The eulogies for assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi last week provide a fair measure of the dramatic ways in which Israel has changed in recent decades.
Ze'evi, an advocate of removing Palestinian refugees from the squalid camps in which they have languished for 53 years and resettling them in one of the oil-rich and sparsely populated Arab states, was considered an extremist in Israeli politics. Thus I turned on the radio after the assassination expecting to hear condemnations of the deed and formulaic, dry praises for the deceased.
Instead I was shocked by the passion with which even Knesset members at the other extreme of the political spectrum, including a number of Arab Knesset members, spoke of a lost friend.
Opposition leader Yossi Sarid of Meretz described himself as "devastated," and looked it.
Politicians who wear their egos on their sleeve and spend their lives in ceaseless self-promotion could at least respect a man of unbending principle, who was accused of many things but never of opportunism.
Ze'evi viewed people as more than the sum of their political opinions. That attitude is increasingly rare in Israel today, as society grows more tribalized, and fewer Israelis associate with others who differ from them politically or religiously. The society in which Ze'evi grew to manhood was hardly one free of bitter ideological disputes.Remember the Altalena.
Yet members of that generation also had something that bound them together: They were building a nation. With no such sense of a common task today - only a shared dread of what the future may bring - the Jews of modern Israel feel less and less bound to one another.
That generation still viewed themselves as Jews, albeit Jews of a new type. Ze'evi's ability to avoid pigeonholing people according to whether they agreed with him or not was, in part, an outgrowth of his belief in a common bond between all Jews.
The Jewish People - it history, its destiny, its Land - meant something to him. But not just in the abstract. Each individual manifestation of our collective identity, each individual Jew, was valued. The trademark dog-tag with the names of Israel's MIAs that he always wore was an expression of that concern.
Though not religiously observant, Ze'evi identified too greatly with Jewish history not to have a high regard for the religious beliefs that sustained the Jewish people throughout that history. At a low point in his public life, he began putting on tefillin to "come closer to God," and continued doing so for the rest of his life.
As a boy, Ze'evi's father taught him to live every day according to the Hebrew acronym adashah, which stands for anava (humility), deveikut (devotion), simchah (joy) and hitlahavut (enthusiasm).
Each term, of course, is a standard element of the Chassidic approach to Divine service. In his deep affection for Jewish tradition, Ze'evi was also an increasing rarity in modern Israel.
Above all, Ze'evi loved the Land of Israel. He wrote or edited over 90 books, many dealing with the Land - its history, its battles, its flora and fauna. Prime Minister Sharon eulogized his friend and comrade of over 50 years as the Land's "greatest lover - he who walked its paths, who found shelter in its crevices, who examined its shards, knew its stones, knew its thorns and citadels, whose sweat and tears it absorbed."
Ze'evi's love of the Land of Israel thus drew poetry from one not generally known for his eloquence: "Today, we are bringing to the earth one who knew its history better than any of us, who was perfumed by its flowers and scratched by its briars, who flattened its weeds with his footsteps and called its bounty and fruits by name, and loved them."
One had to wonder, listening to the eulogies, whether Ze'evi was not just Eretz Yisrael's greatest lover but its last.
Love of the Land was a staple of Zionism. But today paeans to the beauty of the Land are likely to elicit bemused smiles. There is something hopelessly quaint and out-of-date about lovesongs written to the soil.
Even in the generation after Ze'evi's, many still felt an emotional connection to the Land. Yonatan Netanyahu loved the solo navigational training in the army that gave him the chance "to feel the place, the soil, the mountains and valleys of [our Land]."
More than 25 years ago, I hitchhiked around Northern Israel with a young Israeli my age. He knew each kibbutz, waterfall and army base, and he was typical of his generation.
That would not be true today. Hikes throughout the Land were largely a thing of the past, even before we grew too afraid to walk anywhere not protected by electrified security fences. Too many young Israelis know more of the geography of the Far East than of their native land.
Not so long ago, students in an elite Tel Aviv hich school could not even tell a TV reporter how the Golan Heights came into Israeli hands. Most had probably never been to the Golan, and many have never even been to Jerusalem or the Western Wall.
Yossi Beilin has already said that the Zionist movement made a big mistake by not taking Uganda, and too few young Israelis know why it did not.
Only among the settlers does the old Zionist love of the Land remain strong. Even those who view the whole settlement enterprise as a touch fanatical, and who find the settlers' willingness to place themselves and their loved ones in constant peril incomprehensible, must acknowledge a tremendous debt to the settlers.
Their passion keeps the flame burning of Jewish millennial yearning for the Land. They remind all of us that there was a reason the Zionist movement rejected the Uganda Plan, and that not just any piece of real estate would suffice for the renewed national existence of the Jewish people.
Yet without some historical memory, some attachment to this place, our young will continue rushing in ever greater numbers to Los Angeles, Miami, or some island in the New Hebrides.
Rehavam Ze'evi will be missed as one of the last links to a generation that still lived with Jewish history and sought to actualize it once again in our ancient homeland.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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