Israel's 70th Birthday: A Conversation + A Celebration

News and Views

There is a moment in our lives when we realize our parents aren’t perfect.

Those moments may be unsettling, but—for most of us—they are far from tragic. Looking back over teenage years likely filled with some rough spots, we realize that even as we adjusted our conception of our parents, we did so around a remaining pillar of loving relationship. In retrospect, hopefully we also believe those relationships are deeper because, instead of being based on unrealistic expectations, they grow out of our appreciation for the real character of those we love.

Appreciating people for who they really are is the key to developing honest relationships that can endure difficult seasons and stand the tests of time. Jean Piaget was a developmental psychologist who connected our ability to appreciate others for who they are to the final stage of our cognitive development, the “formal operational stage”. How do we get to this level, this inner ability to appreciate others in all the complexity and nuance of their character? We move through stages of development. Some of us studied these stages in Psych 101, where Piaget’s language gets a little “jargon-y”. So in place of using his terms of cognitive development, I prefer more suggestive wordings for these stages: archaic, magic, mythic, mythic-rational, and rational.

And, speaking about appreciating personalities of complexity and nuance, I want to focus our attention on another entity, one about to celebrate a big birthday: The State of Israel.

There is no doubt that our relationship to the Land of Israel is archaic. This geographic crossroads of cultures is the Canaan to which Abraham and Sarah were called at the beginning of our story, the Promised Land towards which Moses and his generation marched. The landscape of our Bible—as well as the formative first millennia of our people’s history—is literally the landscape of the modern State of Israel. Our connections to this particular part of our world are ancient, indeed. Throughout most of Jewish history, our connections to Israel remained historic. We remembered the land in our daily prayers, which were said in virtually every other land on the face of the earth. While warring empires prevented us from reaching earthly Jerusalem, we imagined a heavenly Jerusalem that was similarly unreachable until we had done the work of perfecting our planet. Yet arriving at that metaphorical Jerusalem remained our deepest hope.

Seventy years ago, something truly magical happened: the modern State of Israel was resurrected upon our ancient soil. In fact, as any student of history knows, the emergence of modern Israel was the result of a world-wide effort of development, planning and incredible commitment. However, when in 1948 the United Nations approved the partition plan and David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel, the Jewish world certainly perceived this as a magical moment. Once again we had political power in our land, and a seeming fulfillment of the biblical promise to ingather those exiles living in oppression. 1948, although fraught by way and insecurity, was a magical moment of redemption.

In 1967, that magic turned to myth: tiny little besieged Israel, the sole democracy amidst enemy oligarchies, in six days defeated its enemies, enlarged its territory, and conquered Jerusalem. If the first two decades of Israel’s existence were marked by continued existential fear about the strength of the State, 1967 proved that Israel was strong, that Israel would make the Jewish world proud. A mythic Israel of mutually-supportive kibbutzim, of beautiful sabra boys and girls taking up arms against a sea of troubles, and of legendary generals with a patch over one eye dominated our Jewish consciousness. Israel was not only mighty beyond measure, but inspiring above all else.

Yom Kippur, six years later, shattered that confidence. The surprise onslaught caused us to reconsider Israel’s mythic, invincible character: Israel was caught unawares, suffered great losses, and by some measures barely survived the Yom Kippur war. 1973, Israel’s twenty-fifth birthday, caused us to blend a reason-based approach to geopolitics with our inspired image of mythic modern Israel. Counting back from 1948, Israel had been in at least four major military campaigns: there was no reason to believe at the time that any end to these wars was in sight. Since 1973, much of the Jewish world has seen Israel as constantly in crisis: from Independence through Suez through Six Days through Yom Kippur to Intifada to Lebanon to Intifada to Lebanon to Gaza… we witness Israel as continually in combat.

Where are we today? I think that depends on each individual. Certainly, many of us, in keeping with the parental metaphor, have realized that Israel isn’t perfect. We remain frustrated at Israel’s inability to make peace with its neighbors, are angry at Orthodox religious hegemony over our Jewish homeland, and are not proud of its continued occupation of Palestine. For me, this understanding that Israel—like all other sovereign nations—has is successes and its shortcoming, does not prevent me from having a deep, meaningful relationship with Israel. However others, especially those in younger generations, wonder if it is rational for a modern Jew to continue any connection with Israel. And, of course, there remain those in our community for whom the continued existence of and support for Israel is a non-negotiable commitment.

The incredible occasion of Israel’s 70th anniversary of Independence—of existence!—is to me one worth celebrating. However, our commemorations must take into account the obvious truth that so many of us in the Jewish community relate to the State of Israel in different ways: depending on our perspective, Israel is archaic, magical, mythic, imperfect, or some combination of these all. As Israel turns 70, we do face challenges, the most noticeable of which is that so many of us approach this historic occasion with very different feelings in our hearts.

How do we celebrate Israel, how do we relate to the Jewish State, as a community? The first step, for certain, is to appreciate the different perspectives people in our community bring, and to make sure that we are willing to listen to and learn from others. But a second step is needed, too. Even those of us who still see Israel primarily as the magical phoenix of Jewish history, even for the people who see Israel’s strength as mythic, for those who are constantly concerned about the crises Israel faces, and for those who cannot see past the occupation: we need a new way to talk about Israel, to understand it in all its complexity and nuance.

Donniel Hartman, an Israeli progressive thought leader, suggests that we need a new communal narrative. If Israel is imperfect, we can no longer see it as the ultimate hope for the redemption of our exiled peoples and messianic promises. And if Israel is imperfect, we cannot continue to manage crisis to crisis and expect Israel’s existential situation substantively to change. Neither the narrative of “crisis” nor the expectation of “redemption” seems realistic as our communal relationship with Israel stretches into its eighth decade. We need a new, mature, nuanced way to connect.

I believe we can best find that new narrative, that new, meaningful mature series of connections, by searching together. I invite you to join us to begin those conversations of discover together on the eve of Israel’s 70th birthday, April 18th at 6:00 P.M. here at Chicago Sinai Congregation. Together, in conversation and celebration, we will mark this incredible occasion. For even if we know the State of Israel isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean we cannot, and should not, be in a loving relationship with Israel that is deeper because, instead of being based on unrealistic expectations, it emerges out of our appreciation for the real history, character, and potential of modern-day Israel.

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