Have you ever been in a situation in which you were overhearing a conversation, discussion, or argument between two people, and you wanted to jump in, but you decided not to because you hadn’t been invited? Here is an argument that I was thinking about in the past weeks as the sirens blew in The Land first for Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron and the barbecues blazed for Yom Haatzmaut. In January 2006, Barbara and I were headed to Israel for what would be our “pilot trip,” our attempt to figure out where we wanted to live once we made aliyah. We were flying on Israir, a less expensive, fewer frills airline. This plane was quite small, with two seats on either side of the aisle. We were sitting all the way in the back, the next to last row before the toilets and the kitchen. Two men, not together, came aboard and sat down in the one row behind us. They looked at each other; both men were wearing black yarmulkes and were dressed similarly: white shirts and dark pants. They began a conversation, and it would seem that they would have a lot in common. Up to a point yes, but there was one enormous difference between them: one of them had been living in Beit Shemesh for many years; the other one considered his neighborhood in Brooklyn to be the center of the Jewish world. So what might have been an interesting discussion about Jewish law, something to pass the many hours on the plane, turned into a heated discussion about Zionism.
Now I have “this thing” about yeshiva education, or at least some of its products. Generally speaking, the specific focus in yeshivas around the world is a close examination of Jewish texts, concentrating on the Talmud Bavli. This massive work is a compilation of discussions held in the major academies in Babylon over a period of 300 years, which attempt to clarify and amplify what is found in the Mishnah, itself a compilation of the oral tradition which we understand was given to Moshe at Mount Sinai. The importance of this work in Jewish life cannot be overstated. But from any point of view, the Talmud Bavli must rank as one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, perhaps the greatest sustained collective intellectual achievement in human history, in terms of its willingness to look at any subject dispassionately, exhaustively, and comprehensively, whether or not there seemed to be any immediate, practical application. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone who spent his years in such a study would be familiar with world literature, music, philosophy, or science. But to my jaundiced eye, it seems reasonable to expect that any yeshiva bocher, if nothing else, would be able to think his way out of a box, to present a cogent, coherent case for or against something, not one that a child could demolish in two minutes.
So what was I to do when I heard this Brooklyn bocher on the plane (remember the plane?!) presented this line of reasoning why Jews shouldn’t live in Israel. He asked the Beit Shemesh guy how many Israelis have been killed in wars or terrorist attacks since 1948. (The current answer is about 24,000, including chayalim and civilians.) That proves it! They would all be alive if they lived in Brooklyn! I had this sudden urge to shoot this fool and put him out of his misery. But I kept my piece; after all, it wasn’t my argument. Incidentally, after the plane landed, Barbara and I went over to the Beit Shemesh guy and congratulated him for the calm way he dealt with the bocher. He told us that it was very, very difficult for him to keep his cool.
How do you explain to a fellow Jew that, while losing 24,000 of our brothers and sisters over the 60 year period is horrifying, it pales in comparison with losing 6,000,000 in less than ten years because those poor souls had no place to run to or hide? How can you bring “up to speed” someone who is living in Brooklyn – which is theoretically in the continental United States – but who is clueless about American history, who Breckinridge Long (FDR’s reactionary Secretary of State, who singlehandedly prevented Jewish immigration) was? Especially when this self-styled expert on what the Jewish people should be doing probably didn’t have the mathematical skills to do a cost analysis: that were talking about 400 deaths a year as opposed to 600,000. And how do you suggest, without being overly insulting, that there is something dramatically different about dying in the process of remaking a Jewish homeland as opposed to standing naked in the snow, waiting to be led into a chamber from which there would be no return?
There is, however, another line of reasoning which is perhaps more subtle but equally as compelling. Take the number 100,000. That represents approximately the increase in the Jewish population in The Land last year. Maybe the number of Jews in America decreased by 100,000 last year. Maybe not; there is no longer any way to quantify the actual Jewish population in America because there is no longer agreement as to who qualifies to be counted. But it’s not just a race, whether the Jewish population in Israel will increase faster than the same population in America will decrease. Consider how many were born here after 1948, in the only country in the world which encourages the birth of Jewish babies. How many of those precious children would never have been born if their parents had lived elsewhere, perhaps in a land of fancy homes and demographic decline?
The same official statisticians are projecting (please remember that projections are based on the assumption that events will keep occurring as they are doing now, which kind of ignores the fact that G-d is in charge) that Israel’s total population will increase to ten million, meaning seven to eight million Jews, by the year 2030 of the Common Era. By then, G-d willing, the forty two percent of the world’s Jewish population currently living here will have, slowly but surely, edged up to at least fifty percent. We will have returned. For the first time since the destruction of the First Temple in the year 586 before the Common Era, the majority of the Jewish people will be living in The Land which was promised to us.
Maybe I will be alive twenty two years from today for the Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut in 2030; that would make me 89. Statistically, the two men on the plane have a better chance of making it; both of them were considerably younger than I am. When that day comes, when, somehow, someone figures that we have reached 50.1%, will either of those two men remember their argument on the plane? And will both of them join in the celebration?