Three years after my parents emerged from the Holocaust, they fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, defending their kibbutz against the Egyptian Army that came from Gaza. That kibbutz was a mile from Gaza City and the attacking army unit was led by Captain Gamal Abdul Nasser, who later became Egypt’s prime minister after an army coup. Much of the kibbutz’s buildings were destroyed, including its water tower, and one-third of the kibbutz members were killed, including refugees who’d just arrived from Europe and barely knew how to hold a gun. But the battle was credited with saving Israel’s Negev, the desert in the south.
They would have rebuilt the kibbutz right there but for getting an official order from Levi Eshkol (later to be Israel’s prime minister) instructing them to leave the destroyed kibbutz and rebuild it more north, in the center of Israel, because having it so close to Gaza wasn’t viable. They did that, and indeed, I was born in the second incarnation of that kibbutz.
After the war, all participants who fought in Israel’s independence war were given a small medallion commemorating their valorous efforts. Who didn’t get it? My parents. Why, given how successfully they fought a crucial battle for Israel’s south? Because they had abandoned the land.
Yes, but they did that on specific government orders, right? No one denies that. But the stigma of leaving the land where they had built the kibbutz was so strong that the Israeli government, then led by David Ben-Gurion, refused to recognize them. This misdeed was only rectified decades later by the government of Menachem Begin.
I tell this story to give people just a small sense of how critical the land of Israel is, not just to Israelis but to most Jews. I hear of Israelis now being looked at as settlers or colonialists in what should be an all-Muslim Middle East. My brother was in Dubai last weekend, meeting with Muslim leaders, and told me that a few said that the Middle East should be all Muslim and that Jews had no business being there at all, in any way, shape, or form.
If you know any history of the region (try to study it before issuing loud opinions and using colonialism templates to explain what has happened in the Holy Land), then you know that according to both Biblical and archeological evidence, Jews were in present-day Israel and in the West Bank, not to mention the western part of Jordan, since around 1200 BC. The locals there were primarily Canaanites, comprising seven different tribes, with different deities. Islam itself didn’t come about till almost 2,000 years later.
Genetic tests have shown again and again that Jews share most of their genetic make-up with Arabs, both coming from that area of the Fertile Crescent.
For many Jews, the land encapsulates their personal, national, and spiritual identity. It’s at the center of national and cultural aspirations and is evoked in literature, prayer, and history.
It’s hard to explain this to Americans. We may love this country, but how much of our cultural, religious, or spiritual center is here? American Catholics may think of the Vatican as their center, or Israel even more so, where Christ lived. I’m not sure they find their center in New York or Chicago. Buddhists think of Bodh Gaya in India, American Muslims of Mecca.
How does one capture what Israel means to Jews, except to remind ourselves that the Hebrew word for place is makom, and makom is one of the many names of God. A few secular Jews argue that Israel doesn’t have to mean that anymore, that Jews live meaningful lives elsewhere, too, but no one can deny what it has meant till now in both the narrative and psyche of Jewish people.
The people who understand this in an equally deep, fundamental way are the Native American tribes who called this country Turtle Island. When the Lakota talk about their places—Paha Sapa, which we call the Black Hills, Washun Niya, which we call Wind Cave, Matho Tipila, which we call Devil’s Tower—they’re not talking geography. They’re talking origins, their relationship to Earth and to Tunkasila, Creator. They evoke the hawks and eagles that act as messengers, water that is sacred, and the burial grounds of their ancestors. Do the rest of us relate to this country like that?
I was so ignorant about this. Bernie, Genro Gauntt and I traveled to the Black Hills and the Pine Ridge Reservation before our 2015 Native American Bearing Witness retreat. Pine Ridge is one of the poorest places in this country. We start our meeting with Lakota elders and people are coming late or not at all. One had to go to distant Rapid City for a grandson’s surgery, another’s foot is bandaged because there’s no doctor close by to give it care, another could barely make it because her ancient vehicle broke down en route. This is a constant ingredient in our many prep meetings for that retreat.
At the end of that first meeting in 2015, I finally asked Tiokasin Ghost Horse, of the Cheyenne River Lakota, why people don’t leave the reservation. After all, they could easily live among other Americans where there are more jobs, more opportunities, better health care and education. Why stay in a place which has so little to offer them?
Tiokasin looked at me and simply said: “It’s hard to explain.”
I look back and shake my head at my well-meaning ignorance. Ignorance of what land can mean to some people doesn’t excuse how white Americans declared that this is a Christian country and Indians have no business being there, much as it doesn’t excuse the Muslim leaders in Dubai declaring that the entire Middle East is Muslim and Jews have no place there.
Does majority power give anyone that right? And can we non-natives say that we have the same profound devotional ties to this land that Native Americans have? I would love to see the Lakota get back the Black Hills, which they have fought for and were promised by treaty. If that ever happens, will the white people living there call them colonialists?