Today is Yom haAtzma’ut, the day on which, seventy years ago, Israel became a sovereign state for the first time in 1,878 years. Rabbis have debated exactly how we should relate to this event in our own time– is it a modern miracle? Is it simply the result of luck and/or politics, or can we discern divine intervention in this remarkable event? It’s hard to know. Partially, it’s hard to know because, although 70 is a very worthy birthday to celebrate, it is truly still the very beginning of Israel’s renewed national consciousness. For the sake of comparison, 70 years into America’s history it still had nationally sanctioned and funded slavery of African men women and children, politically engineered genocide of Native Americans, and on its 70th birthday, began an absurd war of aggression with Mexico.
For many of us, we likely struggle with how to relate to the State of Israel. Obviously it is the fulfillment of so many of our peoples’ hopes and dreams across millennia. Yet, it is also a real country made of up flawed people, subject to the same political intrigues and social debates as any other country. In some way, because Israel does have such spiritual significance for us, we tend to hold it to a higher standard, and we should. Yet, on today, we should think about the lessons we’ve learned over the last 70 years and commit ourselves to building a sustainable, secure, and peaceful future for Israel for the next 70 years and beyond.
To do so, I want to offer the advice of Pirkei Avot. We read Chapter 2 this week and there you’ll find the following:
“Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place.”
I think each of these three bits of advice can help us relate to the Israel of today.
Do not separate yourself from the community. No matter what issues we have with the policies and politics of Israel, we have to stay engaged with this nation which contains half our people and a great deal of its intellectual and spiritual creativity. We cannot simply check out of the ‘Israel conversation.’ We may have diverse views on the thorny issues involved in governing the world’s only Jewish state, but we have to ensure that all of those views stay inside the conversation rather than absent themselves altogether.
Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death. Israel is new. The blessings and the problems that arise from it are new. None of us should be so foolish as to think that we have the right answers about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Secular-Religious tensions or any other issue. These are huge issues and this is the first time we’ve had to grapple with many of them (for some, the first time in two thousand years.) We all need to apply a bit of skepticism and a bit of wonder. Israel is an ongoing, living, breathing, dynamic project. As long as it lives, we should be open to all the many ways it could develop and not assume that we have all the answers.
Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place. Aside from being just good advice for life, this is particularly good advice for thinking about how we connect with Israel. For those of us who do not live (or have not), do not have friends or family in Israel or Palestine– we have a very different take from those that do. Each of us has experiences and viewpoints which aren’t to be judged. If we’re to grow and develop, and perhaps most important, model peace-building for others, we need to be able to recognise that sometimes we have different perspectives because we’re standing in different places.
As we celebrate 70 years of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves of Hillel’s words: be careful, be skeptical, be non-judgmental. We must continue to have the Israel conversation, and we must do so with a healthy regard for other people and other views, recognising that this young nation is just beginning its life in the contemporary world. Happy Birthday, Israel!