Word on the Street: Israel’s 70th Anniversary

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on April 19, 2018

The 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel prompts complex feelings in me — and I suspect in most of us in the J Street community.

The very fact that Israel came into being, just three years after the greatest disaster ever to befall the Jewish people, could be described as a modern miracle — and still fills me with joy.

The creation of a Jewish homeland remains one of the most important and unprecedented events of modern times, the culmination of our people’s centuries of yearning for self-determination and security in a land of our own.

In Israel, we could at long last fully and unabashedly celebrate our people’s culture and heritage. We could both take comfort in being a normal country like many others, and take pride in pursuing our own exceptional goals and dreams.

There is so much that Israel has accomplished. In just the first three years of its existence, Israel absorbed over 600,000 Holocaust survivors. Many of these traumatized people arrived with virtually nothing to their names, yet most were successfully absorbed. Israel also opened its gates to hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Arab countries. Later, waves of immigration followed from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Israel has lived up to its sacred task of providing a safe haven and a homeland for Jews in distress everywhere.

Despite a lack of natural resources and the constant pressures of war and terrorism, Israel has built a powerful economy. Since 2002, Israel has provided eight Nobel prize winners. Its prowess in high-tech innovation is widely celebrated. It has contributed life-changing techniques in agriculture. It stands eighth in the world in life expectancy. The United States is in 31st place.

Even as we feel this tremendous pride in and appreciation for Israel, we also feel compelled to speak out about the aspects of its current reality and its government’s current policies that we find worrisome and disturbing.

If we can say anything for certain in the era of Donald Trump, it is that loving one’s country does not preclude fierce criticism of its leaders and government, or deep fear about its future. That is a lesson that definitely holds true for Israel in 2018.

When we look at Israel and Israeli political life today, there is a great deal to feel anxious and disturbed about. The occupation of almost three million Palestinians in the West Bank has dragged on for more than 50 years. Palestinians live under Israeli military control, which too often crosses the line into harsh repression and sometimes brutality. A succession of Israeli leaders, including presidents and prime ministers, have been implicated in personal scandals and crimes. And Israel’s own vibrant democracy now seems under siege from a government that appears intent on stifling the free media, politicizing the independent judiciary, strictly controlling what is read and learned in schools and intimidating opposition voices and independent civil organizations.

As Israeli novelist David Grossman, himself a bereaved parent, memorably said this week:

“Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at-home-in-the-world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home. The solution to the great complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations can be summed up in one short formula: if the Palestinians don’t have a home, the Israelis won’t have a home either.”

Nowhere is this truth more dramatically illustrated than along the barrier separating Israel from Gaza. Painful though it is, I cannot avert my eyes from the young Israeli soldiers who loyally defend their nation but have been put into a situation where they are ordered to fire live ammunition at Palestinian protesters. While some of those protesting may be armed and seek to breach the border fence, it seems clear the vast majority are nonviolently trying to draw world’s attention to the deep misery and hopelessness of their reality. We know there is so much blame to spread around for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But how do we celebrate with a full heart while our neighbors continue to suffer so grievously? As an Israeli who served in the IDF, how would I feel if I were serving there now? Even more poignantly, how would I feel if it were my child serving?

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten the very foundational Jewish commandment to welcome the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Have we already forgotten our own history as victims of oppression, mass deportation, victimization and genocide? How else can one explain the government’s heartless attitude toward some 40,000 African migrants targeted for mass deportation without concern for their fate?

At the recent J Street National Conference, more than 3,000 delegates wrestled with these very issues. It became clear in the course of the discussions that the administrations of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu in many ways feed off each other. Both are intent on undermining core democratic principles. Both need to be defeated. That is our challenge as US citizens and as American Jews deeply invested in the success of our Jewish homeland.

On this 70th anniversary, a growing number of Israelis realize that the country we all love so much must find a way to change direction before it is too late. Israel has won war after war but all these victories will be in vain if it loses its soul.

There are signs that the Netanyahu era may soon end. The next government cannot do what Netanyahu has done for so many years, avoiding serious and sincere peace negotiations while pressing ahead with the settlement enterprise. Israel must engage with the Palestinians in a supreme effort to achieve a two-state solution. A majority of Israelis still support that goal and many thousands are engaged in political organizing and grassroots work to bring it closer. They deserve our help. Our allies in Israel have not quit the fight. Neither can we.

As we mark this birthday, its important to let ourselves celebrate.

But tomorrow, we need to get back to work — because there is still so much left to do.

We need to fight for our vision of a thriving Israel living side-by-side in peace and security with its Palestinian neighbors. An Israel that lives out the prophetic values outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. An Israel truly dedicated to freedom, justice and peace.