Tuesday, February 18, 2020 -
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Israel: Seventy years of achievements and surprises

The achievements of Israel at 70 boggle the mind, yet have come to be expected. Of course Israel would absorb millions of refugees. Of course Israel would overcome its lack of natural resources and become a leading economy and technological innovator. Of course Israel would survive all of its wars. Of course Israel would be a democracy in a region that lacks democracy. Of course Israel would nurture more Torah study than any time or in any other place in history.

Of course? Tell it to the courageous souls who declared Israel’s independence 70 years ago amidst a war on its existence launched by six Arab states. Tell it to the pioneers who came to the land some 70 years earlier, only to find it ridden with disease, poverty and Arab hostility.

The surprises and achievements have actually been one and the same.

What is, thankfully, still not taken for granted is the way Israel at 70 has embedded itself into Jewish life worldwide in ways that cannot be measured.

Israel: a safe space for the Jewish people.

Israel: a symbol of perseverance and hope.

Israel: a source of Jewish pride (so much so that those born after Israel’s creation simply cannot understand the mentality of fear or distrust that gripped most Jews worldwide, even before Hitler).

Israel: a place that proves “falling in love” can be instantaneous.

Israel: a place that brings home the reality of Jewish family, Jewish peoplehood, more quickly and more deeply than a thousand classes or sermons in the Diaspora.

Israel: evidence of the fulfillment of Divine promises, a point not lost on many outside the Jewish community, primarily amidst faithful Christians.

Israel: a place of blessing, just as Genesis 12 says.

Israel: a place in which antiquity and modernity coexist cheek by jowl.

Israel: a place of more languages spoken in a smaller space than anywhere else.

Israel: a place whose beauty somehow contains an element that transcends the most beautiful places on the earth.

Israel: whose memory of the past, including the Holocaust, is matched only by supreme efforts to transcend the suffering of the past.

Alongside its achievements, surprises and enduring levels of meaning, Israel at 70 is a place of staggering challenges: for peace; for being hated by surrounding populations, no matter what; for ethical dilemmas in the military; for poverty amidst plenty; for tolerance amidst faith; for civility amidst the acid-speech of a politically divided polity — as they say, “two Jews and three opinions”; or, “the Jews are one people divided by a common religion.”

As if all this were not enough, Israel at 70 is a pristine reflection of irony. It is forgotten what the original impetus behind Zionism was. It was not a return to the Jewish homeland. It was not an ingathering of exiles. It was not an independent state. It was this: the excision of anti-Semitism via the normalization of the Jewish people; that is to say, the Jewish embrace of 19th-century, European-style nationalism. If the Jews could become “normal,” that is, if they could have a place of their own, with a language of their own, the reason why gentiles throughout most of European and pre-European history hated the Jews would disappear. How naive that assumption! If anything, Jewish nationalism, complete with a state and a revived Hebrew language, has only concentrated the hatred, if not of Europeans, then of Arabs. The Eurocentric foundation of Zionism never took the beliefs in the Arab world, or the Muslim world, into account.

And yet, here we are. Israel marks 70 years of independence, notwithstanding the sacrifices in treasure and beautiful young lives this has required. Israel marks a Jewish population of over seven million in a space from which the British, under its Mandate for Palestine (1922-1948), denied entry to Jewish emigrants on the grounds that the “economic absorptive capacity” of the space was already exhausted — this, when the land held far less than one million people! It is said that in the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem, no matter how many people squeezed into it, there was ample room for all to prostrate themselves in prayer. So it is in the contemporary state of Israel: there is ample room for every Jew, male and female, Caucasian and black, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, European, African, American, Asian and Indian, religious (of every imaginable stripe) and secular (of every imaginable stripe).

Here we are. Israel at 70! It deserves a moment of respite from criticism to celebrate its wondrous achievements and surprises.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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