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An Idealized Israel for Christians

April 2008

Review of The Jewish Connection to Israel, The Promised Land: A Brief Introduction for Christians by Rabbi Eugene Korn (Jewish Lights, 2008).

When I was a New Jersey 7-year-old, the mother of a friend mentioned her family's upcoming trip to Palestine. She then asked if I knew that Israeli Jews had driven her people--Palestinian Arabs--from their land.

"It's a good thing you're not Israeli," my friend's mother concluded as she drove me home from our play-date.

Cover of book The Jewish Connection to Israel, the Promised Land by Eugene Korn

Needless to say, I returned to my parents that night confused and upset. Setting aside the shock they felt over one adult's inappropriate conversation with their daughter, they explained to me that there was another, redemptive side to the story about Israel, which has provided a home to countless Jewish refugees since its founding in 1948. On that night, almost 20 years ago, my education about the emotions and passions stoked by a country the size of New Jersey officially began.

Unfortunately, anyone who picks up The Jewish Connection to Israel, the Promised Land: A Brief Introduction for Christians will read a similarly one-sided perspective, albeit one diametrically opposed to the opinion of my play-date's mother. Rabbi Eugene Korn, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., strives to explain why Israel as a Jewish homeland is important and necessary to ensure Jewish security and spirituality and why that should matter to Christians. Korn has good reason to claim the importance of Israel to his people.

As the rabbi himself notes, it provided a safe haven for both Holocaust survivors and Jews who escaped to Palestine from Europe before the war. The country has contributed to advances in science and technology, and has continued to provide refuge for countless immigrants, including more than one million Jews from the former Soviet Union, according to Arab and Jew: Wounded Sprits in a Promised Land, by former New York Times journalist David Shipler. On the other hand, Korn's history is a selective one that focuses on the European experience but largely ignores Jewish life elsewhere in the world, glosses over the Israeli government's own role in the Arab-Jewish conflict and neglects to mention how certain groups of Jews are marginalized by Israeli society.

The book opens with an account of the Jewish relationship to Israel during biblical times. Following his description of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, Korn picks up with tales of persecution in Europe, but fails to document the vibrant Jewish communities in the Middle East and Africa. When he reaches the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, he notes, "It is a pluralistic society that guarantees freedom of religion and equality under the law for all of its citizens." In reality, however, certain Sephardic, Mizrahi and African Jews are treated as second-class citizens. Instead of highlighting the unique contributions made by these groups, Korn writes that "Most of those immigrants came from pre-industrial societies in Yemen, Iraq, Morocco, Libya, and Egypt. Israel introduced them to democratic and scientific culture and successfully educated them for leadership in the modern world."

In a similar vein, Korn does not paint a complete picture of the historic tensions between Jews and Arabs in Israel. For that, one should read Tom Segev's 1949: The First Israelis, which details the forced evacuation of thousands of Arab villagers from their homes in 1948 and the martial law which restricted their movement and their ability to earn a livelihood for their families.

Readers interested in understanding the complicated state of affairs in Israel and how American Jews feel about it deserve a more balanced and nuanced explanation. But more than that, the most basic assumption of the book--that Israel means the same thing to every Jew--is flat out wrong. At the end of the Passover seder each year, we all repeat the words "Next year in Jerusalem." But as novelist Jonathan Safran Foer explains, the meaning of this phrase--just like each person's relationship to modern day Israel--varies from person to person. "The problem," he writes, "is that the better place of next year is personalized to each of us. It would be impossible for us to coexist, next year, in the Jerusalem of next year, because our visions are different, and competing."

And finally, if there are many more Jewish opinions than the one described in the book, there are also many sorts of relationships that a Christian seeks to foster. Is our Christian reader a member of the clergy looking to strengthen his ties with rabbis? Is she a spouse who wants to relate to her partner? Is he a social worker seeking to better understand a client? Each of these relationships--and a host of others--has a different set of needs when it comes to understanding the Jewish connection to Israel. In other words, a one-size-fits-all volume is destined to leave no one satisfied.

If the goal is a better understanding of the range of Jewish voices, a reader might start with the collection Wrestling with Zion, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon. Those who seek a more balanced perspective on the relationship between Muslims and Jews in Israel should pick up a copy of Arab and Jew. For a history of the founding of Israel, Segev's books provide a good education.

Readers who want to learn about the Jewish connection to Israel deserve a more complex, nuanced and honest narrative.

Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "eastern," the term refers to Jews descended from the Jewish communities of the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus. The term Mizrahi is used in Israel in the language of politics, media and some social scientists for Jews from the Arab world and adjacent, primarily Muslim-majority countries. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Hebrew term, synonymous with Jerusalem.
Beth Kressel

Beth Kressel is the Jewish studies editor at Rutgers University Press.

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