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Reflections on Israel’s 75th Birthday

May 3, 2023

Israelis celebrating Independence Day (Yom  Ha'atzmaut) in Tel Aviv (Photo: Shutterstock, Orlov Sergei)
Israelis celebrating Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut) in Tel Aviv (Photo: Shutterstock, Orlov Sergei)

Update 05/23 #01

 

Israel celebrated the 75th Anniversary of its Independence last week, with the national party somewhat overshadowed by continued division and controversy over the Netanyahu Government’s proposed package of judicial reforms. Nonetheless, much has been written – both in Israel and by observers of the Jewish state internationally – about the significance of the occasion, and Israel’s achievements and future prospects after existing three-quarters of a century. This Update brings you a few of the most thoughtful reflections on the occasion.

We start with an interview with former Soviet Prisoner of Conscience turned human rights activist Natan Sharansky – who coincidentally just turned 75 himself. in an exchange conducted by Jerusalem Post editor Avi Mayer, Sharansky has a great deal to say about the importance of Israel to the Jewish people, of the centrality of both its Jewish and democratic character, and about the controversy over judicial reforms that has recently divided Israelis. Sharansky is, by turns, candid, inspiring and profound. To read all that he had to say,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is a beautifully-written and moving piece from Sarah Tuttle-Singer of the Times of Israel, looking at all of the varied and fascinating mosaic that makes up Israeli society. She tries to get beyond Israel the abstraction – the country in the nightly news, the source of controversy and site of conflict, the religious holy land, the idealised nation-state – to bring readers a taste of  Israel as a real multi-faceted, multicultural, highly complex, but often beautiful and amazing, society.  And she succeeds so well that it’s hard to risk her final call to “come visit us. Come see it. Have tea with us — or a coffee — and sit for a while with your eyes and ears and hearts wide open.” For Tuttle-Singer’s lovely – and different – portrait of the Jewish state at 75,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, two US-based experts on Israel from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,  start out by looking at the surprising resiliency of Israel’s democratic traditions – especially as revealed by the recent judicial reform controversy. They then go on to both make the case that an eventual two-state solution with the Palestinians must remain an Israeli goal and also to skewer recent claims by some prominent US-based intellectuals that any hopes for two states are dead, and a “One-state solution” is the only way forward.  They make a very strong case that there is no such thing as a “One-state solution” – because one state can never be a solution for the two peoples that live in the area, and it would only guarantee them enduring conflict along the lines of the many civil wars that have already engulfed the Middle East region. For Ross and Makovsky’s insightful arguments in full,  CLICK HERE.

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Israel Independence Day: Celebrating 75 years with Natan Sharansky

 

Sharansky’s personal journey reflects that of the Jewish people, and the centrality of Israel in his life and Jewish identity mirrors the experiences of so many Jews around the world.

By AVI MAYER

Jerusalem Post, April 26, 2023


Former Soviet Prisoner of Conscience turned Israeli human rights activist Natan Sharansky (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It is difficult to think of an individual who better embodies the arc of Jewish history over the past 75 years than Natan Sharansky.

Born on January 20, 1948, in a Jewish home in Ukraine in which Jewishness centered on experiences of antisemitism and a drive to excel, Sharansky discovered what he calls his dual desires “to be free and to belong” as he became more keenly aware of Israel during the Six Day War.

It was his human rights activism, as well as his desire to immigrate to Israel, that got him thrown into a Soviet prison on charges of high treason. His name became a rallying cry for the movement to free Soviet Jewry, and his image appeared on placards, banners and buttons, as Jews and their allies around the world called for his release. In 1986, he was finally freed as part of a prisoner exchange and he immediately flew to Israel, where he was reunited with his wife, Avital.

Sharansky became an activist for Soviet aliyah and soon entered Israeli politics, establishing a political party and joining the Knesset. He held several senior ministerial posts and served as deputy prime minister under prime minister Ariel Sharon. In 2009, Sharansky was elected chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, a position he held for nine years. Today, Natan and Avital Sharansky live in Jerusalem. They have two daughters – Rachel and Hannah – and eight grandchildren.

