from ideas of democracy and justice as opposed to blood and soil.”
Voila, I thought to myself.
I find myself unable to relate to a community based on “blood and soil.” It’s what prevents me from identifying with a nation based on the question: Is your mother Jewish? and Do you see Israel as your homeland? I don’t find myself in any structure built on that foundation.
Long ago, a Filipino friend of mine said condescendingly to the group we were in: “You Americans have no national culture like others have, except for maybe Thanksgiving and hot dogs on the Fourth of July.” If she’d said that now I’d reply: And thank heavens for that. We don’t need to be like the rest of Europe and most other countries, who have their story of an original ethnic identity that plays landlord, while other groups are tenants.
At base, this is the reason I abhor Trump’s rally cry: Send Her Back! The question of whether or not he’s a racist is not the point (questions arose during the election of whether or not he was an Anti-Semite, which didn’t feel relevant then either). I feel he’s a chameleon changing his colors on his path towards only one destination, and that is getting re-elected.
What’s relevant for me is the question: How do you define America? How do you define Americans? And as Anne Applebaum pointed out, unlike many countries, including Israel, we don’t define ourselves according to blood and soil—and that’s our strength. We’re not some single ethnic scheme, we’re a collection of people from all over, most of whose ancestors arrived here as refugees in some form or other. We do have fierce loyalties to family, religion, community, and stories of our past, and some of us are ready to fight over whose stories are the right ones (in that sense, folks fighting about statues of Confederate generals in the South are fighting the same empty battles as Balkan populations reliving fights from a millennium ago).
Nevertheless, we are held together by an extraordinary vision (still unrealized) of equality and democracy. Granted, at times it feels more tenuous than blood and soil. How often I have landed in Tel-Aviv and been told by a fellow passenger: Isn’t it great to be home? Don’t you just feel it in your blood? To be honest, I shrink away from those feelings. I have a deep sense of how exclusionary they can be, how self-serving they become.
I know, it’s easy to grow cynical about how many millions of people the Declaration of Independence has failed over hundreds of years. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic challenge. It takes us out of our natural tendencies towards insularity and self- and ethnocentrism, and reminds us that the neighbor who looks and dresses differently, who speaks a different language and celebrates different holidays, is as much American as I am.
That, I believe, is this country’s basic koan.
Zen master Dainin Katagiri wrote: “When you develop your individual character in the broad perspective of non-individual karma, then your personality develops very gently, in a humble way.”
Karma has to do with all the many elements that create you as an individual. But you also have your national karma, and your karma as a human being. He encourages us to discover our individual selves only as part of a much greater whole. In that way we’re gentler, in that way we’re humbler.
In that way we know that when we send someone out of this country to go back where they came from, it’s ourselves, Americans, that go into exile.