Usually a 70th birthday celebration is an occasion for unbridled joy. Although 70 is not what it used to be it is still a milestone achievement for an individual or a country. Yet, in keeping with our history of being a ‘stiff-necked’ people, Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Israel was just the opposite.
In previous years the national celebration on Mount Herzl was purposely apolitical with the major address offered by the Speaker of the Knesset. This year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded to deliver the address and only a last minute compromise, in which both Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Netanyahu spoke, saved the celebration from total chaos.
If that were not enough to dim the 70 candles, an “alternative celebration” was held. After much political wrangling the gathering was permitted. Noted Israeli author David Grossman, this year’s recipient of the Israel Prize, was the keynote speaker. His words were a powerful reminder of how some Israelis, and perhaps some living in the Diaspora, feel that the hope of 1948 has not yet been realized.
“We Israelis, even after 70 years, no matter how many words dripping with patriotic honey will be uttered in the next few days – are not yet there. We are not yet home. Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at home in the world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but is it a Jewish home?” said Grossman.
As part of the celebration Minister of Culture Miri Regev, whose office was responsible for all the official celebrations, invited the public to electronically sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence. A powerful idea which should have added greatly to the significance of the occasion. Instead it led to a public furor over whether the minister and her colleagues in the Knesset are truly committed to its principles, particularly to the paragraph which reads in part, “The State of Israel…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”
The document does not proclaim the state to be a theocracy or grant Jews preferential rights beyond the right of return. In fact, it states the very opposite, that Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants,” provide “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race, or sex” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Needless to say, a number of Israelis signed the document and a number of Israelis chose not to.
These examples of strife surrounding Yom Ha’Atzmaut are symptomatic of the debate in Israel that encompasses both the question of democracy and the question of Judaism. Israel is a thriving democracy if you live within the pre-1967 borders. As with all democracies there are ongoing struggles to define the parameters of the term. Even Justin Trudeau, now our own prime minister, suggested during the 2015 federal election campaign that our voting system was less than optimally democratic. These ongoing debates in Israel and elsewhere about the exact form and content of a democracy are at the heart of democratic systems. The more open, inclusive and transparent a country is, the greater the proof of the country’s commitment to the ideals of democracy.
Yet, only in the State of Israel does the debate about a Jewish state occur, and only in Israel does the debate take place in the halls of political power, the Knesset. These public debates have a significant impact on how Jews living outside the state emotionally connect to the land of our ancestors.
Recent events on U.S. college campuses indicate that fewer and fewer Jewish students stand up to defend Israel in the BDS debates. Why is that? Could it be that conversations about the Jewish nature of the state usually result in decisions that challenge how we understand Jewish life in North America? The determination of who is a Jew, the decision to allow yeshiva students lifetime exemptions from military service, the binding of woman to dysfunctional marriages, the exclusion of hundreds of thousand Jewish citizens from state sanctioned wedding ceremonies, the uncertainty of burial rights for those declared to be not Jewish. Could it be that the long public debate about the obligation to provide sanctuary for African refugees seems to fly in the face of the verses of the Haggadah that tell us to “let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Israel asks us to stand with her even when we might not agree with its political decisions. But how likely is that when her decisions about the Jewish character of the state, which should include us, do not?
Maybe David Grossman is correct. There is much to celebrate, but we have not yet fulfilled the dream of a Jewish home.