Monday, July 6, 2009

A Purity of Purpose

Below is the letter I wrote to family and friends on June 30, explaining why I would be making aliyah and enlisting in the Israeli military.

There are simply too many young guys with guns, I concluded to a young Ethiopian this past January. We had just spent the better part of a day long bus ride discussing the fighting in Gaza. My answer was not an attempt to ignore the many underlying issues that define Israel’s security dilemma. Yet those words remain as true to me now as they did then. As real as the kitchen table in my childhood home from where I am writing to you shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday to share a decision I arrived at some months ago with great excitement, confidence and, I hope, humility.

This July I will be making aliyah, accepting Israeli citizenship and preparing to join the Israeli army in early November.

I wrote that I came to this decision some months ago. The reality is that the decision to make aliyah and serve in the army represents the realization of a goal I embraced years ago. The decision harks back to my final year of elementary school when the tales of pioneers like Hanna Senesh and Mordechai Anielewicz began to fortify my sense of who I wanted to become and what I wanted to strive for in the future. Ten years have passed but that fourteen-year-old’s ambition remains undimmed.

I want to share with you the basis of my decision: why I am moving to Israel, volunteering for the army, interrupting my education, and leaving America.

Why aliyah? That is, why become a citizen of the State of Israel? The answer starts with an emotional bond: a love that may have been kindled by Zionist summer camps and childhood visits but that only seized my imagination as I began to experience the country through more mature eyes. It is the feeling I have when running through the streets of Jerusalem, hiking past waterfalls in the Galilean hillside, sleeping under the stars in the Negev desert, welcoming religious holidays as part of a larger society. These are feelings I want to make a part of my daily life.

The answer continues, as it must, with the central role that an organized Jewish community plays in my religious identity. I have faith in the vision of crafting a society at the meeting point of western and eastern civilizations. One that strives to fulfill the dream of social justice envisioned by the prophets and sages of Judaism. One tempered by two thousand years of painful yet fruitful cross-cultural exchange.

The State of Israel may not fulfill the messianic dream of Jewish prayer. And the contemporary sociopolitical reality may at times make a mockery of any ideal, religious or secular. Yet behind the dream of Israel lies a persistent challenge.

A wise mentor of mine describes Judaism as a conversation. My commitment to this understanding of Judaism, to a faith which recognizes that growth comes from engaging others, leaves me confident that in some small way I have what to contribute to realizing the dream that underscores the Jewish state. Much like America, Israel is a society whose promise is in great part due to the waves of immigrants that in every generation arrive on her shores. I do not accept the idea that the state only needed a generation of visionaries at its founding. Or that the country no longer has a need or the space for outsiders to come and revitalize the persistent dream that in varying forms has defined the Jewish message from time immemorial.

And the army? What does being trained to kill and constantly ordered around have to do with my perhaps romantic rationale for moving to Israel? The answer again starts with an emotional response: a desire to recapture a purity of purpose that has dissipated over the last two years. I want to rekindle a passion that has diminished in the face of the repetitiveness of academic life and the frustration of engaging an unresponsive community. Military service will no doubt have more than its fair share of monotony and apathetic peers (I do not expect to enlist in an army of Yoni Netanyahus). But voluntary service in defense of Israeli society also promises to return that purity of purpose.

There are, of course, many ways to serve a cause larger than oneself. I am not so naïve as to imagine that the Jewish cause is best served by having one more young man enlist (for that matter, my desire to enlist does not encompass any idolization of military service). There may in fact be more effective ways to utilize my skills. Yet there is a component of personal growth and self-discovery that compels me to serve in the army, a desire to uniquely challenge body and soul.

Motivation aside, the army is also a peerless vehicle for integrating into Israel; for grasping the language and people that comprise one of the most diverse societies on earth. And while there are viewpoints within that society that repel me, I accept this diversity as akin to the differences within a family. Hence I truly look forward to engaging Israel’s many voices, including those that call out from other religious communities, other places of birth, and opposing positions across the ideological divide.

My professional ambition is to find ways to best leverage China’s growing role in the Middle East towards greater regional peace and development. Aliyah and serving in the Israeli army are as much a piece of fulfilling that ambition as my university education. Neither decision, however, is about rejecting America, a country I admire greatly. Aliyah is about realizing my potential rather than rejecting my past.

Four years ago I left Israel to commence my university education as my Israeli peers prepared to enlist in the army. Now as many of them enroll in college, I am preparing to enlist. I have no regret that I am making this decision now. The last four years have taken me to places and introduced me to people that will inform my future steps as profoundly as my experiences in Israel will over the next few years. I also have no regrets because past experience has taught me that there are challenges that cannot be rushed. As a child I took extra time until I walked and talked and yet my joy in running and conversing has hardly been hindered. Amos Oz writes “the only way to keep a dream intact is never to fulfill it and so Israel is flawed and imperfect precisely because it is a dream come true.” In this sense my aliyah is ultimately about revitalizing the dream of Israel that at present remain only a promise, as I strive to realize my own unfulfilled dreams.

No comments:

Post a Comment