Judea Pearl: What Israel means to me
I was born in Tel Aviv in 1936 and, quite naturally, my feelings toward Israel are suffused with the love, pride, memories, music and aromas that nourish and sustain all natives of any country. As the years pass, I discover that these same feelings toward Israel are echoed by people everywhere, including many who have never set foot in that country. My family's love affair with Israel began in 1924, when my grandfather, a textile merchant and devout Hasidic Jew from the town of Ostrowietz, Poland, decided to realize his life dream and emigrate to the land of the Bible.
Family lore has it that my grandfather was assaulted one day by a Polish peasant wielding an iron bar and shouting, "Dirty Jew!" My grandfather crawled home, wiped his blood and announced to his wife and four children, "Start packing; we are going home!" In the weeks that followed, he sold all his possessions and, along with 25 other families, bought a piece of sandy land about four miles northeast of Jaffa. That land was near an Arab village called Ibn Abrak, which was described by the newspaper Haaretz in July 1924 as "a few mud-walled huts surrounded by a few scattered trees."
The Arab real estate broker in Jaffa probably had no idea why a group of seemingly educated Jews, some with business experience, would pay so dearly for a piece of arid land situated far from any water source, which even the hardy residents of Ibn Abrak found to be uninhabitable. But the 26 Hasidic families knew exactly what they were buying. Ibn Abrak was the site of the ancient city of Bnai Brak, well known in the biblical and rabbinic days, the town where the Mishnaic scholar Rabbi Akiva made his home and established his great school. It is said that it was to Bnai Brak that Rabbi Akiva applied the famous verse, "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue."
The vision of reviving the spirit of that ancient site of learning was well worth the exorbitant price the broker demanded, the dusty winds, the merciless sun, the lack of water and all the daily hardships that pioneering agricultural life entailed.
My father was 14 years old when his family arrived at Bnai Brak in 1924, and whenever he reminisced about that early period of hardship, he always referred to it as the "rebuilding of Bnai Brak," as if he and my grandfather had been there before, with Poland and the whole saga of the Jewish exile merely an unpleasant nightmare.
We, the children who grew up in Bnai Brak, had not the slightest doubt that we had been there before. Every Passover, when our family's reading of the Haggadah reached the story of the five rabbis who were sitting in Bnai Brak reciting the story of the Exodus, my grandfather would stop the reading, look everyone in the eye, issue one of his rare mysterious smiles and continue with emphasis, "Who were sitting in Bnai Brak."
The message was clear: We never really left home.
A short distance from our school, there were two steep hills that almost touched each other. The older boys told us that the two hills were once a single one that got separated when Bar Kochva -- the heroic figure who led a futile Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 2nd century -- rode through it on his lion, creating the gully between. We had no doubt that we would eventually find Bar Kochva's burial place; we needed only to dig deep enough into these hills -- which we did enthusiastically for hours. It was only a matter of time, we thought, before the Earth would unravel the mysteries of our historic infancy. It was this cultural incubator that shaped my childhood -- an intoxicating enthusiasm of homecoming and nation-rebuilding.
Those who say that this sort of culture no longer inspires youth are mistaken. Seventy-eight years after my grandfather first set foot in Bnai Brak, in a shed in Karachi, Pakistan, his great-grandson Daniel Pearl stood before his eventual murderers and said, "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish." Then, looking straight at the eye of evil, he added one last sentence: "Back in the town of Bnai Brak, there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chayim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town."
Was a page of history ever chanted with greater pride? Was a more gentle love song ever sung to a homeward-bound founder of a new town?
My mother's story was different, yet still driven by the same forces of history. A resident of Kielz, Poland, she applied to British authorities for immigration to Palestine in 1935, when anti-Semitic intimidation reached unbearable proportions. Adolf Hitler came to power two years earlier. His threats were broadcast all over Europe; the writing was on the wall, and masses of Polish Jews applied for emigration to their biblical homeland: Palestine. Ironically, the British government, which then controlled the region, was bending to Arab pressure to stop Jewish immigration, and my mother's hopes of leaving Poland before the storm fell at the mercy of a political controversy that has not been settled to this very day.
I recently read the argument the Arabs used in that debate, as published at the time in the Arabic newspaper Carmel: "We know that Jewish immigration can proceed without dispossessing a single Arab from his land. This is obvious. And this is precisely what we object to. We simply do not want to peacefully turn into a minority, and European Jews should understand why." The counter-argument by the Jewish leadership was equally compelling. Zev Jabotinsky said in 1937: "This sort of morality is morality of cannibalism, not one of the civilized world, for it dictates that the homeless must forever remain homeless; we beg merely for a small fraction of this vast piece of land." But the British sided with the stronger, allowing a trickle of only 15,000 immigration certificates a year.
My mother could not wait and paid a huge sum to a cousin who had an immigration certificate to arrange a fictitious marriage that would later be annulled. Fortunately, her father intervened, and she found a better prospect -- my father, a suntanned young "Palestinian" who was searching the towns of Poland for a refined European bride. My mother's parents, brother and sister were not so lucky. Stranded by the British-Arab blockade, they perished in the holocaust with 6 million other victims of cannibalism and selfishness.
I once asked my mother how she felt when she arrived. "I came to Israel in the eve of Hanukkah, 1935," she said. "The first day after my arrival, I went up to the roof, and I could not believe my eyes -- how deeply blue the sky was, compared with the gray sky that I left behind in Poland. I was breathless!
"Then I met a neighbor, a teacher who invited me to visit her kindergarten. There I experienced one of the happiest days in my life. Scores of children were standing there loudly singing Hanukkah songs in Hebrew, as if this was the most natural thing to do, as if they had been singing those songs for hundreds of years."
"Why the wonder?" I asked. "Didn't your family celebrate Hanukkah in Poland?"