President Richard M. Joel: Israel Must be Seen as a Destination for Our Destiny

As often as possible, I leave the confines of my 12th-floor office and meander around the campus of Yeshiva University. I do this for many reasons, principally because I so enjoy speaking with our students and absorbing the sights and insights of our campus experience as much as they do.

Israel FlagBut even when students tuck themselves away in their classrooms and study halls, I examine the magnificent buildings in which our students pore over their texts, both Judaic and secular. Those edifices themselves seem to speak almost as loudly as the passionate, smart and vociferous undergraduates studying within them, serving as architectural symbols of the many great institutions of learning that we Jews have built together in North America and around the world.

One particular structural feature of our campus always strikes a chord in me. Three flags, each flapping and flailing in the unremitting Washington Heights wind: The flag of Yeshiva University, the flag of the United States of America, the flag of the State of Israel. Degel Yisrael, that 65-year-old symbol of hope with its ancient Star of David affixed at its center, with thousands of years of Jewish endurance and hope enchantingly summarized in its blue and white hues.

And I ask myself: What message does that flag bear for the sprawling, growing, Diaspora-based institution over which it flies? Why fly the flag of Israel?

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“Ki mitziyon tetzei Torah u’dvar Hashem Mi’Yerushalayim” – For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of God from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:3). Far from a hollow refrain, this sentence speaks to a metaphysical reality sensed by Jews around the world and throughout our turbulent and vulnerable history of exile; Israel has always assumed a central position, in our collective hearts and minds.

As congregations through the generations exclaimed “Next year in Jerusalem!” at the conclusion of their Yom Kippur and Passover Seder rituals, as bridegrooms stopped just short of unbridled joy to recite “Lest I forget thee, Jerusalem” under their flower-laden wedding canopies, Israel forever retained its status as the virtual homeland of the Jewish people.

And for a while, that virtual homeland had to be enough; enough to bind together a Jew from Minsk with his brother in Morocco, a Jew in Indiana with her sister in India. That legendary homeland of lore generated a sense of home amongst the perpetually and historically homeless. And the Jews had to persist with merely a virtual homeland.

And yet the yearning for an actual Jewish homeland steadily became apparent. Our landless condition left us utterly exposed to our own scattering, division, and obliteration. With the onslaught of Enlightenment, we began to lose ties that would bind us through our peoplehood, and absent a physical home, we became wanderers in every way. Not to mention the various inquisitions, pogroms, and holocausts which periodically reminded us all too clearly of our own nomadic defenselessness.

The atrocities of the Holocaust seemed to provide the very last straw, and Israel was finally established in 1948, an absolute game changer for world Jewry at large. For so many Jews – among them David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, and their generation – the existence of a modern State of Israel went from a pleasant pipe dream to an all but necessary pre-condition to Jewish survival.  Medinat Yisrael made a profound difference for the ingathering of the exiles, and with its “Right of Return”, provides the promise of comfort and refuge for each and every Diaspora Jew. And more.

Israel, thankfully, has continued to thrive in ways wondrous. It has assumed its rightful place among the community of nations. It once again serves as the center of Jewish leaning and living for a Jewish renaissance based on pride and place.

In this better world, Israeli and Diaspora Jewry enjoy a symbiotic relationship, and the key is this: As it grows in population and purpose, Israel must be seen not only as a geographic refuge, but as a destination for our destiny, as a foundation which continues to anchor our lives as Jews, as it has for time immemorial. And that relationship between Israel and the rest of the Jewish world can strengthen both poles and allow Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, to fulfill its sacred mission of being a light unto the nations.

The existence and growth of Israel serves as one of the great connectors of Jewish identity, wherever those Jews may take up residence. One particularly powerful example: The Birthright-Taglit program has demonstrated that a return to the family homestead, with all its accompanying history, suddenly becomes a gateway to destiny for thousands of young women and men. In that way, Israel continues its invitation and welcome to make aliyah and return to live at home; or, its welcome to return as active members of the Jewish family, wherever they may reside.

Millennia ago, God charged the Jewish people with an everlasting destiny to matter, both in the world and to the world. Having Jews peppered throughout the world allows for the story of the Jewish people to continue to impact mankind. But the notion of “ki mitziyon teitzeh Torah” reminds us all that Jews ‘round the world may only continue to partner with God in bettering the world if a growing population of Jews in Israel calls Israel their home.

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On Monday, I will take yet another stroll on Yeshiva’s Wilf Manhattan campus. On that day, though, on the fifth day of Iyar, I will be joined by thousands of students and faculty as we gather together for a special program; concurrently, on Rechov Duvdevani at our Jerusalem Campus, our students and alumni will celebrate in similar fashion. We will first somberly intone the memorial service of Yom Hazikaron, in tribute to those who gave their lives for the Jewish State. But as twilight gives way to nightfall, the piercing sound of the shofar will rouse all assembled into cheer as Israel Independence Day is joyously heralded.

And as our students march down Amsterdam Avenue waiving their blue and white, their comrades, seven time zones to the east,will arise from their slumbers to intone the Hallel blessings and march down King George Street in jubilant song and dance. And in one intensely poignant and global moment, the Jewish people will affirm once more, as generations did before them, the permanent and sacred status of Israel at the core of our collective conscience.

Richard M. Joel is president of Yeshiva University and Bravmann Family University Professor. This op-ed originally appeared in Haaretz.com on April 14. View photos from last year’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations.