Yom Ha’Atzmaut – Dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled
By Rabbi Steven Garten
Happy Birthday, Israel. It’s your 72nd birthday this week. As with most 70-year-olds, you’re celebrating what you have achieved and what you wish to yet achieve.
In honour of your birthday, let’s reflect on your achievements and blow out the candles with some birthday wishes.
Like the birth of a child, your birth was accompanied by exuberant joy. Jews around the world had watched with horror as the nations of the world permitted the destruction of two-thirds of the Jews of Europe, and then watched with surprise and shock as the same nations voted to recreate a Jewish state after a 2,000-year hiatus.
Your birth gave hope to oppressed Jews throughout the world. Jews in Arab lands persecuted and marginalized by events beyond their control were rescued by your birth. Jews traumatized by the horrors of Stalinism in the Soviet Union risked their lives to celebrate the miracle of your birth. From the prison cells of the Gulag and Moscow, your birth gave new meaning to the word “Jew” on a Soviet passport. When your ambassador attended a Simchat Torah celebration in Moscow, thousands of hidden Jews risked arrest and torture to bear witness to the rebirth of the Jewish homeland.
The Jews of Ethiopia, France, Argentina, Sweden, Poland and many in the Baltic not only owe their lives to your birth, but their Jewish souls as well. Where else could Jews of nearly 50 countries bicker with each other in a language which had not been spoken on the street since the third century? Every Jew who was afraid to wear a kippah or Magen David in public, but now does so, owes you a hearty “Happy Birthday.” Your strength in the face of unimaginable adversity gives power to the powerless.
These past 72 years your presence in the United Nations, your ambassadors to the world’s countries, your army, your sports heroes, your cuisine, your unparalleled technological successes, have sent shivers down the spines of Jews throughout the world. The list of your scientific accomplishments are too many for a birthday card. The output of your authors outstrips countries four times your size. Few 70-year-old countries boast Nobel Prize winners in literature, science and peace.
In fact, that trifecta is matched by few countries.
So Happy Birthday, Israel!
Perhaps, though, before your celebration is complete, there might be a moment to reflect on some of your dreams that are not yet fulfilled.
You are still struggling with the stated goal of melding a national liberation movement built to safeguard and represent one ethno-religious group with the principles of liberal democracy, in which everyone is equal under the law. That tension is most brutally obvious in the West Bank. But it also exists inside Israel proper. A state whose Declaration of Independence proclaims its commitment to equal rights for all citizens must become far more inclusive of its Arab/Palestinian citizens. We Canadians have been struggling for more than 150 years to actualize the promise of economic equality to our Indigenous citizens. We have finally recognized that history is not an excuse for inaction. My dear birthday country, Israel, you too, must face up to your obligations.
It is challenging to run a democracy when people are more loyal to their particular groupings then to the state that supports them and, supposedly, supersedes them. You lovingly support Orthodoxy for its value to Jewish religious continuity, but you do so to the exclusion of all other expressions of Jewish religious life. A Jewish state means all definitions of being Jewish.
In the past 72 years, you have asked your young people to protect you from rockets and terrorism amid continuous threats to their physical well-being. But, as with every birthday, it’s necessary to look back and ask what was sacrificed in the name of physical/economic success. It’s not just religious pluralism that has been ignored in the name of politics. It’s not just democracy and equality which have been trounced in the name of security. It’s not just economic equity that has been sacrificed in the name of the “Start-Up Nation.” It is the clarion call of our tradition to “remember that we were once slaves,” and therefore your gates must be open to refugees fleeing oppression and persecution.
So Happy Birthday, Israel. May you live to be at least 120. May your successes continue. May the next time we celebrate our hearts be overflowing with uninhibited nachas at your ability to overcome adversity and challenges and be the best Israel you can be.