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 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Man waves Israeli flag in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: 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.
In May 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 another.
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.
And on 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 expressed.
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 the other.
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 tradition.
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.
The 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 perfect
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.