Mar 09 2010

From the Promised Land to the New World and Back Again

Published by at 10:35 pm under Rediscovering Israel

Starting around 722 BCE, my Jewish ancestors got their asses handed to them by the imperial powers of the day. Made refugees by the mighty Assyrians and the Babylonians who swooped down soon after, a painful saga of destruction and displacement was set in motion. This event still has consequences for those of us today who enjoy motza-ball soup, Woody Allen movies, a lifetime of guilt and other key elements of the Hebraic persuasion.

The wandering Jew came onto the world stage as an archetype at once tragic and inspiring. A seemingly permanent diaspora people spread through virtually all parts of the Old World while always retaining a remnant within that territory once ruled by King David. The Greeks, Romans and Islamic civilizations that flourished in the region followed the Babylonian example, ensuring that the Jews would be prevented from reclaiming their deeds to Jerusalem, Mount Zion and the hard-scrabble territory in between.

Wherever the exiled Jew went, he encountered the awful challenge of all immigrant communities – fitting in while retaining a distinct culture. In the context of Europe, Jews were often successful in eking out a ghettoized existence and occasionally even prospering as civil servants. Still, the dire threat of facing retribution from their host communities for blood libels and “poisoned wells” lurked in the background.

In the Islamic world, the situation was often not much better. Jews were treated as Dhimmis. Since they were “People of the Book”, Muslim rulers and their subjects couldn’t just go ahead and slaughter the kaffirs at will. Then again, second-class citizenry (or no citizen status at all, even for families that lived in Arab-conquered lands for generations) was no picnic.

As such, Jews started flocking to the New World pretty well as soon as they could get on the boats (Indeed, some controversial historians postulate that Christopher Columbus was of the Tribe).

Plenty of these wandering types ended up in what would become the Dominion of Canada. My own family tree is a result of this happy choice. The result today is that I get to live in what I immodestly believe to be the greatest country on Earth.

The True North is an overwhelmingly successful experiment in political freedom, a mix of free-market and progressive principles and multiculturalism that rivals its much more powerful southern neighbor in terms of quality of life. Indeed, living on the west coast in Vancouver, routinely called out as the most livable city on the planet, I sometimes wonder at my incredible good fortune at being in the right place at the right time. Living here and now, in the grand scheme of world history, is sort of like winning a multi-million dollar lottery.

About to begin my travels in Israel, I look back on this legacy and think of my mission as one of rediscovery. In a sense, I’m coming back to an ancestral home. Will it be familiar to me? Or will I remain a wandering Jew, a stranger in a strange land?

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