I came to know Sharansky upon joining The Jewish Agency as a bright-eyed young staffer in 2011. As my supervisor was going through the list of people I ought to meet on my first day, he mentioned “Natan,” and I assumed he was referring to someone in our department. Imagine my surprise when he escorted me down the hall and into the office that once belonged to David Ben-Gurion to meet a personal and national hero. In time, I became Sharansky’s spokesperson, accompanying him on visits throughout Israel and around the world and witnessing his interactions with all manner of people, from prime ministers and Jewish communal leaders to new olim (immigrants) and gap year students. What I saw was a man of tremendous integrity, whose values and convictions inform everything he does and whose deep humility is often at odds with his towering stature in the Jewish world.

As we considered who would best reflect on Israel’s 75 years, the choice was clear – and not only because he and Israel are the same age. Sharansky’s personal journey reflects that of the Jewish people, and the centrality of Israel in his life and Jewish identity mirrors the experiences of so many Jews around the world. The personal and collective are interwoven throughout this interview, as they are in his life, and his insights on this pivotal moment in Israel’s history are marked by his distinctly Israeli mix of concern and hope.

Israel is 75, and you’re 75. Tell me what it feels like to be 75 and how you view Israel at this age.

You know what? During my mother’s time, it was very, very difficult for Soviet Jews. Stalinists campaigned against Jews. [Russian Yiddish actor Solomon] Mikhoels was killed a week before I was born [on January 13], and then I was born. My mother said the first encouraging thing was that I was born because there was a lot of fear.

She knew very little about Israel. She could only guess that Mikhoels was brutally killed and not involved in a car accident. Her feelings were very strong, and she was right.

Her baby was born in her bedroom and now, 75 years later, I don’t compare because we have many things that irritate us – like all this polarization; but if you think about the most encouraging things that give you confidence in your future and the future of the world, it’s the existence of the State of Israel. I can understand better, with every year, the feelings of my mother.

You have spoken quite a bit about how you discovered your Jewish identity and desire for freedom in tandem. How do you feel that Israel has contributed to that sense of freedom and identity since you discovered it?

The existence of Israel and, in a way, the existence of the Jewish people is the best demonstration of the importance of these two basic desires of people – to be free and to belong – and shows how they can empower one another. The Jewish people got their identity and their freedom at the same time, when they left Egypt. In Exodus, the first time they are mentioned as a people, with a very clear identity as a nation, was when they left Egypt. It was Pharaoh who first called them “Am” [a people], and they also got freedom and a clear identity at Mount Sinai.


Ben Gurion declares Israeli independence in 1948: “The existence of Israel and, in a way, the existence of the Jewish people is the best demonstration of the importance of these two basic desires of people – to be free and to belong – and shows how they can empower one another.” (Photo: Public domain)

And for a thousand years, what were we fighting for? For our right to live freely in accordance with our identity. And then Israel was established. It could not be created as a non-Jewish state and it would never have succeeded in gathering all the Jews if not for its freedom. And I believe that all our internal fights are around how to keep a balance between our freedom and our identity. If you look at this current period, it seems very problematic; but if you look from the perspective of someone 75 years ago or 2,000 years ago, we have every reason to be optimistic.

There is no other nation or any other state which embodies the strength of this connection. And if you look at history and compare us with Israel 50 years ago, we have much more freedom and much more identity. We have far more of a Jewish and democratic state, so that’s the direction we’re heading in. Unfortunately, today there are so many fights between those who say that because of our identity and the importance of the Jewish state, we have to undermine the principles of democracy and vice versa. It’s only an illusion. Our history and our triumphs are the best proof of how important it is for these two things to go together.

You often discuss how a connection to Israel is one of the most important elements of contemporary Jewish identity, particularly for younger people. Can you speak about why that is? How did you come to that realization and what does that look like today?

Well, first of all, it came from my own experience. I grew up having zero connection with anything Jewish except through antisemitism. So all your desires to succeed professionally and personally in spite of being a Jew mean there’s no way you’re ready to fight. You know that there is no freedom and you live under permanent self-censorship and it was very uncomfortable. But the question is ‘Will you fight for it?’

