Today Israel is marking 70 years of independence as a state and those who love and support the Jewish state around the world are elated. As Yom Ha’atsmaut is celebrated, we can rightly say that what Israel has accomplished in the relatively short span of 70 years is nothing less than remarkable. It has grown from a fledgling entity whose survival was far from sure to a world class start-up nation that has made astounding advances in science and technology. More than that, Israel has fulfilled the promise to gather in our exiled and oppressed people and provide safety and security to the Jewish people. The modern State of Israel has become a source of pride for the Jewish people everywhere. Indeed, if asked to choose a single word to describe Israel, one is likely to hear the word “pride.”
Yet another word used to describe Israel might be “paradox.” How so? By logic and reason, Israel should not exist today. In the early years of statehood, the Jewish state faced the nearly impossible task of welcoming millions of immigrants who needed housing and jobs. That task was successfully undertaken while facing the constant threat of military pressure and terrorism from hostile neighbors who sought her destruction. Despite the odds against survival, Israel found ways to thrive and prosper.
Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel, wrote in the Forward that Israel is a paradox. He writes, “Israel projects a muscular self-confidence [having] faced threats from Arab armies that are no more. [It boasts] a motivated citizenry, high-quality leadership and cutting-edge technology, and ever strengthening alliances with the United States, and Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, there remains a deep sense of vulnerability. Some of that is left over from earlier traumas, and some relates to current threats and the reality of most families sending their children to military service. A new, potential existential threat could emerge some years down the road if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. Waves of terrorist bombings, stabbings, rocket and missile attacks, and tunnel attacks have touched many families.”
This week, I attended a Rabbinic lunch sponsored by AIPAC featuring Yossi Klein Halevi, author and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also described Israel as a paradox. On the one hand, Israel is the spiritual homeland of world Jewry, yet it is also the nation-state of all people who live there, Jewish and Arab. Israel continues to search for ways to resolve that paradox in ways that are just and democratic.
Israel is also a paradox in that it is a secular state in the Holy Land. The struggle between its identity as a theocratic state governed by religious law and Jewish values on the one hand, and a democratic state governed by secular laws on the other hand, is not entirely resolved. Shulamit Aloni, the founder of the left leaning Meretz party, once quipped that it was inconceivable for the Jewish state to subsidize the opera but not mikva’ot (ritual baths). The empowerment of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel to control marriage, divorce and conversion is seen as a stranglehold on Israeli society by many.
Yossi Klein Halevi noted that Israel’s paradoxical nature is quite understandable. After wandering as exiles for 2,000 years, Jews brought back the diverse and colorful lessons learned over that span of time spent in countless countries and cultures around the world. We brought back to Israel the challenge of arguing with one another about what it means to be authentically and meaningfully Jewish and about what role Israel should play in Jewish life and in the experience of the Jewish people. Living in a society of paradoxes, he said, requires the persistent accommodation of contradictions.
A paradox doesn’t imply a state of confusion or disarray. Rather, it is a “seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that, when investigated or explained, may prove to be well founded or true.” That is Israel. It may seem that Israel is consumed with self-contradictory realities. Working through the paradoxes and apparent contradictions takes time, patience and understanding. Despite the conflicts, Israel remains a magnificent place whose essence is truth.
Happy Anniversary to Eretz Yisrael, a beautiful place that has achieved so much in such a short span of time, a place that has uplifted and glorified the Jewish people. Israel may be a paradox…but it’s a paradox that I love.