Editor’s Thoughts: Old-New Land: Israel’s Intertwined Past and Present

Sefer Melakhim ends with a scene of terrible disaster. The Jews have been starved, beaten and exiled, their former king now a vassal, totally reliant on the King of Babylonia for food, clothing and freedom.[i] But there is consolation at the end of this exile, as Jeremiah promises, there will yet be a time when the exiles will be told “Flee from Babylonia, each man escape with his soul.”[ii] And, just as Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt through the efforts of great leaders, “And through a prophet God brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet they were guarded,”[iii] the books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the distinguished leaders who led the “olei Bavel”, returnees from Babylonia, back to their homeland in Israel as well. Ezra, renowned for his scholarship to such an extent that the Talmud states that he would have been worthy to bring the Torah down from Har Sinai[iv], physically led a group of returnees up from the Babylonian river Ahava to Jerusalem[v]. Nehemiah, with political connections to the King of Persia[vi], solidified the political infrastructure of the fledgling new Jewish state.

Approximately 2500 years later, Ezra and Nehemiah were called into service again, when a new group of Babylonian Jews needed to reach the land of Israel. This time the returnees travelled using Israeli airplanes instead of mules and donkeys, landing in Lod airport instead of at the newly built Temple in Jerusalem. Operation Ezra and Nehemiah helped around 120,000 Iraqi Jews flee persecution in Iraq during the years 1951-52[vii], and contemporary witnesses were quite sensitive to the parallels between the modern day operation and the Biblical story of return from Exile. From the Biblical name of the operation, to posters celebrating the arrival of “olei Bavel[viii], the Talmudic term for the returnees in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, there is clearly something moving about relating modern day phenomena to historical events. Herzl chose a befitting title indeed when he named his novel envisioning a utopian society in the land of Israel “Alteneuland”, or “Old-New land”. Erets Yisrael runs deep with Jewish history, and draws us to visit the cities where the avot lived, the sites where miracles occurred or the hills our ancestors traversed to be oleh l’regel or declare the new moon in Jerusalem.

However, Erets Yisrael is also home to the modern day State of Israel, where each citizen owns an average of a little more than two cellphones[ix], a country with its own modern day challenges and dilemmas. The modern state of Israel is an important part of many Jews’ identity, with data from the Pew Research Study on American Jewry showing that over two thirds of American Jews “feel connected to Israel”, and 43% believe that caring about Israel is an important part of a Jewish identity[x].

Previous issues of Kol Hamevaser are filled with passionate articles discussing Israel advocacy, human rights abuses in Israel, issues of gerut in Israel and the integration of technology and halakhah in Israeli society. In this issue on Israel and Zionism, we aim to widen the conversation with articles discussing issues relating to both modern day Israel, the Biblical history of Israel as well as the history of Israel in halakhah. Sarah Robinson and Alex Maged both bring unique insight into their analysis of stories of the Biblical conquest of Israel, and of the different leadership styles of important figures in Tanach, respectively. Several authors discuss the current status of the holiness of the land of Israel. Gilad Barach discusses R. Soloveitchik’s approach to Kedushat Erets Yisrael and its theological implications, while Shaul Yaakov Morrison focuses in on the kedushah of Har Habayit and the modern day dispute about visiting the site of the former Beit Hamikdash. Miriam Kukashavili analyzes Rambam’s view on the status of the command to live in the land of Israel, and R. Yosef Blau discusses the ideology of the Religious Zionist movement as well as some of the challenges involved in living in Israel today. Finally, our book and creative art reviews add more depth to the discussion. Josh Fitterman reviews a volume of R. Benny Lau’s, The Sages, pointing out how the lives of the Tannaim of the ancient Galil contain important lessons for the Jewish community today, and Shani Bocian provides stunning commentary contextualizing Ludwig Blum’s landscape painting of Jerusalem.

The Navi Yeshayahu urges us to constantly remember that our hopes for the future of Israel have not yet been fulfilled, “Do not grant Him silence until He will establish and place Jerusalem with glory in the land.” [xi] We hope you enjoy and invite you to continue the conversation, to share your responses or your own thoughts on Kol Hamevaser’s website and in upcoming issues.

Atara Siegel is a senior at SCW majoring in Psychology and is an editor-in-chief for Kol Hamevaser

[i] Melakhim, 25:27-30

[ii] Yirmiayhu, 51:6, all translations by author

[iii] Hoshea, 12:13

[iv] Talmud Yerushalmi, Megillah perek 1

[v] Ezra, chapter 8

[vi] Nekhemiah, 1:11

[vii] Jewish Virtual Library, “Immigration to Israel: Operation Ezra & Nehemia – The Airlift of Iraqi Jews”, available at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org.

[viii]  “Ezra and Nehemia operation”, The Central Zionist Archives, World Zionist Organization, available at www.zionistarchives.org.il.

[ix] “Israel – Census: 1 Room & 2 Cellphones Per Person”, Vos Is Neias (May 12th , 2010), available at www.vosizneias.com.

[x] Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” (October 1st , 2013), available at www.pewforum.org.

[xi] Yeshayahu, 62:7