It was Israel that came in a very powerful way to the center of our life, from the Six-Day War, and it allowed us to discover our identity, that we have a history, we are a people and we have a state. That gave us the strength to fight for our Jewish rights and for a better world.

I have had a lot of conversations with young people. I have visited more than 100 universities globally. I said 20-something years ago to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon that the most important battle for the future of the Jewish people is on the campuses of American universities.

Everybody wants tikkun olam [repairing the world]. If you don’t want tikkun olam, you’re probably not Jewish. But when people simply want tikkun olam without any identity, and you have no power and your life is decadent, your life is very shallow. Look at how all these Birthright kids – whose bar mitzvah was the last time they’ve had a connection to being Jewish – suddenly discover that it’s cool and even interesting to live inside history. It makes their struggle for the world very different. Suddenly, they have energy, meaning and understanding.

All my experience shows that in our age of assimilation, the good, successful life of Jews in modern society contributes to assimilation and the strength of the united force of antisemitism from Left and Right also contributes to assimilation. In this age, there is no better way to quickly give Jews a brief injection of the importance and meaning of discovering their Jewish identity than coming to Israel.

The same can be said about the Jews of Israel, who very often lose the importance of being Jewish and say, ‘We are Israeli.’ They can also benefit from encounters with world Jewry. It humbles them. That’s why, when I was the head of The Jewish Agency, I always believed that the most important things were Israel Experience programs [for Diaspora Jewry] and our shlichim [emissaries] abroad.

When you look at Israel today, what worries you?

What worries me is that we’re starting to speak less and less to one another. There are a few factors behind this phenomenon. First of all, there was post-modernism, which made it clear that there was no absolute, no morality and so to unite a nation around some absolute truth was very problematic – some people deny their identity. And so a counter to this was the rise of populism and populist parties, which claim ‘We are right and they are wrong.’

Then, of course, there is the Internet, where everybody has their own Facebook account and people say, ‘Don’t look at my Facebook and I won’t look at yours.’ Now we have this progressive Woke movement, where every nation is divided into oppressors and oppressed and where people say, ‘Don’t tell me we’re one nation.’

All of this together has brought polarization all over the world, especially in America and Europe. As always, it comes later to Israel because we have a much stronger, healthier society, but two, three or five years after it becomes the world’s problem, it becomes ours too.


Sharansky on the anti-judicial reform protests: “Whether the government’s legal reforms will be fully implemented – which I hope will not happen – or whether the reforms will be fully denied – which I hope will not happen either – both of these problems are much less prominent than the real issue of us not talking to one another.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). 

For Israel, it’s much more dangerous because we’re a young nation, which means there are no books teaching how to bring people together from 150 different nations after 3,000 years, during which some of us didn’t even talk to one another, and how to turn us into one nation. Ben-Gurion was skeptical about the melting pot process, but Herzl happened to be right.

He spoke of the importance of Moses’ mosaic, which means we’re all different but together we can form a nation. That’s why here when different parts of the mosaic stop talking to one another, the process of dismantling can accelerate. That’s why we make decisions together. Of course, the army helped a lot to have this kind of melting pot because we could not afford a real melting pot and we have to remain a mosaic.

That’s why, of course, I’m concerned about the situation today. Someone posted on social media that whether the government’s legal reforms will be fully implemented – which I hope will not happen – or whether the reforms will be fully denied – which I hope will not happen either – both of these problems are much less prominent than the real issue of us not talking to one another, not knowing how to find a compromise with one another.

A few days ago, I had a really inspiring experience. There is an initiative started by a mother who lost her two children and said she really wanted people to start a dialogue and have meetings with one another. One of my daughters was involved.

They planned meetings with a lot of people who participated in different demonstrations, for and against the reforms. In all of these demonstrations, everybody carries the Israeli flag, so you simply can’t tell one apart from another. I found out there is something very powerful when 20 to 25 people, among them the organizers of demonstrations against and organizers of demonstrations for reforms, people living in Beit El and people living in northern Tel Aviv, come together.

