by Dror Eydar
In order to truly understand a nation, we cannot go just by headlines – we must learn its history and aspirations.
I have had a number of opportunities to meet and chat with Chinese people – students, business women, researchers and members of academia, to name a few. I was told to talk to them about Israel, the Jewish people, our history and our culture. I automatically assumed that we did not have very much in common, aside from the fact that both our civilizations are ancient and glorious.
Imagine that we are looking at the sea right now, I would say to them. We are looking at waves, sea spray, birds flying overhead. And then, right in the middle of this giant body of water, we spot an island. Would it be wise to focus only on the island and ignore everything that surrounds it? The depths of the ocean are far greater and more powerful than this tiny piece of land that we discovered.
The renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung once compared consciousness to an island in the ocean of the subconscious. The information we can glean from what our eyes can see is not enough to fully judge a person. A person's deeds and words are also insufficient to provide a complete picture. These things are too superficial. A person's history, biography, family, social background and education all come into play. A person's dreams and secret passions are also an important component that cannot be immediately seen. These are immensely important elements of any human being's personality and are therefore the key to understanding them.
As much as this holds true for human beings, it is even more applicable to nations and peoples. Newspaper headlines and politicians' speeches are certainly not enough to form a well-rounded opinion. Even the actions of individual members of a nation are not enough to formulate an accurate idea, whatever their prominence. These things are, again, too superficial. The nation's history, its religion, its mythology, the oral history that has been passed down through the generations for thousands of years, its customs, its heritage, its language and so many other factors are what make up the DNA of a nation.
When it comes to ancient cultures, this comprehensive view is even more important. I always tell my Chinese conversation partners that our two peoples survived the test of time. We created glorious civilizations. But there is one key difference: You stayed in one place and developed for yourself, generation after generation. Invaders who came in and thought they defeated you ultimately became a part of you. You endured catastrophes, no doubt, but your land was never destroyed, and you were never exiled the way the Jews were.
Unlike you, I tell them, we spent a significant portion of our history in exile. We twice endured great destruction, we were exiled again and again, and we were subjected to countless national tragedies. Hundreds of us wandered from place to place across the globe, looking for a place to rest. Many times we imagined that we had found a home, where we could settle and forget our troubles – each time we contributed to the local economy, culture and scientific community and even tried to adopt the local patriotism – but every time, we were eventually expelled. So we continued to wander in hopes of finding a better place.
I can't really fathom what a population of 1.5 billion is like. It is unbelievable and fills me with awe. I wonder whether the Jewish population could have reached tens if not hundreds of millions if we had remained in our own land for all those thousands of years, like the Chinese. But most of us disappeared into the fog of history, like many others who were uprooted from their land and swallowed up by their host nations in all corners of the world. It was only a little more than 70 years ago that at least a third of the Jews were wiped out in the Holocaust. After 2,000 years, how many of us are left?
These differences between our national fate and the Chinese national fate generate something called "national psychology." It is important to examine the news reports about Israel through this lens, taking these differences into account. We often hear other nations, and even some Israelis, trying to tempt us into complacency, urging us to abandon our fears, let our guard down, because "we are stronger than ever." This is like the song of the Sirens who tried to lure Odysseus to approach them so they could devour him. Fortunately for him, his sailors' ears were plugged with wax and he had tied himself to the mast and was able to avoid the fate met by everyone who had heard the song before him. It is laughable, and possibly irresponsible, to urge us to stop being afraid. We promised ourselves never to rely on others, never to let our guard down, and to defend our land and our people. We make a determined effort to remember our past to avoid making the same mistakes again. So what kept us going away from home for so long? Why didn't we just disappear like many other peoples whose land was destroyed or were sent into exile? And more importantly, what prompted the Jews to leave their homes in whatever land they inhabited, where they had lived for hundreds of years, and come to a land that they had only known in their dreams?
After the destruction of the First Temple in the sixth century B.C.E., the Jews despaired. It was the nation's first exile as a people, and they were convinced that they would disappear. "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off," they told the prophet Ezekiel, who lived among them (Ezekiel 37:11). But the prophet lifted their spirits. He told them of a divine vision he had seen: a valley full of dry bones, gathering together and connecting into whole bodies, and then being infused with life, until they stand tall, great in number.
This vision, Ezekiel told the exiles in Babylon, is about us.
"Then He said unto me: 'Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel … And I will put My spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I will place you in your own land" (Ezekiel 37:11-14). There is hope, hold on, he said to them.
Indeed, the exiles in Babylon swore never to forget Jerusalem, even if life dealt them hardships and even if they went into exile again, and even if they were pressured again and again to assimilate into other nations.
"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning" (Psalm 137:5). We incorporated this oath into our daily lives, we recite it at celebrations, in mourning, when we build homes, in our legal codes, in our poetry, in our prayers.
I tell my Chinese conversation partners that even when Jews say a prayer of thanks after a meal, we mention Jerusalem.
We are known as the "People of the Book," I tell the Chinese. That "book" is the Bible, which has influenced the entire Western world. But we are not restricted to just one book. On its foundations, we have built cultural skyscrapers made up of billions of words that fill up countless books and texts. These texts enveloped us while we were in exile and served as an alternate homeland. When we returned to our actual homeland, we brought this written treasure with us. But we did not put our books on a dusty shelf in a museum somewhere – no, we live and breathe them and bring them to life. They are an integral part of our burgeoning culture here, a culture that is spoken and written in the same language that Ezekiel prophesied our people's future redemption.
Some 2,500 years later, at the end of the 19th century, a Jew named Naftali Herz Imber wanted to lift his people's spirits. Unlike the exiles in Babylon of Ezekiel's day, Imber's generation was not the first to experience exile. His generation was already 1,800 years past the destruction of the Second Temple. But he was familiar with the vision of the dry bones, and he wrote a poem saying that as long as the hearts of Jews long to return to Zion and to Jerusalem, and as long as the Jews long to be free as they once were, "our hope is not lost."
It took fewer than a symbolic 70 years after Ezekiel's prophecy for part of the Jewish people to return to Zion and Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Fewer than 70 years passed between the time Imber wrote his poem and the time Israel was established. I tell the Chinese that when the state was established, Imber's poem became our national anthem.
The Chinese and I delve deeper into the annals of history, but the principal idea has been established: The Israel they are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a far greater cultural, historical and spiritual phenomenon than they can see. That is something that truly speaks to their sensibilities.
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