This was column in the bulletin of Temple Beth Abraham for April 2018.
This spring, the State of Israel marks its 70th anniversary. By the Hebrew calendar, it falls on April 18-19, and by the secular calendar, on May 14. We are looking forward to celebrating together on Sunday, May 13 at the synagogue. We have a remarkable program with architect Stephen Schwartz and 70,000 Lego ™ pieces, who will guide us to build a model of Jerusalem! There will be music with our New Hampshire sh’licha Noam Wolf, food and all kinds of fun.
And in the meantime, we welcome the Deputy Consul-General of Israel in New England, Matan Zamir, to join us for a lunchtime talk on Saturday, April 27.
We each have so much to celebrate this year, whether you are an Israeli, an American Jew with family in Israel, or simply a Jew. Israel’s reality has always been on two levels, which go back to the emergence of modern Zionism in the mid- to late-1800s.
First is simply the saving and protecting of Jewish lives. The Zionism of Pinsker and Herzl began as a response to anti-Semitism in Europe. It was an era of weakening or crumbling empires and autocracies, when nations were claiming their identities, and often Jews were left on the outside or actively targeted.
Starting literally the day after its independence in 1948, Israel began taking in Jewish refugees from Europe and the Middle East. One of the incredible Israeli stories is the integration of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the first decade of the state. Imagine a country doubling its size in a short time – building homes and infrastructure, trying to create a national culture, all under conditions of war and the shadow of the Shoah. Not everything was done perfectly, to say the least. But lives were saved in massive numbers.
In more recent times, the suddenly freed Jews of the former Soviet Union and the Jews of Ethiopia found safety in Israel. And now, the Zionism of Jewish survival continues as Israel defends itself, against terror groups and the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons.
Israel has also from the start been about even more than protection and survival. We celebrate the Zionism of Jewish excellence. Even in the 1800s, when the imperative of saving lives was front and center, Zionists dreamed of creating an ideal society and a new Jewish personality.
A. D. Gordon’s celebration of working the soil. The socialist vision of Syrkin and Borochov. The religious idealism of Rav Kook. The cultural renewal called for by Ahad Ha-am. Each generation has taken pushed these visions of Jewish cultural and spiritual and ethical excellence further and further.
As a result, Israel is a society of social and cultural creativity – and also a society of intense self-criticism. That too is part of the Zionism of moral excellence.
The Israel of Jewish excellence is the Arava Institute, leading the way in both environmental sustainability and Jewish-Arab coexistence. It’s the Shalom Hartman Institute, developing a modern Torah applying Jewish values to dilemmas of sovereignty and war.
It’s the Yerushalmit Movement, which started as a response to hate murders in and around Jerusalem, as people gathered weekly in Kikar Tziyon in the center of Jerusalem to talk across difference – religious and secular, Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab, gay and straight.
Israel at 70 years old is not finished on either level. The matter of Jewish and Israeli survival, and the challenges of Zionist excellence, continue and they are not easy. Certainly the conflict between official state Orthodox Judaism and others is not resolved. Nor is seventy years of war, including more than fifty years of ruling Palestinians in the West Bank.
But celebrations are for celebrating!
This anniversary is an Israeli celebration and a Jewish celebration. A lot of times, we think about the overlap between our connection to Israel and supporting the Israel-America alliance as good for both countries. That’s part of my own advocacy work with AIPAC. But one thing that this anniversary is not: an American holiday.
I support the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the U.S. government and the long-overdue establishment of an embassy there. But to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and to the Jewish community here, I would say: This anniversary period has nothing to do with the United States, and it should not be shared or rented out for that purpose.
I hope the Israeli government will have the self-respect to say to President Trump: Dedicate the embassy in June or later. Israel’s anniversary is not an American celebration, though we welcome you to celebrate alongside us. This spiritual, existential, and peoplehood moment is ours, not yours.
I hope to see everyone together on May 13, as we build a physical Jerusalem and contemplate the ideal Jerusalem. Happy 70th anniversary to the State of Israel!