After 42 years in Israel, celebrating Independence Day still moves me.
I continue to become emotional about the fact that there is a Jewish state after nearly 2,000 years of homelessness. I still experience the creation of Israel as a miracle, for which it is incumbent upon us to give thanks.
The very wonder I feel, however, also causes me concern – concern for the future of the state, concern that we must continue the path we began and not lose sight of the vision of a state founded upon the principles of justice, human rights and enlightenment, principles that guided our founding fathers, principles that are anchored in the best of our Jewish heritage. I am very aware of the fact that we cannot count on miracles but are ourselves responsible for the continued existence of Israel and for its nature. And for that reason I am concerned.
Independence Day causes me to look back with nostalgia at the past. I remember the time before the creation of the state when as a youngster I defended our right as Jews to a land and a state of our own by writing letters in opposition to anti-Semites that appeared in the local press.
I remember the many years when as a rabbi I preached about Israel in glowing terms and felt no qualms about defending the actions of Israel against an Arab world that stubbornly refused Israel’s offers of peace. During and immediately after the Six Day War it was with pride that I viewed an Israel that defended itself against aggression and that then extended a hand in peace to its enemies only to be met with a resounding triple rebuff. It was with joy that I came with a group of congregants to experience the Western Wall and the newly united Jerusalem for the first time.
I also recall the thrill of witnessing Egyptian president Anwar Sadat coming to Jerusalem and the subsequent peace treaty with Egypt, which held promise for an even further reconciliation with the greater Arab world. Then there was the hope for peace with the PLO and the treaty with Jordan. During all those years Israel stood out as a beacon of light in its quest for peace. Jews throughout the world could point with pride to Israel’s democracy, to its record on human rights. True, for Conservative and Reform Jews in the US and elsewhere there was always the problem of the Orthodox monopoly in Israel, a stain on religious liberty, but that was something that we would manage to overcome. As a matter of fact, I had dedicated my aliya to working toward that end.
TODAY WE are faced with a different reality, and it is a reality that causes me great concern. I am concerned for the continuation of American support for Israel. For the first time bipartisan support for Israel is in danger because of the way in which the Israeli government has intruded itself into internal American politics and identified itself with one party alone. This is a serious mistake that can have terrible consequences if not quickly corrected. It also casts its shadow on the question of the relationship of American Jews to Israel.
I am also concerned that Israel is losing its image in the world as a country that is committed to peace with the Palestinians and with the Arab world.
For the first time there was an offer of peace from the Arab League to which Israel failed to respond. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the leader of Israel has made it clear that he opposes any moves toward the creation of a Palestinian state, something to which both Europe and the US are committed.
It is unfortunate that the prime minister ignored the biblical injunction from Proverbs 18:21 that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” to say nothing of the rabbinic warning, “Sages – be careful with your words” (Pirkei Avot 1). He has since tried to repair the damage unsuccessfully by stating that he is in favor of two states – only not now – and adding that he is not in favor of a one-state solution.
That is understandable since a onestate solution would require giving all the inhabitants of that state the vote, which would mean the end of the Jewish state.
But what is required is a clear statement of what Israel is willing to do now to bring an end to the current situation in which we rule over the Palestinian population – now and not some time in the future. Just to continue the status quo with no vision is not going to do it.
Denying the possibility of negotiations for a Palestinian state, in effect, gives the Palestinians the international green light to pursue unilateral movements.
As far as the groups seeking boycotts against Israel are concerned, they have been given more ammunition to say that this is the only way to end the occupation.
WHATEVER THE reason, all of this places Israel – for the first time – in the position of being seen as the party that is refusing to make peace. US Jews, especially the younger generation, are more than uncomfortable with that perception. How do those who love Israel and are concerned with its welfare defend Israel under these conditions? What does one say and do if one opposes the stand of the Israeli government – as surely many US Jews do – on these issues? How does one persuade young people to be pro-Israel when Israel presents a picture that does not accord with their ideals? What is happening now in the relationship between Israel and the US and in the relationship between Israel and American (and world) Jewry was summed up nicely by Bette Davis’s famous line in All About Eve – “Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.” It is a night that we can ill afford.
Under current conditions, can we achieve a peace accord with the Palestinians while assuring our safety and security? Can a government constituted, as it seems this one will be, of parties that reject a two-state solution, some of whom want immediate annexation and others who desire to rid Israel of its Arab population, truly portray itself as pro-peace? Perhaps not, but that does not relieve us of the necessity to explore all possibilities.
There was a time when it was clear that Israel wanted peace and the Arabs did not. Now the impression is the opposite, and that is a disaster for Israeli public relations.
For us to be seen as unwilling to bring an end to the situation in which we rule over millions of Palestinians makes us villains in the eyes of the world.
Nor is it a situation with which we are – or should be – comfortable.
Russia and China are occupiers of territory and rulers over unwilling populations, but they can get away with it because they are basically dictatorships and not democracies. We glory in being a democracy, and a democracy cannot be seen as denying full civil rights to all who live under its rule, to say nothing of what it does to the moral character of our state and our people. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
My feelings of pride concerning the creation and existence of Israel, feelings that came to the fore again on this Independence Day, have not changed, but my concerns have increased. Perhaps only those of us old enough to remember when there was no Jewish state can truly understand its importance and appreciate its meaning, but for that very reason we are also concerned to make certain that this magnificent opportunity to create a truly Jewish state not be squandered. ■ The writer, a Jerusalem author and lecturer, is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Seminary of Jewish Studies (now the Schechter Institute). Twice awarded the Jewish Book Council prize for the year’s best book of scholarship, his forthcoming volume is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, published by the Jewish Publication Society.