Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Israel at 64

As I listened to Prime Minister Netanyahu's Independence Day Greeting (in English) to Israel's supporters, I thought of the old Beatles song, "When I'm 64" (BTW, Paul McCartney, who turns 70 in June, looks lots younger in real life than he does in that cartoon video from "Yellow Submarine" - back then, anyone over 30 was considered ancient).  Netanyahu did not dwell on Holocaust imagery or the Iranian threat, a prime topic lately, as demonstrated most vividly when he spoke on Yom Hashoah, but rather he spoke of Israel's "unwavering support" from its tens of millions of friends worldwide.  Many, including Elie Wiesel, have rejected Netanyahu's comparisons of the Iranian threat to the Holocaust, precisely because Israel does have so many friends, something the Jewish people did not have during World War Two. But Bibi could well have ended his video with a lilting refrain directed toward the WHite House, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" Netanyahu has his doubts.  Shimon Peres, on the other hand, has great confidence that the US can take the lead on this matter and will act militarily if necessary. It seems at times that they are contradicting each other, except that they both reflect the two sides of how we feel.  We want to trust...but we fight off very potent demons and vivid memories of betrayal.

Israel does have lots of friends, including most American Jews and many more (in pure numbers) American Christians.  As this 64th birthday arrives, we're concerned that the gap between American Jews and Israel appears to be widening.  A major survey released last month indicates that only 20 percent of American Jews see support for  Israel as a core component of their Jewish identity.   On the other hand, Birthright Israel has now brought 300,000 young people to Israel, and on May 18 we'll be celebrating the program's 10thanniversary.  We invite all local Birthright alumni to join us that Shabbat. 

Many rabbis now are reluctant to speak about Israel because it has become a polarizing topic in their shuls. In a recent essay in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier bemoans the "lost artof being able to both criticize and defend Israel at the same time.  Open, honest expansive dialogue on Israel is of course at the heart of our approach here at TBE, which has led to our bringing in speakers with diverse views, from  Jeremy Ben Ami and Thomas Friedman to Bret Stephens and Michael Oren.  The lost art of loving Israel as she is yet also wanting her to be even better has never really been lost.  But too many resort to demonizing the other.  We can be helped by the current issue of the Hartman Instutute's journal Havruta, which is dedicated to the topic "Engaging Israel: The Limits of Criticism."  

Last night at Israel's Yom Ha'atzmaut celebration on Mt Herzl, where a soldier was killed last week during an accident as the program was being rehearsed, the message from Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin: Don't take Israel for granted.  That is a message we all should heed.  Israel is too precious for us not to care deeply about it - and we should care enough to defend it both from external enemies and internal injustices, and, as was possibly the case in the Mt Herzl accident, negligence.

I am happy to announce that there is a place where one can love Israel and be critical at the same time - and that place is Israel itself.  Read here the text of Rivlin's speech, spoken to an entire nation. It is a masterpiece of mature reflection. Rivlin's speech began with a mention of the external threats Israel faces but centered on what he said was an internal enemy which threatens Israel's future - an enemy which he identified as "the extremists" and zealotry on all sides of the political and social spectrum.

Some excerpts:

"The struggle against those who set mosques on fire is not between leftists and settlers," he said, "it is a struggle against zealots."

"The struggle against those who spit in the face of an eight-year-old girl is not a struggle between secular people and haredim, but a struggle against marginal extremists. The struggle against those who team up with our worst enemies, who fight against Israel's right to exist, is not a struggle between left and right or between Jews and Arabs, but a struggle against zealotry and zealots. The struggle against those who see women's singing in the IDF as 'an hour of destruction,' a decree over whose trespass death is preferable, is not a struggle between secular Zionism and religious Zionism. This is a struggle against zealotry."

Rivlin said that he does not fear the settlement enterprise. "I fear the zealots," he repeated. "I fear the extremism. I fear those who do not hesitate to break the rules in the name of the righteousness of their path; those who do not fear the destruction of the Third Commonwealth." 

Rivlin went on to mention the protests against the high cost of living that swept Israel last summer, saying that the past year had revealed an Israel "that cares more."

"We've seen a glimpse of a bright Israeli future," he said.

Rivlin also recalled the public debates over the exclusion of women from the public sphere that have taken place over the past year, and invited all sectors of Israeli society - Arabs, Jews, relgious, and secular - to work together for Israel's future.

Israelis bear the responsibility for the success and future of the country, he said.

Meanwhile, at 64 and with nearly eight million citizens, Israel continues to be a miracle unfolding.  Read about Israel's top 64 innovations, many of which we take for granted in our lives, and take the Israel Independence Day Quiz.  Now (as of this week, actually), thanks to Google Street View, you can walk the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv without breaking a sweat.  If only they had Google Taste so I could sample some real Israeli hummus.  Check outIsrael's Top Ten Swimsuits, which even include the latest in fashions for those who cover up. Perfectly pluralistic.  See the Yom Ha'atzmaut Guide from the Hartman Institute, exploring the meaning of Israel "Israel at 64: What I Am Celebrating This Year."  Hear the beautiful song, "Yoram," sung by Yehuda Poliker at memorial ceremonies today in Jerusalem in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers. And read Sixty-four things I love about Israel by comedian Benjy Lovitt, and only four of them have to do with hummus.  Through all of this, you'll gain a glimpse as to why Israelis are among the happiest people on earth.  Through it all, they - we - are family.

In whatever way you can, make this day a day for reflection on the meaning of Israel in our lives.  The meaning and the miracle.  David Horovitz writes today in the Times of Israel, "In 1966, Paul McCartney was very whimsically planning ahead for a period "many years from now." Our existence demands that we very seriously do the same." 

Israel, we do still need you, we'll still feed you (and are nourished by you) and we'll be sending you this valentine, today, when you're 64! 

Hag Ha'atzmaut Sameach

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