There was a lot of tension and a lot of pain and people felt insulted, but in the end, when we finished at midnight, nobody wanted to leave. I don’t think that people changed their beliefs, but everybody understood that they don’t have a monopoly on pain and on fear.

And I believe that if all of our people go through this process – talking it out and understanding that the other side also feels real pain and the other side is afraid of you just as you’re afraid of them – it can help a lot. After all, we have such a great state and when we’re all trying to enjoy and live deep, meaningful lives, talking to one another and not shouting at one another is when we will be strongest.

That’s one point of hope. What else makes you hopeful about Israel’s future?

The external factors prove my point about freedom and identity. Israeli families – Arab families and Jewish families – are bringing more children into this world, far more than any part of the Free World, and that cannot be an accident. Because practically every study in the last 15 years, I think, finds that Israelis believe tomorrow will be better than today. No study says tomorrow will be worse than today.

Israelis are very optimistic people, and that optimism doesn’t come from nowhere. I believe that the basis of this optimism is that people here have three basic desires: to be something bigger than yourself, to live with your identity, and to live in freedom.

It’s very difficult to have that in the Free World today, but we do have it in Israel. Our economy is doing better than practically any other economy. Of course, we are undermining this great achievement by not listening to one another. I have many criticisms of how they’re doing these reforms, but people go too far when they are ready to call Israel a dictatorship and compare us to Turkey or Russia or even the Nazis, saying things like ‘Hitler also came in a democratic way and look what he did and now they’re trying to do it in Israel.’

The struggle is legitimate, but delegitimizing Israel in this way is awful. That’s why I say that if the reforms are fully implemented, there are a few points that are dangerous; and if the reforms are not implemented at all, that’s also dangerous. Judges electing judges is problematic. But with all these dangers, the biggest danger is that we’ve stopped speaking to each other. That’s what is undermining our unique success in our economy and our unique success in defending ourselves.

[Senior Israeli officials] met recently with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky and I have close relations with Ukraine’s leaders because of the war, the memorial at Babyn Yar and other things. Even in a moment of tension, because they’re unhappy that Israel is not helping them by giving them weapons, they still say that they have to learn from Israel and live like Israel.

For so many years, from the very beginning, we have lived among those who want to destroy us and we’re very successful with our army, and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has done a lot of good, especially with the economy. That’s why it is so sad to see that we, including our leaders, are undermining this great heritage by simply not taking into account what the other side thinks and instead seeking to make broad compromises and reach a consensus.

Our readers know about your history – they know about your activism, your being a refusenik, your time in prison, in politics, in government and at The Jewish Agency. What are you doing now?

I have so many chairmanships! At this moment, as chairman of the Combat Antisemitism Movement board of advisers, I’m dealing with global antisemitism, which is something that’s very continuous. Combating antisemitism is not confined to any organization but is rather a movement that is trying to get the entire world to accept an international definition of antisemitism. This is a key for success and it’s very important because it’s dealing specifically with the academic side, which is where so much of this originates.

A seminal part of this is the shlichim [emissaries] of The Jewish Agency to the campuses and the Israel Fellows, a program I created after my first trip to the campuses and which, when I was head of The Jewish Agency, I expanded from just a few people to dozens at more than 100 universities.

I’m also chairman of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Babyn Yar was the symbol of the Holocaust, the biggest graveyard of the Holocaust. Now we’re trying to turn it into the biggest Yad Vashem of Europe. It was very ambitious and not simple back then before the war and it’s even much more difficult today. It’s something I spend a lot of time on that gives me a lot of satisfaction.

In addition to this and the many other things I have today, I have eight grandchildren and that’s a very important success and I want to continue taking care of them. That is probably in the first place, not the last place.

And I understand you’re a marathon runner now.

I ran the family marathon in the last Jerusalem Marathon, which is two kilometers, for the first time. I ran with all my grandchildren – one of them is in a baby carriage – and both of my daughters, so it was really nice and I found it not so difficult.

But near us were people running the full 42.2 kilometers and we shouted out “Kol hakavod!” [Well done!] to them.

