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  • Writer's picturerabbijonathanf

Yom Haatzmaut Reflections: Israel -Jewish State or State for the Jews?

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

At the beginning of the Zionist movement in 1903, the British offered the ‘Uganda Plan’, which would have relocated Jews fleeing the pogroms in Europe to Africa. The Zionist congress voted against this offer because they understood that the impetus for the Jewish people to have our own country came from 3300 years of Jewish history, and from the Torah, and not just as a response to anti-semitism. The modern state of Israel needed to be a Jewish state in our historic homeland. The journey to Israel started with Abraham and Sarah 3900 years ago, and throughout Jewish history Jews have yearned to return to Israel. The importance of living in Israel is highlighted by our Passover Haggadah which begins and ends with “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

The Zionist Congress in Basel

What does it mean to have a Jewish state? I would posit that a starting place that all can agree on is:

1. A country where Jews to come to freely to visit or to live.

2. The location should be in Israel because this is our historical homeland.

3. The state should embody Jewish ideals and Jewish life

While the modern Zionist movement did a agree on the geographical location, and on founding a state based on democratic principles, there were many opinions of what a Jewish state should look like. Many of the early Zionists came out of the communist and socialist movements, and their vision was based on those ideologies. Today Israel has moved far its socialist beginnings and it is the capitalist ‘Start Up Nation’ phenomenon that permeates Israel’s society. So where are we going?

You can find elements of capitalism and socialism in the Torah, however the Torah does present us with the underlying Jewish values which are meant to direct us. Isaiah formulates this vision: Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17) He tells us that it is through these very values that the ‘founding of the country will be brought about: Zion will be redeemed with justice, and its return will be through charity. (Isaiah 1:27)

Isaiah then goes on to describe this ideal society serving as a ‘light unto the nations’. When Israel is first to respond to the earthquake in Haiti with a field hospital and humanitarian aid, or when it brings water saving technology to struggling countries in Africa, we are proud because we feel this this reflects the Jewish values of charity. When we see organizations within Israel like Yad Sarah with 6000 volunteers helping 350,000 needy people, Hatzalah with 4000 ambulance volunteers responding to over 350,000 calls a year, and Leket feeding the same number of people with unwanted or discarded food, we see this as a characteristic of a Jewish society.

There is another unique phenomenon in Israel that reflects Jewish values, which is that Israel has the highest birth rate of any modern westernized country. While Europe has a rate of 1.59 children per woman, well below the replacement rate, and the US is 1.9, close to replacement, Israel’s rate is 3.1. So another Jewish value which Israel embodies is the importance of family and children. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs characterizes a country that has children as one that is optimistic about the future and that is also a Jewish value. I believe that one of the main reasons that the Coronavirus outbreak has been mitigated in Israel is the constant focus on absolute value of human life, another primary Jewish value.

Judaism has a two track system for building Jewish life, and in order to maintain the living of Jewish values it directs us to follow the mitzvoth in the Torah which help to reinforce our national narrative and values through the living of Jewish traditions. People often tell me that one of the meaningful things about being in Israel is that the national holidays in Israel are the Jewish holidays. New Year’s Eve is Rosh Hashanah, not January 1st. In addition, the governmental offices all have kosher cafeterias and are closed on Shabbat, and Hebrew is spoken as the national language. How far Jewish life should direct civic life is the subject of much debate, such as should public transportation, stores and movie theatres be closed on Shabbat, and should the Rabbinate supervise lifecycle events. For those of us who come from the US, the lack of separation of church and state, or synagogue and state is something that we are not accustomed to, however the discussion starts with our original question of how do you create a Jewish state?

While building a Jewish state is a long term goal, the Torah’s outlook on changing the world is that change first begins with us. If we are here to contribute to and build a Jewish society founded on higher ideals, then the first step is to strive to live and embody those ideals. In Judaism that means engaging with Jewish life and with Jewish texts. While many would characterize Israel as having a secular majority, the statistics show that over half of the population in Israel celebrate Shabbat and the holidays, and keep some aspects of kashrut. Ultimately the Jewish character of the State of Israel, as well as the survival of Jewish life in the diaspora, will be created bottom up through the Jewish engagement of lives of its citizens.

I would like to end with the story of Shmuel who lived in Poland and worked for Ivan on his farm. Every once in a while Ivan would get off his plow, put his ear to the ground and break into a sigh of contentment and a smile. When Shmuel asked what he heard, Ivan said he heard the land singing. After Ivan had gone home, Shmuel was curious about what Ivan had heard and put his ear to the ground. Nothing happened, he did not hear anything. Years went by, and Shmuel eventually made his way to Israel with his family. In Israel he was able to work land that was his, not Ivan’s. One day he recalled how Ivan had put his ear to the ground, and he tried it again. And now it was Shmuel who had that sigh, that feeling of contentment, and he heard the land singing his song. Israel has an unexplainable pull, which I would explain as the fourth element of Israel’s Jewish character, the spiritual nature of the land and the closeness to the Almighty we feel here. This Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, let’s celebrate the miracle of modern times that our people have returned to our homeland, and that we are building an incredible country based on Jewish values and life, and let’s recommit ourselves to helping in that effort..

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