Reflecting on Israel
“Next Year in Jerusalem!” This line reminds all Jews that Jerusalem is the place our collective Jewish heart yearns for.
Man waves Israeli flag in Jerusalem Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Springtime in Israel brings us Passover, reminding us that once we were slaves
in Egypt, and that after overcoming many challenges and wandering in the desert,
we learned how to be a free people. Almost immediately afterward, Holocaust
Remembrance Day reminds us of our history, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers
reminds us of the struggles we have overcome and Independence Day reminds us
that we are a free people in our land. This month of commemoration and
celebration is a time every year for the people of Israel to reflect about how
far we have come and where we should be going.
“Next Year in Jerusalem!”
This line from the end of the Passover Haggada reminds all Jews around the world
that Jerusalem is the place our collective Jewish heart yearns for.
1948, the dream of a Jewish homeland in this special place was realized and in
the midst of war the building of a state had only just begun. One of our
greatest challenges is also one of our greatest accomplishments. We have created
a Jewish and democratic state. A strictly democratic state with no religious
character is not much of a Jewish homeland and rejects the call to the land of
Israel, but a state with only a Jewish character is a theocracy. Thus a tension
exists – and must exist – in order for these opposing forces to balance one
Spending a week in Israel will give any visitor the impression of
what it is to live within the rhythm of a Jewish life.
Six days a week
there is activity, commerce, the daily hustle and bustle of life.
the seventh day, Shabbat, there is a national quietness that separates this day
from the rest of the week. The holiday periods are in spring and fall as opposed
to, for instance, the US, where the holiday period is between Thanksgiving and
the New Year. Individuals connect to Judaism in a variety of ways – religiously,
culturally, linguistically and even culinarily – making it nearly impossible to
define exactly how the Jewish character of the state should be
However, Israel is still a country of its citizens. Not all the
citizens of Israel are religiously observant and some are not Jewish. Citizens
have a right to vote and are represented in the government. It is a democracy,
an imperfect one, but a democracy nonetheless.
In a state that has been in
existence merely 64 years and has been in conflict with its neighbors for a
majority of that time, the standard to which Israel is held is not one of mere
democracy, but rather a saintly, benevolent form of democracy. The standard
required of Israel by Israel’s critics is that we must allow foreign nationals
to come into our country to protest Israeli policies; that anyone who has an
opinion must be allowed free and full access to the media regardless of motive
or accuracy; that any defensive measure should be considered a violation of
human rights; and most of all, that Israel must accept any and all criticism
without recourse or explanation. Moreover, any suggestion of hypocrisy against
the accuser simply invites more vitriol.
DEMOCRACY DOES not mean that
every single person in the country has unlimited freedom to do whatever he
wishes. Democracy means that the people elect representatives to the government
to serve for the good of the people.
In this we have an unwritten social
contract that says all of us need to give up some of our freedom in order to
live in an orderly, fair society. The social contract in Israel includes both
Jewish and democratic values. Again, the tension exists to balance one against
Thus, shops are closed on Shabbat, but restaurants are not
required by law to be kosher. Egged, the national bus line, does not run on
Shabbat, but a system of service taxis makes travel possible. Grocery stores
will arrange their shelves in accordance with Passover restrictions against
leavened foods, but will follow the less restrictive Sephardi
The rabbinate is a problematic organization for many citizens
of Israel, but Israel will recognize civil marriages that took place abroad. The
Law of Return recognizes anyone with at least one grandparent as a Jew rather
than on the requirement by Jewish law of strictly matrilineal descent.
Zionist dream is to build a national homeland and the work is not yet complete.
The State of Israel exists. It exists with the special tension of holding onto a
Jewish character and upholding the values of democracy. But it is far from
Just as Israel stood together during the siren to commemorate the
six million who did not live to see Israel arise, we should remember that in
their memory, we established a state. As we stand during the two sirens to
commemorate the soldiers who fought to protect the Land of Israel, we should
remember that in their honor we are striving to improve our state. And when we
finally arrive to Independence Day, we should be inspired by the fireworks to
look to the possibilities of the future. The state has arisen, but the Zionist
dream is not yet fulfilled.
The writer lives and works in Jerusalem and
volunteers for Im Tirtzu.