I thought, ‘What do I have to do to run 42 km.?’ So I made a plan: I will continue for two kilometers every day – it’s not so bad – and once a month, I’ll add 75 meters – also easy. I’ll make the full marathon exactly at the age of 120. So now I have a goal!

As we said at the beginning, Israel is 75 and you’re 75. What do you wish Israel on its birthday?

That we’ll run the marathon better than the rest of the world: 3,000 years, one people and there’s no end to this. That we’ll continue to be as successful as we want and that we’ll have enough air and enough strength in our muscles. We cannot let ourselves be number two – we always have to be number one. And I think we can do it.


Israel of the earth

Sarah Tuttle-Singer

Times of Israel, April 26, 2023

Come meet the Israel I know, where I live and love – what I see and hear and taste and smell and feel. Maybe you’ll feel it too

Israeli youth celebrating Independence Day (Photo: Yoram Biberman / Alamy Stock Photo)

The simple truth about Israel and the thing you may not know is this: it’s complicated.

It can’t be reduced to a news story on CNN or MSNBC or FOX News or even The Times of Israel. Israel is not a soundbite.

Israel is more than a place on the map in a religious school classroom, or the photos on the calendars that the mortuaries send out before the High Holidays.

Sure, there IS the Israel of abstraction, and it is truly beautiful — the Israel we think about when we pray. The one that the poets write about, and the one we dream about, and the one we hold in the highest regard. The Israel that can do no wrong. The Israel of the sky above.

And yes, there’s ALSO the Israel we argue about with our friends and strangers, maybe with our kids, or maybe with our parents or partners. The Israel that frustrates us sometimes, and worries us often. The Israel capable of breaking our hearts.

But there’s more to us than our policies or our politics or even our psalms. We aren’t just an academic exercise or a political litmus test or words written on an ancient scroll or a direction we face when we pray.


The iconic images of Israel as a centre of religion, history and controversy do not show the complexity and richness of Israeli society. (Photo: pxfuel). 

And I want to take you there now, with me, to the Israel I know, where I live and love — what I see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel, and maybe you’ll feel it, too.

This is Israel of the earth, of the market, of each color in each thread in the fabrics we wear, and the laundry drying on clotheslines in the noonday sun. We are the bounty of each passing season — mangoes in the summer, pomegranates in the autumn, clementines in the winter, and apricots in the spring and the people who sell them in the open stalls of the shuk. We are the shifts in the shape of the moon. We are the Israel of spices and songs, of cats yowling and babies crying, of ambulances wailing, of doors slamming, and windows opening, and the thrum of our own hopeful, hungry hearts beating like wings in our chests.

Israel of the earth is messy. And that’s what makes it so spectacularly beautiful.

It is the beggar with the tin cup outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, and the clatter of loose change as people pass. Israel is a plume of smoke rising as the ashes fall from the last cigarette before you quit forever. Israel is the hungry child with her hand outstretched and the one who feeds her, and the way the sunlight cuts through every shadow to illuminate each face.

It’s the woman who owns the plant nursery and gives away free flowers and herbs to people injured in terror attacks.

Israel is the hiss of the tea kettles, the gurgle of the cappuccino makers, and the sound the spoon makes when tapping the rim of your favorite coffee cup hand-painted by Armenian artisans. It’s the conversation between two friends from opposite ends of the political spectrum who never agree on anything — least of all who should be the prime minister — but who served together in the army and love each other like brothers.

Israel of the earth is the moment the sun crests over the horizon — it’s that feeling of waking up, as the city shuffles to life. It is the sound that worn fingers make when they turn the newspaper pages. Israel is the scraping of metal on metal as doors open onto the busy street, and the thwunk of the crates and barrels on the streets as the vendors arrange their tchockes, their books, or their fresh fruits and vegetables: mangoes, pomegranates, clementines, and apricots.

It’s the growl of the the jackhammer breaking ground for a new school in the Negev Desert, the plumber sighing, as he bends down to unclog a drain. It’s the tune he whistles — something his grandmother sang to him in Yiddish when he was a baby, that he remembers even now, half a century later.


