When I left Montreal on aliyah, people told me, “Hartman, it’s going to be your Waterloo. You can’t expect to achieve in Israel what you achieved in Montreal. Israelis are a tough people.”
In some way I was able to be more active here than in any place in North America and achieve things that I never dreamed were possible.
Someday, I am going to write a book on my experiences as a new oleh. I always say that when I left Montreal thousands of people were crying, and when I came to Lod they robbed my luggage. So, I knew that something was changing.
It has taken me more than 30 years to understand what this country is about. And I love it. I have absolutely not a moment of regret for leaving Montreal or leaving North America, although I am proud of America, and I love American culture and American pluralism.
This has been for me a 35-year love affair with a country and with coming to understand the dynamics of my people. I thought I knew who the Jewish people were when I was a rabbi for 19 years and taught philosophy and created a Jewish Studies program at McGill University. But then I came here and I found, really, who are the Jews.
Our response to the Holocaust should have been to go to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village and say, “Oy,” and to “Oy” over coffee in the morning and at lunch, and to live with self-pity for the rest of our lives. However, we chose not to run away from the world, but rather to be visible to the world.
Israel is not a ghetto, separate from the world. It is the most visible decision of the Jewish people to be part of the world and to be vulnerable in this world.
What is there about the Jewish people that we don’t want to leave history? What is there about the Jewish people that we can live through destruction, despair and the deepest sense of the dehumanization of man, and proclaim our willingness to be dependent upon the world, to in some way act together with them and to build a culture of trust?
You have to live here to know the secret of this people. You can see it. I am always amazed at Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance for soldiers who were killed in Israel’s wars. You go to the cemetery. Families weep. Children look lost, and then a few hours later it’s Yom Ha’atzmaut, and suddenly everyone wishes each other chag sameach – happy holiday – and there is celebrating.
How do we go from such deep pain, such deep weeping to celebration? How are we able to not live in tragedy and to be able to celebrate life? This is what this country is about, and for this I am deeply grateful.
– Adapted from remarks made by Rabbi Prof. David Hartman upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Weizmann Institute of Rehovot, Israel, Nov. 17, 2008.