Word on the Street: Against Enormous Odds

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on May 12, 2016

Today marks 68 years since Israel’s founding as a modern independent state.

For some, Israel’s rebirth after 19 centuries of exile is nothing short of a divine miracle.

For others — like me — Israel’s existence is a testament to the hard work of real people against enormous odds.

Israel is here thanks to the tremendous sacrifices of soldiers and civilians honored yesterday on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and at a very real human cost to the Palestinian people that one day will be fully acknowledged.

Israel’s future too will be shaped by the people who live there, perhaps with input from those of us abroad who support them.

That is the essence of Zionism: for the first time in two millennia, the Jewish people control their own fate in their own land.

Just as independence brings empowerment and hope, it also, importantly, brings responsibility.

Some, like today’s Israeli government, still offer a narrative for Jewish life grounded in victimhood. They tell us that Jews always have and always will be caught up in perpetual conflict with those that hate us. They insist that we are doomed to live and die by the sword, with no chance for reconciliation or peace, and no possibility of ending this cycle.

That narrative bears little resemblance to the Zionism on which I was raised. I understood that the core message of Zionism was that Jews needed their own country in order to control our own destiny and to shape our history, rather than have it be shaped by forces out of our control.

I also was raised to believe that with freedom, we the Jewish people would work to build a state that would put into practice the values and principles we had developed living for centuries in the lands of others.

That aspiration was captured in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that, “The State of Israel … will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture….”

Unfortunately, today these values are at risk. An alarming, xenophobic tone has taken over part of the Israeli political discourse. Demonization of peace activists, human rights campaigners and even authors, artists and intellectuals has become all too common, and public expressions of disdain for Arabs all too acceptable. For some, the idea of any agreement or compromise with Palestinians has become unacceptable and unthinkable.

I think it’s these concerns that the IDF’s Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan was trying to raise on Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah) last week when he called on Israelis to use the day as an opportunity “to discuss our ability to uproot the seeds of intolerance, violence, self-destruction and moral deterioration” within Israeli society.

Golan was laying down a challenge to the Israeli people — to take control of the situation in the country today and build a future in keeping with their aspirations, values and vital needs.

As we look to the future on the 68th anniversary of Israel’s independence, we recognize as well that we are heading into the 50th year of Israeli occupation of the territory on which — one day — there must and will be an independent Palestinian state.

There are real choices ahead for Israel and the Jewish people — choices that are critical to shaping the future. Will Israel be fully democratic? Will it take the steps necessary to enable a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinian people?

I believe we are fortunate that, thanks to the sacrifices of previous generations, the power to make these choices is in the hands of the Jewish people — as a free people in charge of its own destiny.

On this Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut), those of us who believe in the dream of Zionism should recommit to the cause and to doing the hard and unfinished work of building a national homeland for the Jewish people rooted in the best of our traditions and our values, and in our need for freedom from violence and from fear.

J Street is committed to that struggle. We firmly believe that the future can be better than the past, that the best days of Israel and of the Jewish people lie ahead and that with hard work and support from friends and allies, Israelis and Palestinians can resolve the conflict that imperils them — and achieve the peace that they so desperately need and deserve.