Israeli tanks cross the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War (Photo/Wikimedia-Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli tanks cross the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War (Photo/Wikimedia-Israel Defense Forces)

An eyewitness to Yom Kippur War, Ethiopian aliyah, Soviet Jewry and more

I became interested in Israel as a teenager. Lacking any serious knowledge or Zionist education, I remember during the Six-Day War betting an Arab American friend in the locker room at Lowell High School in San Francisco over who would win the war, Israel or the Arabs.

I became committed to Israel as a college student. My friend Shaul and I decided in the summer of 1971 to organize a group of fellow students at Cal Berkeley to spend a summer on kibbutz in Israel. We knew if we could find 20 students, we would get a free ticket. While the first trip was special, it was actually what happened immediately after that solidified my commitment.

Shaul and I continued on to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks during the early days of the Soviet Jewry movement. The original refuseniks were Zionists dreaming of building in our ancient homeland the Jewish life they were deprived of in the USSR. Gavriel Shapiro, Vladimir Slepak, Katia Palatnik, Boris Krasny and the other Soviet Jews we met in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa helped me understand the ultimate importance of Israel — not as a theoretical idea but as a tangible goal that sustained them on a daily basis and that they looked to as a haven from the daily persecution that was stifling their Jewish lives. It was not merely their dream to be able to live freely as Jews. Israel was essential to their ultimate sense of safety, even though the mere act of seeking to immigrate to Israel or organize Hebrew classes led to dismissal from jobs, harassment and imprisonment. Their courage became my calling.

I became passionate about Israel through continuous connection. That may sound mundane, but it is the truth. Some 30 plus trips to Israel since my first — mostly through the privilege of leading JCRC’s annual seminars for non-Jewish community leaders — enabled me to frequently experience the real Israel rather than the one depicted in the daily headlines.

I was in Israel for rabbinical school when Arab armies attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur War, a scared 22-year-old. Ellen and I had just arrived in Israel in 1976 with a group of teenagers when Israel freed the hostages in Entebbe, an event we learned about when we saw congratulations to the Israeli air force written in Hebrew in the sky.

I was in Israel with a group that witnessed planeloads of Russian-speaking Jews and Ethiopian Jews touch down in freedom for the first time. A French photographer told us in the immigration center that a couple of days earlier, a Russian-speaking Jew came up to her, pointed to the Ethiopian Jews sitting together and asked, “Are they Jewish?” A few minutes later, an Ethiopian Jew asked her the same thing about the Russian-speaking Jews.

Israel is a real nation, imperfect yet aspirational, complex yet wondrous, rigid yet innovative.

Every time I am in Israel I feel that I am an eyewitness to and a part of a continuing remarkable chapter of Jewish history.

For every example of Israeli government policy that troubles me — and yes, there are plenty — my continuous connection reminds me that Israel is a real nation, imperfect yet aspirational, complex yet wondrous, rigid yet innovative. Beneath the surface there are countless tensions. Yet to have seen how Israel has grown as it reaches 70 years young is to marvel at every obstacle it has overcome, without turning a blind eye to the serious internal and external challenges Israel faces.

The challenge I have wrestled with the most is coming to terms with an Israel that first drew me in as someone excited about the potential of the newly re-established Jewish state exemplifying the highest Jewish moral values — to be that light unto the nations — and then discovering that real life, particularly in Israel’s tough neighborhood, requires hard, sometimes morally complex and even agonizing choices.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in an important speech in 2000 conveyed the thought that Jewish power should be exercised morally and that there is no morality in Jewish powerlessness. That duality has stayed with me. And it informs my loving debates with our sons when they challenge my defense of Israel when its government’s actions do not clearly align with an ideal sense of moral behavior.

Each year when we celebrate Israel’s independence, two sets of dates come to mind that help me maintain that duality. The first is 2,000 years and what it meant for the Jewish people to be powerless until May 14, 1948. Forced conversions, Inquisition, mass expulsion, massacres, pogroms, the Holocaust — a near people-ending challenge of extreme vulnerability. The second is what it means to reach 70. In 1846, when the U.S. turned 70, we declared war on Mexico, Mormons began their western migration to flee persecution, the Donner party was snowbound, the Liberty Bell was cracked, and the first baseball game was played.

Given the fact that Israel has not been allowed to enjoy a single day of complete peace and normalcy, 70 feels like a long time. But Israel is still a young country that has accomplished so much and will continue to evolve, grow and hopefully engage us in a lifetime of connection with and maybe even passion for Israel.

Doug Kahn
Doug Kahn

Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The viewpoints expressed in his columns are solely his own.