Two-Way Street | Clergy Reflections on Yom Ha’atzmaut

April 24, 2023

Celebrating Israel as a Remarkable Accomplishment of the Jewish People

Rabbi John L. Rosove, J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet Chair

“Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma’pilim [(Hebrew) – immigrants coming to Eretz-Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation] and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.” – Israel’s Declaration of Independence

In 1948, Israel’s Declaration of Independence articulated the vision and aspirations of the state’s founders. This 75th anniversary of statehood gives us an opportunity to express our respect for their sacrifices and accomplishments; and it offers Jews worldwide today the guiding principles upon which the Zionist project was based and continually renewed.

As time passes, however, it is easy for us in the 21st century to forget or to take for granted how very difficult it was for the early Zionist pioneers and state’s founders to settle the land, protect themselves, renew Hebrew into a modern language, welcome immigration waves, build cities, towns, kibbutzim, and moshavim, hospitals and universities, forge cooperative relationships with surrounding Arab villages and Bedouin camps, and redefine what it means to be Jewish in the modern era.

What was clear in the early days before the state was established and is even clearer now is that Judaism is far more than a faith tradition. As a people and a nation — with a rich history, an historic Homeland, language(s), sacred texts and literature, philosophies and theologies, life cycle celebrations and holidays, moral and ethical principles, culture and art — we aspire to be a positive and progressive force for the well-being not only of the Jewish people, but for all peoples living in the Land and State of Israel, and as a light to the nations of the world.

Emerging from two thousand years of exile and recreating ourselves in our historic homeland has been and continues to be a herculean task without parallel in Jewish and world history. Though we have created a remarkable nation, we have also made our share of mistakes. We can take pride in what our people has accomplished even as we battle against bad actors that have taken the reins of power and threaten the state’s foundational ethics and the democratic traditions upon which the State of Israel was founded.

As we celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary, let us support those progressive forces in Israel that seek to preserve Israel’s democracy and Jewish character for all the citizens of the state and the entirety of the Jewish people, and to support every effort to resolve the existentially dangerous Israeli-Palestinian conflict into two-states for two peoples, perhaps in a confederation, living side-by-side in peace and security.

The Balfour Declaration – Finding New Perspective

Rabbi Andrea London, J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet Chair

“This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.” – Israel’s Declaration of Independence

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, adjacent to the Israeli separation wall, stands the boutique Walled Off Hotel, designed by the artist Banksy. Inside the hotel is a small museum offering a history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from a Palestinian perspective. As one enters the museum, there is a wax figure of Lord Arthur Balfour signing the declaration that bears his name.

The Balfour Declaration marked a seminal moment in the movement to create the modern State of Israel. For Palestinians, it signified the beginning of their displacement from their homeland and a regime that brutally and systematically violated their human and civil rights and right to self-determination. Recently, I brought a group of American rabbis to the museum as part of a trip to the West Bank. The irony of Lord Balfour’s visage at the museum’s entrance was not lost on them.

We have all heard the arguments from the Zionist perspective: if only the Palestinians had accepted the UN Partition Plan of 1947 or reached an agreement with Israel when President Clinton tried to broker a deal — if only the Palestinians hadn’t resorted to violence time and again — they could have had a state of their own by now. From the Zionist vantage point, it is easy to blame the Palestinians for their struggles, their lack of political independence, and the violence they have faced at the hands of Israeli forces.

On this 75th anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel, we need to open our minds to the Palestinian perspective and recognize our role in enabling Israel’s entrenchment of the Occupation and persecution of the Palestinians. Ending that Occupation should not be regarded as a reward to be conferred on the Palestinians once they demonstrate good behavior. Rather, Israel and its supporters must accept that ending the Occupation is essential for the well-being of all the inhabitants of the land in order for everyone to live in peace, with dignity, freedom and democratic rights.

Israel has the ability to lay the groundwork for a resolution to the conflict by engaging its allies to help broker a deal, halting settlement activity, and allowing Palestinians to live without harassment, build on their land, develop their economy, graze their flocks and tend their fields.

Americans committed to a just and secure peace, must educate ourselves, our leaders, and our communities, on the realities in Israel and the occupied territories. The group of rabbis I accompanied to the West Bank and to the museum felt that their experiences gave them greater knowledge and strength to work for a future that is consonant with our values.

Only when there is a just resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians will Jews, as it says in “Hatikvah” — be a free people in our land — rather than a people that must live by the sword and through the repression of others.

Defending Our Shared Values – Ensuring Equality for All

Rabbi David Teutsch, immediate past Chair of the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet

“Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” – Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Like most of the American Jews of my generation, I grew up with an idealized version of Israel. Part of what was inspiring to me as a teenager and remains central to me 60 years later is embodied in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

That goal requires constant effort because there are always countervailing forces that push governments away from fulfilling it. The institution of the Chief Rabbinate and the occupation of the West Bank are two such countervailing forces.

As recent demonstrations across Israel protesting potential changes in the independence of the Supreme Court demonstrate, many in Israel are deeply concerned with civil liberties and democracy. But for the values of the Declaration to be fulfilled, they must apply equally to the West Bank, which is now being incorporated into the State of Israel.

With a civilian, MK Bezalel Smotrich, the new administrator of the West Bank, it has moved from Occupied Territory to a part of Israel. The Palestinians on the West Bank have no vote and few civil rights, which is why the Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently described the situation as apartheid. Israel has a long way to go if it is to live up to the Declaration.

It is urgent that American Jews who share a commitment to what the Declaration stands for join with the Israelis who share their values to defend not only the Supreme Court but Palestinian rights. Universal civil rights may only be possible to achieve in a confederation variant of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, but only when there are equal rights for all can the Jews of Israel be certain of full social and political rights for themselves, their children and their grandchildren.

Protests and Progress: From the Diaspora to the Holy Land – An Ever Connected People

Cantor Evan Kent, J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet Chair

“We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.” – Israel’s Declaration of Independence

I am descended from a long line of political activists. My grandparents demonstrated and stood on picket lines supporting workers’ rights. My parents took me and my siblings to marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam War and in support of Soviet Jews’ desire to leave the Soviet Union. In the early 1940s, my great grandmother Eva stood at the entrance to New York City subway stations with tin boxes or “pushkes” in her hand and asked for donations to help build the nascent Israeli state.

My grandparents and great grandparents never visited Israel, but every Saturday night, as Shabbat is ending, they walk alongside me in spirit as I proudly hoist my Israeli flag and proceed to the ever-growing demonstration here in Tel Aviv just a half mile from where we live. Each week, the ever-larger crowds have become more vocal in defiance of the so-called “reforms” this Israeli ultra-right wing government is trying to enact.

Though my ancestors could only faintly dream that someday they would walk the streets of Tel Aviv as I do, they clearly understood the connection between those living in Israel and those outside of the country. Israelis are also keenly aware of this historical interconnectedness. This relationship between Jews in Israel and outside the land was of major significance when the Israeli Declaration of Independence was written and this connection is just as important, perhaps even more so as forces within the government are determined to forever change Israel’s democratic nature.

As we approach Yom Ha’atzmaut, I encourage you to walk with me in spirit at the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and all across Israel. Go to protest in your own community and make sure Israel’s autocratic leaders understand that the democratic values Jews in the United States treasure are no different than the ideals we hold so dearly here in Israel.

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