A breadseller in Jerusalem (Photo: Pixabay, Creator: steven_yu)

Israel of the earth is the life in our streets — it’s the lurch of the buses as they rumble through the city. It’s the grandmother on the bus who sees a random soldier across the aisle and thrusts a Tupperware container of chicken and rice at him and tells him he looks too skinny and he needs to eat. It’s the bus driver singing along to Taylor Swift on the radio, and the yeshiva student trying not to hum along.

It’s the taxi drivers with the best stories and the advice (“Listen to your wife! Whatever she says, just do it, do it quickly, and do it with a smile!”). It’s the barista who is studying art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and will write your name on the foam, no extra charge, the chef who’s opening his first restaurant featuring a modern Israeli twist on his grandmother’s recipes from Morocco.

Israel of the earth is the alarm clocks going off every morning, and kids grumbling in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic, English, and Armenian: “Noooo, I don’t wanna go to school.” It’s their parents answering, “Too bad, it’s time to get up, you just might learn something.” It’s the jangle of metal keys locking doors, and unlatching bicycles, the Greek Orthodox priest and the Catholic priest both trying to out-pray the other in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Waqf officials throwing stale bread for the birds and cats on the Temple Mount, and the rabbi’s wife weeping against the Western Wall for their son to return safe and unharmed from his military service.

It’s the teacher who pays extra attention to the student in the back of the classroom with his head down. The student who says he doesn’t know. The student too overwhelmed to even ask the right question. Israel is her steady voice as she helps guide him through the words jumbled on the page, untangling the sentence until it suddenly makes sense, and he looks at her with a shining eyes and a smile stretched ear to ear. Israel is that a-ha moment when you cut through the clamor and the clatter, and the pieces fall into place.


An ultra-Othodox family visiting Ceasaria (Photo: Flickr, ). 

It’s that moment when the person who cut you off in line at Aroma pays for your coffee when you’re five shekels short, or the overtired nurse who stays late to make sure you get a doctor’s appointment because she can hear the fear in your voice. It’s the bus driver who makes a quick detour to buy fresh strawberries to give to his passengers before Shabbat. It’s a conversation on the train between two strangers — a man covered in tattoos and a man wearing a kippah — about whether God exists.

Israel of the earth is innovation — it’s the punk kid who barely finished high school but gets his act together to form a startup that works to end world hunger because he remembers what it was like to grow up poor without enough to eat. It’s the single mother working two jobs and studying to be a pharmacist, but who still makes it home before bedtime to read to her kids and tuck them in. It’s the artist in Jaffa who finds old pieces of junk — scrap metal,  bicycle chains, broken watches, rusty bottle caps, and softened shards of sea glass washed up on the shore — and takes these old, broken and discarded things and uses them to make something magnificent. It’s the group of teenagers who spend their weekends at the beach picking up cigarette butts, empty bottles, and old Styrofoam containers, who protest against global warming, who implement recycling programs at their schools because they care about tikkun olam –– repairing the world.

Israel of the earth is a leap of faith.

Israel of the earth is the protectors and the survivors — the border police on their patrols through the streets, standing guard at the intersections, the sound of their boots scuffing the stones, the static from their radios, the shriek of an ambulance, followed by another and another, after a terror attack. It is the first responders, the people on the street running toward a terror attack instead of away from it because their first instinct is to help and heal and save lives… even when it sometimes means putting their own lives at risk. It’s the wail of the family left behind, the choice they make to keep on living despite the anguish, despite the overwhelming loss.

It’s the Holocaust survivors who saw their families murdered, who somehow made it out of Hitler’s maw alive, and came to Israel and met and fell in love, and had children and grandchildren — a strong and thriving answer to the worst horrors imaginable, and a promise to the world: Never Again.

Israel of the earth is the healers — the doctors who use their vacation time to fly to provide disaster relief around the world in far-flung places. They are the first ones in and the last ones out. They’re the ones who bring Syrians across the border to treat their wounds in Israeli hospitals, or volunteer in Palestinian villages because despite the tensions between our communities, at the end of the day, we are all human and vulnerable and capable of both terrible suffering and spectacular empathy.

