YOUTH ATTEND a Birthright-Israel event in Jerusalem..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
On the occasion of Independence Day 2017, the government of Israel has made an unprecedented decision, declaring that for the first time in the country’s history the official torch lighting ceremony will include torch lighters who represent the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The 12 Israeli torch bearers this year will be joined by Michael Steinhardt, co-founder and chairman of Birthright- Israel and benefactor of the Israel Museum and Tel Aviv University, alongside Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
This decision reflects the maturity that Israel has reached, its understanding of the changing reality in the life of the Jewish People nowadays, as well as acknowledgment of the country’s role as the state of the Jewish People the world over.
From the outset, the Hebrew Yishuv understood that the connection with its brothers and sisters in the Diaspora was essential to its existence, and relied on them to gather the resources needed to fulfill the Zionist vision.
Much like the nascent Zionist movement, the State of Israel leaned on the established Jewish communities of North America, among others, who provided the political support and critical financial backing that ultimately enabled the absorption of millions of immigrants, as well as the establishment of the financial, social and defense infrastructures.
As years passed, the presence of the world Jewry evolved to become an inseparable part of the Israeli existence itself. They came to be an important element in the formation of the multifaceted relationship between the State of Israel and the vibrant Jewish communities of the Diaspora.
As with any relationship, this relationship is obviously not without its challenges, but it is evident on virtually every level – politics, social discourse, economy, diplomacy, municipality, security and education, to name a few.
The government’s decision symbolizes a fundamental recognition of two aspects related to our relations with Diaspora Jewry. First, it further recognizes the status of the State of Israel as the homeland of the entire Jewish People, not only of its own residents. Second, it affirms the place of Diaspora Jewry not only as a community of value in terms of financial or political support, but as a significant partner in shaping the life and future of the Jewish nation – and therefore a legitimate partner in this moving and central ceremony.
Hence, it came as no surprise that Steinhardt was chosen to light a torch on the eve of this Independence Day. Steinhardt is one of the founders of Birthright-Israel, the leading Jewish educational initiative of our generation, which not only strengthens the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry in general, but also contributes to creating a meaningful, enjoyable and experiential dialogue between Diaspora youth and young Israelis. These connections build quality relationships that profoundly contribute to the resilience of the Jewish People and the State of Israel. In the 17 years of its existence, 600,000 young Jews from around the world took part in Birthright-Israel’s educational tour, and the symbolism of this figure – identical to the number of settlers in the Hebrew Yishuv on the eve of the Declaration of Independence in May 1948 – powerfully illuminates the nomination of Steinhardt to light a torch on the occasion marking 69 years of Israel’s independence.
The success of Steinhardt and his partners’ vision for Birthright-Israel is based on the concept of the unity of the Jewish people, but not necessarily its uniformity. It is a perception that acknowledges the need to recognize and cherish each other as a necessary condition for any meaningful dialogue that binds all those concerned. It is an approach that sees every Jew as an individual, who not only has the right to get to experience contemporary Israel, but also has a genuine voice on various issues related to our present and future as the eternal state of the Jewish people.
The author is the international CEO of Birthright- Israel.