Mar 27, 2023 | Daniel Gordis
The story of Israel
These are difficult days in Israel. Leaders and citizens are deeply divided on the issue of the proposed judicial reform, some saying it is long overdue, others saying that it portends the end of Israeli democracy. Much has been written about the proposals, and much more will be. There is much that is troubling about the current situation, not the least of which is the potential for violence in a society that has already known its share of political violence.
Yet there is another possible impact of the current situation, which though less momentous, also deserves our attention. Shortly, Israel will celebrate its 75th anniversary. That would be an important milestone no matter what; but given the challenges that Israel has faced over the past three-quarters of a century, it is nothing less than extraordinary, if not miraculous.
So, at this moment of turmoil, worry, and even dread, it is worth taking a moment to review, even very briefly, what the Jewish state has accomplished. Or to put matters slightly differently, how have the Jewish people changed because of the Jewish state?
First, and perhaps most importantly, the existential physical condition of the Jews has changed. There are no longer defenceless Jews anywhere in the world. Though Israel was certainly not created primarily to be a refuge, the Law of Return welcomes every Jew who does not feel safe where s/he lives. For any Jew who seeks it, there is now a homeland in which they are welcomed, a homeland in which they are safe.
The rebirth of a people, though, is made manifest in many ways far beyond physical security. Zionism and Israel have breathed new life into Hebrew, a language that was long dormant. Only in Israel (except for a few ultra-Orthodox enclaves in the diaspora which speak Yiddish) is there an entire society that speaks a distinctly Jewish language. And how real could culture be without its distinct language? Could there be great French culture without French? Russian literature written the same way without Russian? The thousands and thousands of books published, plays written and performed, concerts staged and much more in many hundreds of venues across Israel are testimony to more than a vibrant cultural scene. They are the markings of a people brought back to life.
Peoples also have rhythms of life. In Israel, the rhythm of life is a Jewish rhythm. There are entire swathes of cities in Israel in which, on a Friday afternoon, the nation transforms itself. Streets become much more still, people are home preparing for Shabbat, whether or not they are punctiliously religious. On Yom Kippur, one can walk in the middle of the highways, because not a car moves. When air raid sirens go off on Holocaust Memorial Day or Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers, an entire nation comes to an utter standstill. That cannot happen anywhere else. Nowhere else can both joy and sadness bring millions of people together for intense moments of connectedness across racial, denominational, ethnic, and socio-economic lines and more.
Israel has even made us rethink what a Jew looks like; that, too, is a dimension of a people reborn. Before there was an Israel, most North American Jews assumed that Jews looked like most of the people reading this column. But once the Jews from the Levant came to Israel in large numbers and then Jews from Ethiopia, and others began to stream in, we began to understand that “what a Jew looks like” is far more complex and nuanced than we could ever have imagined.
The founders of Israel
There is much more to point to, but instead, let’s go back in history, to that momentous meeting on May 12, 1948, when ten men had to vote whether or not to declare independence. Yigal Yadin, who would become a great Israeli archaeologist but at that time commanded the pre-state Jewish military forces, was asked how much of a chance the Jews had of surviving the onslaught that was sure to follow. Said Yadin, “50/50 – the Arabs have a lot of power to bring to the battle.”
Still, in a vote of six to four, which means that it could not have been closer, those ten men voted to create a state, hoping against hope that it might be able to somehow hold out.
They didn’t know if the United States would recognise Israel (the State Department was vehemently opposed), whether enough Jews would move to Israel to make the state viable, whether there would be enough food (Israel had to institute strict food rationing of even basics like flour and fruit). They certainly didn’t imagine that the Arab world would embrace them.
Had someone asked them, back then in May 1948, what they imagined the state they were creating would look like in 2023, could they have imagined a world-class military so powerful that no nation-state dares attack it any longer? When Israel almost ran out of money in the 1950s and had 445% inflation in the 1980s, could they have imagined the economic engine that Israel is today? When Israel was attacked on all sides in 1948, or 1973, could they have imagined that Egypt (1979), Jordan (1994) the UAE and Bahrain, then Morocco (2020) and then Sudan would make peace? That the Saudis would be in the on-deck circle? That the Arab world would be reaching out to the Jewish state?
Could they have imagined not only an end to the hunger, but a country so overflowing with food that it’s actually a “foodie” country? Could they have imagined the bounty, the confidence, the cultural output, a country with more non-profits per capita than any other country in the world, a country with a birth rate among secular Jews higher than that of any other OECD country, a country that ranks higher on the World’s Happiness Scale than the United States and most of Europe?
They could have imagined none of this. So, even in these worrisome times, let’s use the upcoming 75th anniversary of Israel’s creation as an opportunity to change the nature of the conversation we have about Israel. To be sure, the conflict with the Palestinians is grinding and heartbreaking, and it does deserve attention, but it is not the story of what Israel is. The Israeli rabbinate’s treatment of non-Orthodox Judaism is important and needs to be addressed, but it, too, is not the story of Israel.
The story of Israel is, plain and simple, the story of the rebirth of the Jewish people, the re-creation of a thriving Jewish people in its own land, speaking its own language, living according to its own calendar, producing its own great works of literature and celebrating thousands of years of Jewish tradition.
Of course, we are worried. Some of us are disappointed. Still, what we need to do is to weep, not in heartbreak, but in celebration and thanksgiving. We dare not be satisfied or unconcerned, but we have to marvel at everything that’s been created. We need to revel in the success of a country that was founded in order that the Jewish people could leave the horrors of the middle of the 20th century and everything that came before it in the past, never to forget, but without allowing it to define us. We created a state to create a new Jewish future. And we succeeded.