By Andrés Spokoiny
The word utopia was first used by Sir Thomas More in 1516. He coined the term combining two Greek words: ou (not) and topos (place), and he thus named an imaginary island that would harbor the perfect society. Utopia was “No-Place,” or, “the place that doesn’t exist.”
It caught on. “Utopia” became a blanket term to describe a dream of something impossible, a society that can’t really be found in any real topos, a goal that can’t really be achieved, and became especially common in describing political programs of (supposedly) impossible concretion. The 19th century was a golden age of sorts for utopias. From utopian socialism to nationalist romanticism to technological utopias emerging from the industrial revolution, all sort of ambitious ideas and implausible political programs excited people’s imaginations.
Among that cacophony of dreams, we Jews also had a utopic idea of our own. It was called Zionism. It was not, to be sure, just a product of the febrile, ideology-riddled 19th century. The doctrines of nationalism and liberal humanism just gave a new language and a political program to the yearning of centuries. Indeed, our utopia had been dreamed by millions of dreamers and repeated in billions of prayers for 2,000 years. Our utopia was a common longing, invoked simultaneously in the cafes of Vienna and on the Russian steppes, in the mellahs of Morocco and in the mountains of Yemen, in the urban jungle of New York and in the pampas of Argentina. One night in 1886, the chronically drunk poet Nafatli Imbert pierced the vapors of vodka and saw the ancient passion with pristine clarity, and he wrote those simple words in his poem “Hatikva,” our hope: “To be a free people in our Land, in Zion and Jerusalem.”
Something distinguishes our utopia from most of the wild dreams of the 19th century: it became a reality. Today, there’s a third generation of Jews being born after the State of Israel. The overwhelming majority of us came to this world after the State and in some ways we trivialize its existence. That’s not bad; after all, the Zionist thinkers would be delighted to know that there’s a world in which a Jewish State is a given.
But once a year, on Yom HaAtzmaut, we need to pause and reflect on how miraculous Israel is – how improbable, how unthinkable. Once a year, we need to look back and realize the uniqueness of the Zionist adventure; once a year we need to feel how blessed we are to live in a generation that sees prophecies realized and dreams fulfilled.
Granted, ours is not really a utopia in the sense of More. It’s… well, a Jewish utopia: imperfect, like we are; messy; complex; unfinished and in a permanent state of becoming; reflective of all our traumas and ghosts; reminiscent of our brilliance and our misery. But it is real, because our utopia exchanges perfection for existence. More imagined his island of Utopia as a destination; we think of our utopia as a journey, a beginning that never ends. More’s Utopia is “No-Place,” the perfect dream that can never be; our imperfect utopia is just a routine airplane flight away.
As a child I used to see Israel in Moreian terms. I remember singing an old Zionist song by Bialik called “Me’ever layam” (across the sea). It described the land of Israel as a faraway place, filled with gardens and orchards, with no evil and populated by “a strong and tall people; a people of integrity and rectitude; ruled by the wisest King of all.” I truly believed, well into my teenage years, that Israelis were inhumanly virtuous and that Golda Meir and Menachem Begin were divinely inspired.
I remember literally covering my ears when somebody, at the Youth Movement, came to talk to us about “the problems of Israel”: occupation, social gaps, religious and secular, economic injustice. But later on I discovered that the real Israel, in all its complexity and imperfection, was a much more interesting place, much more awe-inspiring. I realized that loving a country is like loving a person: you come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.
In love, we need to be needed. In a perfect utopia, what role is there for me? What’s there to do when there’s nothing to improve, nothing to create? How can I be transformed if there’s nothing for me to transform? Love is about transformation, about leaving your mark, about letting yourself be changed as you, in turn, change the object of your love. As the first pioneers said, “We came here to build and to be built.”
Israel makes us, for the first time in 2,000 years, into the owners of our own history. Before 1948, history was something that happened to us. We were not just influenced by others but we were completely at their mercy. In many ways it was horrible, but it also gave us the bliss of powerlessness, the impunity and irresponsibility of the victim. It was easy for us to create values of humanism, freedom, and justice, because those values were never tested in our reality; we didn’t have a sovereign country in which to put those values into practice. So for us, Israel is not just a country. In Israel we have power to deploy the values we created when we were powerless. Israel is a test for the Jewish People: will our values resist being stress-tested by reality? The answer is still not yet written. That is why what happens in Israel affects us all and reflects us all – not just our physical security, but our consciousness as a people. Israel is our collective challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to all of us. Like in the movies, there’s only one possible response: challenge accepted! Because we are the recipient of undeserved blessings, of wonders we didn’t earn, of miracles we didn’t produce.
In all its messiness, Israel is much more and much less than the dreams of our ancestors. Its imperfection is full of promise; it’s the land of “almosts” but also the land of “maybes”; it’s the place where everything is still possible, where the book won’t be closed until we write our own chapter.
As funders, we have double the responsibility and double the privilege. We inhabit today the dreams of others, and we can transform illusions into realities, yearnings into certainties for the next generations to build upon our dreams and our hopes.
Today is the day to celebrate, to feel that we are living inside a prophecy that materialized. Today is the day to feel boundless gratitude, to drink avidly the words of the drunken poet: our hope came true; we are a free people in our land, with all the joy and responsibility that this entails.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.