A State in Progress

This post was written by Melanie Xanttopoulos, a participant on the Repair the World Onward Israel Service-learning Program in Be’er Sheva. The group members are encountering social change initiatives in the Negev region and receiving leadership training for when they return to their campuses in the fall. Melanie is volunteering with Ma’an in Be’er Sheva.

When we speak of Zionism we speak of dreams, or a lack thereof. Actually, we directly quote Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.” We recall May 14, 1948, when the founders of the state epitomized Rabbi Hillel’s words, “if not now, when?”

I have written many blogs this summer about my disillusionment with Israel, especially concerning the Bedouin population in the Negev. Last Thursday our Yahel group explored challenges with refugees and asylum-seekers in this country, an emotional day for many of us. Growing up in a large Jewish community in the United States, I learned that Israel was a Jewish utopia in a harsh world. I had never visited Israel until this summer, but I had visions of what this country would look like, smell like, and feel like to me.

The place I had in mind does not exist in my version of reality. Israel is not perfect, but nothing is. I do not ask of Israel anything I would not ask of the United States, or any other nation of the world. My only expectation is that Israel progress with a more just state in mind, and my only expectation of myself is that I contribute to this progress. We are a people with a narrative, and it would be a shame to write the conclusion of our story before its time. Let’s not accept freedom for some and injustice for many and call it a state.

Something counts as “art” if the artist does not know what the piece will look like upon completion, according to my high school art history teacher.

Israel is our great work of art, and each Jewish human being has a hand in its formation.

After living in Be’er Sheva, I cannot forget what I have seen and have not loved. I can only strive to fix what I find messy. I cannot predict what Israel will look like, smell like, or feel like in the next decade, century, or millennium. I can only work to preserve and improve it as I would any artwork I had influence on. Art is never finished.

Art should bring us joy, and for that reason some might disagree with my assertion that Israel is our great artwork. Many people here suffer — things in this country can be ugly. The world is not always a beautiful place, but I cannot live in it and believe we have no power to make our corner of it a breathtaking one.

On the day I was bat mitzvahed my Rabbi administered this advice: “Live your life like a work of art.” These words, those of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, have comforted me since then and came to mind tonight.

Neither the life of an artist nor a Zionist is easy. Both constantly field questions of intent, validity, and integrity. And yet the artist and the Zionist endure, blurring imperfect marks, enlisting colors and materials of all kinds, and pursuing creation for life. Zionism is not the construction of a dreamland, but the will to improve a dream. Art is never finished, and neither is the State of Israel.

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