It is the healthcare workers who showed up every day during those terrifying first weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Arabs and the Jews who were united by a common enemy, and worked tirelessly together. Israel of the earth is the people who will nearly come to blows over politics, but will stand united by the tens of thousands on their balconies and porches and applaud our healthcare workers for their bravery.

Israel of the earth embraces life — it is a joyful celebration by the Western Wall when, with tambourines and timbrels, family and friends accompany the bar mitzvah boy. It is the sound of breaking glass at a wedding, and a jubilant “MAZAL TOV” shouted in hundreds of voices! It is a woman’s hand trembling when she holds a pregnancy test, and the sparkle in her eyes when she discovers she is carrying new life, and recites the Shehechiyanu: “Thank you Hashem for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for bringing us to this moment in time.”

Israel of the earth is possibility — it is a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim who walk into a café — and no, it isn’t the beginning of a joke. It’s the beginning of a conversation about God and faith and the future between our communities. It is the families who go to the Pride Parade in Jerusalem to celebrate love and diversity, the people who volunteer with Holocaust survivors who live alone, the ones who plant olive trees, and drive for hours in the middle of a frigid winter to bring hot tureens of soup and hot chocolate to the soldiers defending our home. It is the protestors, too, who envision a more just and equal shared society for all who share the land, and are willing to work for it.

Israel of the earth is the beating of doves’ wings when they take flight way, way up into the sky.

It is that moment when life transcends the ordinary because the people who are part of this place are nothing less than extraordinary.

A massive street party in Tel Aviv (Photo: Flickr, City of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Photography: Guy Yechiely)

And sometimes, Israel of the earth is frustrating. It’s loud and chaotic. It struggles. It’s constantly on the defensive — after all, the Israel of the earth has never known a day of peace since we came into being. But just as the biblical Jacob wrestled with God to become Israel, so, we too wrestle in Israel with our own identity. After all, we are still a very, very young country, while always rooted in history and ancient dreams.

And above all, the Israel of the earth is a glorious work in progress — and all these things about it are true, made more beautiful still by the people in it who are helping shape it. And all who visit get to be part of that — not just experiencing the Israel of the earth — but sharing it, and creating it too.

So come visit us. Come see it. Have tea with us — or a coffee —  and sit for a while with your eyes and ears and hearts wide open.

Shalom Alechem. Salaam Aleikum. Peace be upon you. And welcome, to you, and you, and you.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer, author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel, She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems. She now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors and talks to strangers, and writes stories about people. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She also loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.


Israeli Public’s Commitment to Democracy Shines as the Country Turns 75

 

by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky

The National Interest, April 27, 2023

Just as the attempted judicial overhaul aroused the Israeli public to stand up to defend the democratic character of the state, we may also see the public act against another threat to the character of the state—namely, becoming a binational state.

 


Fireworks over Haifa, as Israel celebrated its 75th Independence Day last week (Photo: Shutterstock, RnDmS)

Israel turns seventy-five this week. Most Israelis certainly didn’t anticipate this kind of commemoration as the country is engulfed in its biggest domestic crisis since its inception.

Yet this crisis is turning into the very gift that Israelis are giving to themselves and others for their birthday. It turns out that for all the talk that democracy cannot take root in countries where there is no democratic tradition, Israel’s demographic makeup tells a very different story. Notwithstanding that the majority of its population today has immigrated from across the Middle East, people are strongly committed to their freedoms.

With now sixteen straight weeks of demonstrations often totaling up to 4 percent of the entire population, one sees the depth of the Israeli public’s commitment to democracy. Nowhere else in the Middle East would even one week of such demonstrations be met with anything but massive bloodshed—and this extraordinary grassroots movement is a reminder that Israelis won’t tolerate the threat to end the separation of powers and an independent judiciary. Israelis won’t accept a majoritarian approach to the country that fails to respect the rights of minorities and preserves the rule of law.

The Israeli public has been aroused by what they see as a threat to Israel’s democratic character. Many of those demonstrating now have never demonstrated before. Reservists from elite air, naval, and commando units; the high-tech sector; the universities going on strike, hospitals offering only emergency services—all this forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call for a pause and to signal he understands that any such judicial change must reflect a broad consensus in Israel. The story is not over by any means, but the Israeli public has acted in an unprecedented way because it perceived a threat to the democratic fabric of the country. At this point, the tide seems to have turned in favor of the grassroots democracy movement.

