Israel: A Paradox I Love

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.

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Greetings and Thoughts from Israel

I’m in the city of Jerusalem this Pesach, staying in a neighborhood called Arnona with my entire family.  The holiday has been one of tremendous joy and delight, first and foremost because we’re all sharing it together.  Our Seder (yes, our one Seder!) was memorable in large part because four generations of our family sat around the table.  Amy and I have been especially thrilled to spend the week not only with our sons and daughter-in-law but also with our grandson Noam.

Passover is a special experience here in Israel, much different than New Jersey.  Everybody is celebrating the holiday in one way or another (the Passover Seder is observed by the largest number of Jews worldwide).  Schools are on vacation for the week.  Many businesses close or work half-days, with signs on shop windows wishing passersby “Chag Sameach.”  The Chareidim (ultra-Orthodox) walk around in their finest garb the entire week.  National parks and hiking destinations, leisure destinations and attractions, and stores that remain open are packed with people.  Kosher for Passover food is available in massively abundant quantities everywhere (it’s so good that one is tempted to wonder if it’s chametz free!).  Restaurants serving Passover food either post a “Teudat Kashrut” (Rabbinic certification) or a sign that says, “We don’t sell our chametz, but we serve Passover bread,” an option for liberal Jews who aren’t concerned about the particulars of Halakha.  Grocery stores are stocked to overflowing with Passover foods, including take out, all marked to indicate whether they contain Kitniyot (legumes), which are eaten by some and not others on Passover.  All told, it’s a thrill to be here at this season of the year.

Aside from the celebration of Passover, this week has seen its share of controversies here in Israel.  On Erev Pesach, thousands of Palestinians gathered on the border between Gaza and Israel and staged a protest march.  Designed to coincide with Land Day, an annual event observed by Palestinians that recalls the expropriation of land by the Israeli government on March 30, 1976, the march on the border grew violent and resulted in the deaths of 17 Palestinians, among whom were 10 terrorists.  Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, has vowed to increase the size of marches planned until they culminate on May 18, a day known as “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”) that marks the day that Israel became an independent state. 

Israeli newspapers struggled to explain the sequence of events that led to 17 deaths.  The most obvious explanation is that the Israeli army could not allow people to charge the border, throwing Molotov cocktails and perhaps armed with weapons, in attempt to enter Israel.  Even after warnings by the IDF that there were snipers posted, a handful of people charged the border fence anyway and were fatally shot.  Still, anytime someone is killed by an IDF soldier is cause for scrutiny and internal investigation.  The Israeli government does not take such matters lightly, nor does it rejoice over the death of an enemy.  The incident has triggered concern and speculation about the possible intensification of the marches in the weeks ahead and what would happen if a group 10 times the size tried to force its way into Israel from Gaza or perhaps even Lebanon. 

The Gaza march was also a catalyst for thoughtful conversation about Israel’s predicament in the Gaza strip and the West Bank.  I had a long and in-depth talk with my cousin Neta, an Israeli physician.  Neta genuinely feels a sense of angst about the occupation, and its implications for Israel and for the Palestinians themselves.  She told me that, from her perspective, if the Israeli government isn’t going to do everything it can to end the occupation, then it must alternatively assume full responsibility for the welfare of the people who live in the territories.  She lives a life of fulfillment and abundance, married to our cousin Ilan and with two children who have every advantage and opportunity for growth possible available to them.  She is among those Israelis who live with a haunting sense of responsibility for those living under occupation. 

The marches sparked a lively conversation at our Seder table where we discussed how Israel became entangled in its current predicament of millions of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank with no end to the occupation in sight.  We agreed that its too simplistic, and ultimately unhelpful toward the larger goal of sustaining Israel as a democratic state, to say that the State of Israel was attacked on numerous occasions and miraculously won the wars it fought, and as victors even offered peace terms on numerous occasions.  True, Hamas is evil, and they spend most of the money available to them on building tunnels and rockets to attack Israel.  But it’s not in Israel’s interest to allow Gaza to fester and collapse, nor is it in Israel’s interest to continue to control the lives of the people of the West Bank.  I found myself thinking that, for its own sake and for the sake of people who are subject to corrupt and tyrannical leaders, Israel must do something to alleviate the problem.

In addition to Gaza, this week saw an improbable sequence of events in which Prime Minister Netanyahu at first announced that Israel had reached an agreement with the United Nations for the resettlement of thousands of refugees, with about half going to countries in Africa and the other half staying in Israel.  Within 24 hours, Netanyahu cancelled the deal because of pressure from his coalition and from the right, who claimed either that the individuals are not true asylum seekers, or that their presence in Israel, particularly Southern Tel Aviv, would increase crime and instability.  Stunningly, Netanyahu claimed that the deal was torpedoed by the New Israel Fund, who he said had intervened with the government of Rwanda to scuttle the deal.  The refugee controversy, which draws heated opinions on both sides, is a reminder that Israel still struggles to define itself and understand what it means to be a Jewish State. 

Strikingly, the Times of Israel reported yesterday that even after Netanyahu’s legal problems and his bungling of the refugee problem, the popularity of his Likud party has only grown and, should elections be held today, would increase its representation in the Knesset from 30 to 32 seats.

So here I am, in this beautiful country that has accomplished so much in a mere 70 years, surrounded by my family celebrating Passover in the City of Jerusalem.  Israelis spend their days trying to live productive, meaningful lives in this homeland of the Jewish people.  There is an awareness among people, some more stinging than for others, that Israel has many challenges yet to overcome, some imposed and some of their own making. 

It’s magnificent here…I’m grateful to be in Eretz Yisrael.