By Molly T. Marshall
One cannot be in Israel very long without encountering significant conversation about “the right of return” – the privilege of any Jew in the world to come to the modern State of Israel and claim citizenship.
Longing for home is one of the most inexorable urges of humankind. For a people that existed for centuries without a homeland, it is particularly poignant.
Two streams are part of Jewish identity: the longing to be a transcendent people who reflect their election by the God of the Exodus and the longing to be a nation like the other nations. The dialectic between these aspects of identity is both historic and enduring, and it continues to shape perspectives on the land.
I am here as a part of the Christian Leadership Initiative, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a partnership with the American Jewish Committee. Fourteen scholars from across ecclesial and geographical lines in the United States are here to continue our learning about the Jewish experience through close study of texts, lectures and visiting varied sites.
It is a propitious time to be here, as Israel and Palestinians prepare for face-to-face peace negotiations to end the conflict that has marred this region since 1948. A two-state solution is surely desirable, and there is growing consensus for that arrangement. A thicket of details will be on the table, and many are hopeful that new agreements will offer both security and justice.
The progression of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel are “complicated” – a favorite descriptor of the many factors that weave the present reality. In a sense, our cohort has been invited into an internal family dialogue about continuing issues of Jewish peoplehood. It speaks to the openness of these Jewish friends that they would trust American Christians to be good stewards of their insight.
In our study, we are exploring the tension between two perspectives on “home.” Some do not believe that one can achieve the full Jewish identity without undergoing the challenge and complexity of actually living in the modern state of Israel. Others believe that the experience of diaspora – being away from the land either voluntarily or involuntarily – is the essence of Jewish life.
The first perspective, which can be voiced by either religious or secular Zionists, ties Jewish distinctiveness to this historic land. Longing for home is inscribed in the Haggadah of the Seder: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Having arrived in Eretz-Israel (the biblical delineation of the geography) and founding the nation in 1948 portend the beginning of the flowering of redemption, as many put it.
This project of crafting a Jewish homeland is barely 65 years old – very young as nations go. Further, as in biblical times, the land was not uninhabited as the Zionists began to arrive.
An Israeli Arab lecturer reminded us that his family had been here for 750 years (28 generations). These people were already at home, yet lost 72 percent of their property in the mapmaking of new neighbors, according to this version of recent decades. In their displacement, they are longing to return as well.
The second perspective draws from the prophetic tradition, enjoining the people of God to settle down, plant vineyards and seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) wherever the people have been scattered. And there are multiple examples of Jewish contributions to culture in the great cities opened up by the Roman Empire.
This perspective – albeit disputed – contends that there are lessons learned as a persecuted religious minority that shape the Jewish character. The vibrancy of the American Jewish culture demonstrates that diaspora Judaism can be an authentic expression.
The role of Torah differs in these competing visions. The first assumes that Torah commands that identity and the land are forever intertwined. The second argues that the Torah, the word of God, is the true dwelling of the people, their true home. The Torah has kept the people over the years, indeed, more than the land has.
All humans bear this longing for home, and it is an elusive quest. The human spirit transcends both geography and temporal spiritual pursuits. We were made for God and for community, and our restless hearts often miss the mediations of holy presence.
As a Christian theologian, I believe we also long for the “city not made with human hands.”