I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel. How could I not? Yesterday was Yom Ha-atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. It’s a time to acknowledge Jewish pride, strength and resolve. It’s a time to praise the men and women, many not much older than 25 years old, who went to Eretz Yisrael in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They faced a herculean, Sisyphean task: to transform a land wracked by drought, swamps, and poverty – not to mention marauders and malaria – into a homeland.
Many of these pioneers had parents who disowned them because they went to Eretz Yisrael to create a true autonomous Jewish entity, rather than waiting for a divine decree from God. For the pious Jewish families of Eastern Europe, from which so many of the early Zionist pioneers came, it was an article of faith to pray to the Holy One to reestablish the land of Israel. They did not envision Israel as a political entity with a president and a DMV and a bus company and police, but rather as the Messianic fulfillment of God’s promise to gather all the Jews together at the end of time and to create a place of perfection and truth and God.
Look what they did. David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee recently wrote, “Step back from the twists and turns of the daily information overload and consider the sweep of the last seven decades. Look at the light-years traveled since the darkness of the Holocaust, and marvel at the miracle of a decimated people returning to a tiny sliver of land — the land of our ancestors — and successfully building a modern, vibrant state against all the odds.
In the final analysis, the story of Israel is the wondrous realization of a 3,500-year link among a land, a faith, a language, a people, and a vision. It is an unparalleled story of tenacity and determination, courage and renewal. And it is ultimately a metaphor for the triumph of enduring hope over the temptation of despair.”
Yes! But… it turned out that Eretz Yisrael was not just the land of our ancestors. It was also the land of the Palestinian people. And while we did build a modern, vibrant state, it was after banishing Palestinians from their rightful ancestral homes and creating a series of facts on the ground that turned Palestinians into second-class citizens – in their own land. And yes! It is “a story of tenacity and determination, courage and renewal,” it is also a story of mendacity and betrayal, of theft and violence.
When my generation of babyboomers studied American history, no one suggested the savagery of the colonizers. The European explorers like Columbus and Cortez and Magellan were all exciting guys doing brave things. But over these last 25 years, as revisionist history has exposed some of the sordid pieces of the American myth, we have had to honestly reassess what we did to arrive at this great nation. How were Native Americans treated? How deep are the scars of slavery? How does racism continue to disease the soul of America? What went into the decision to intern Japanese Americans during WWII?
To ask these questions and many more, to explore their depth, does not make one a bad American. Rather it makes one a loyal American, willing to expose the whole truth and nothing but the truth to arrive at the true heart and soul of America. Criticism and honesty are key to a free, open society.
One doesn’t need to accept all historical judgments; there are lots of interpretations on the what and why of history. But to turn away from acknowledging tragic flaws or racist ideology is willful ignorance, which is good for no one.
With all my heart, I believe this teaching holds true for Israel, too. How can we not speak out when we see injustice in Israel? How can we remain as bystanders? What kind of example do we share with our children and grandchildren if we do not stand with the millions of Israelis who are appalled by the steady assault on democracy in Israel? As Millennials back away from Israel, regardless of their Birthright experience, how do we move them back inside when they see the tragedy of Gaza? How can we maintain the Occupation? How will we initiate a true dialogue to enable a two-state solution to come to fruition? When will the settlement movement, at last, be stopped?
Some of you may find this harsh language for a birthday card…. But it is only written out of my love for Israel and my enormous concern about the road they are traveling. Of course, I am not saying I agree with any and all protests against Israeli policies. I am very opposed to Jewish Voices for Peace and any other group that uses BDS as a tool to hurt Israel. I am and have been gravely concerned about the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist trope found in lots of the rhetoric on the Left. They are neither friends nor allies.
I am aware of how difficult it is to connect with Palestinian leaders who are able and willing to enter into a true dialogue with Israelis about a two-state solution. But we are the strong ones. Israel has the upper hand – and arm and leg, too. We are the ones who must make the opening moves. We are the ones who must make the connections and the risks, all from a place of strength and security – and humanity and Jewish ethics.
My prayer on this 70th year of Israel is that we work together, Jews of America and Jews of Israel, to exalt all that is extraordinary and sacred about the state of Israel. But not just the easy work of pointing out the good and the holy. We must also work to lift the state of Israel to a place of peace and comity. Israel can be a true light to the nations.
As it says in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
To this, I say, Amen. Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will. And ours.
Happy birthday Israel.