Sunday, June 28, 2009

Israel at 60

And so the day has come: the sixtieth anniversary of the proclamation of independence of the State of Israel, the first Jewish state in the homeland of the Jewish people in more than two thousand years. In our tradition, sixty is a bit of a lackluster number: Isaac was sixty when the twins were born, sixty rams and sixty goats were sacrificed when the Tabernacle was dedicated, Solomon's Temple was sixty cubits long, and sixty warriors stood on guard around that same king's bed as he slept, one (possibly) for each of the sixty queens mentioned elsewhere in the Song of Songs. (Elsewhere, Scripture notes that King Solomon had seven hundred wives, not sixty. Maybe only sixty had the title of queen!) But I digress...and today I don't find the number sixty unimportant or at all lackluster: it is a huge accomplishment for Israel to have reached this milestone, one of which we should all feel enormously proud and which should fill all of our hearts with pride and with hope in the future.

Perhaps conditioned by all those years of reading and listening to the vote of November 29, 1947, on United Nations Proposition 181 calling for the partition of Palestine, I found myself keeping a similar tally while listening to the news and reading the papers in the last few days. There has, after all, been plenty to keep track of just in these last few days. (By the way, if you haven't read it lately, reading the text of Proposition 181, which you can find at, is extremely interesting. Of course, had the Arabs accepted it and not gone to war, today would also be the sixtieth anniversary of Palestinian independence. And what a different world this would be had that happened!)

My tally has yielded some unexpected results. I read with pleasure, but also with just a bit of surprise, the comments of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who referred to the founding of the state (on the ashes of his own country's incompetent governance of the mandate) as one of the "great achievements of the twentieth century." In the same vein, and with the same slight surprise, I read the text of Queen Elizabeth's letter to Shimon Peres, in which she wrote that she wishes to extend her best wishes "for the happiness and prosperity of the Government and people of Israel in the coming year."

Slightly more surprisingly, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was equally effusive in his praise, nothing that Israel and the EU "are closer now than ever before." And even more surprising than that were the comments of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wrote that France would continue to stand with Israel and to work towards a just peace in the Middle East. Other European leaders, including the presidents of Austria, Italy and Ireland, also sent very friendly congratulatory letters to President Peres, all of which were published in the Israeli press in the last few days. So maybe we're not quite as alone as we thought.

Of course, the most painful comments came from within. Siamak Morsadegh, the incoming Jewish member of the Iranian parliament, issued a statement saying that the Jews of Iran have no relationship with Israel and that, needless to say, they would not be celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut this or any year. I can hardly believe that's true, even regarding Mr. Morsadegh himself, but that didn't make his remarks any less painful to read. Of course, he has an excuse! But what would be the excuse of the one hundred self-proclaimed British Jewish intellectuals, including such luminaries as playwright Harold Pinter, who took an ad in the Guardian newspaper last week headed "We're Not Celebrating Israel's Anniversary" and going on to accuse Israel of all the most heinous sins against humanity, including ethnic cleansing directed against Palestinians? We've gotten semi-used to seeing the Neturei Karta fanatics decked out in their black overcoats protesting at the Salute to Israel parade, but surely we could have expected better from university-educated intellectuals who, presumably, ought to know better. What can motivate Jewish people to behave so reprehensibly, I can't even begin to imagine. But there is it for us all to read. (The ad made no reference to any responsibility for the situation that might conceivably rest with the Palestinians, nor was there any reference to terrorism or to the Kassam rockets that continue to rain down on Sderot.)

In the end, and as always, we stand alone. The nations of the world either do or don't pay lip service to the just nature of our cause. There are, as there have always been, Jews who are so personally conflicted about their Jewishness that they cannot take any pride in Jewish accomplishments, nor, needless to say, can they identify with Israel. But there's good news too, and it is very good news indeed. As do all nations, we too have our fringe elements…but, by and large, the Jewish people in all the lands of our dispersion stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jews of Israel. We have contributed financially and in many other ways to the establishment of the state, and to the maintenance of its mighty army, and to the attainment of its countless intellectual, scientific, and cultural accomplishments...and we take pride, all of us, in these accomplishments almost as though they were the work of our own hands. Many of us have travelled many, many times to Israel. Some of us own property or homes there. All of us feel wholly invested with the deep sense of pride that any unbiased observer must feel when considering what Israel has managed to do in only sixty short years of existence. As I wrote a few weeks ago in our bulletin, even imagining Jewish life without the State of Israel is almost impossible. And that, I believe, is just as it should be.

And so, finally, today has come. Forget about the Guardian and forget about the Iranians (for the moment, at least), forget about the Neturei Karta and about the Harold Pinters of this world...and join me in feeling wholly suffused with the deepest and most heartfelt gratitude to God for the reality of Israel, and for being privileged to witness the establishment of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Just like the Psalmist wrote, it still feels like a bit of a dream, even after all these years. But it's not a dream. To paraphrase Herzl on this Yom Ha'atzmaut: we willed it, we the Jewish people possessed of a mighty, collective, national will, we willed it, and it became, not a fairytale or a vain desire or an impossible dream, but reality, something that exists in the real world, in the world of things willed into existence by people wholly possessed by the power of their own dreams.

Mazal tov to Israel and to us all. There are, as always, a million challenges facing us. There are enemies lurking around the corner, some of them very well funded. There are countless reasons to worry...but today, just for one day, I grant myself (and all of you) respite from all that. Together, we can set it all aside and just feel proud, pleased and very, very privileged to have lived to this moment in the history of the Jewish people and in the life of Israel. May God grant only peace, security and prosperity to our brethren of the whole house of Israel, and especially for the Jews of Israel, who daily grant reality to the dreams of an entire people, and who have made it possible for us to thrive here as well. (May 9, 2008)

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