There are many lessons from this crisis that will be discussed for some time, but one of them surely is how a society that is fundamentally resilient can self-correct, especially when seeking to preserve its democratic identity. In Israel’s case, being a Jewish-democratic state is part of its ethos and that means both sides of the hyphen must flourish or they will each whither. In this framework, a Jewish-democratic state has meant equal voting rights whether one is Jewish or not for the last seventy-five years.

It is true that the Palestinian issue has not been the focus of the grassroots democracy movement in Israel. But there is no way to preserve Israel as a Jewish democracy without addressing the Palestinian issue. Those Israelis who favor yielding land in the West Bank do so not just to maintain dignity for Palestinians, but to ensure that Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. This is critical to understand. For those Israeli leaders who take two states for two peoples off the table, they leave only one state as the answer—or their silence and the absence of a story to tell about the endgame of the conflict with the Palestinians leaves a vacuum. On the inside in Israel, there are extremist ministers like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich who are only too happy to fill it.

But we also see there are those on the outside who, from a very different perspective, will seek to fill the intellectual and policy vacuum left by seemingly departing from two states for two peoples as a goal.

A case in point is the recent Foreign Affairs article written by Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami, entitled “Israel’s One State Reality.” Regrettably, they offer a one-sided view of the conflict and present a picture that seems divorced from reality. In the Barnett et al telling, there is only a denial of Palestinian rights. One would not know that there are rejectionist threats against Israel. That Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas deny Israel’s right to exist, support terror against it—and would even if there was no occupation—and acquire and develop weapons to act on their aims. Barnett et al note Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and say that Israel retained control over the territory’s entry and exit points and the air and sea around it. Why? No mention is made of the fact that even after Israel withdrew, Hamas continued to carry out attacks against it and still does eighteen years later.

Hamas has never put the development of Gaza over its aims of resistance against Israel. It went from having roughly 3,000 rockets after the 2014 conflict to having over 30,000 in the 2021 conflict. Hamas used that time not just to acquire rockets but to build an underground city of tunnels, exploiting materials (concrete, electrical wiring, steel, and wood) that could and should have been used to develop and build Gaza above ground. The tunnels weren’t to protect the people of Gaza by creating shelters. Rather, their purpose was to protect Hamas leaders, fighters, and weapons and to be used to try to infiltrate Israel. If Barnett et al are concerned about Israel’s control of entry and exits from Gaza, why not call for Hamas to give up its rockets and stop building tunnels in return for a Marshall Plan for Gaza and an end to such Israeli control? Why not call on Hamas to accept a two-state solution?

But sadly the authors are more concerned with indicting Israel than promoting Palestinian needs and rights. In a world in which the authors are indifferent to the threats that Israel faces, it is not a leap to argue, as they do, to condition military aid to Israel in order to terminate Israeli military rule over Palestinians. How do the authors think the Iranians, Hezbollah, and Hamas would react to an American cut-off of military assistance to Israel? Would that make conflict less likely? Would that reassure others in the region about the threats they are likely to face? Wouldn’t the forces that produce failed and failing states in the region—Iran’s greatest export—perceive great opportunity in such a circumstance? We have seen a foretaste this spring. Amid all the announcements that Israeli pilots and elite forces were threatening to refrain from reserve duty due to the democracy demonstrations, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah openly talked about Israel’s early collapse. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya rushed to Beirut amid talk about the possibilities of a united front.

None of this is a concern to the authors. They are far more concerned with Israel being a Jewish state which “fosters a form of ethnic nationalism rather than a civic one…” For the authors, this is a sin, and while they acknowledge that it is not a perfect fit, they still apply the apartheid label to Israel. But apartheid was an ideology of subjugation of a large majority by a small minority; it promulgated a legal structure to ensure the power and control of the white minority over the black majority of people, permitting them to live only in certain areas, to have only certain kinds of jobs, go to certain schools, with limited access to any legal remedies. Is there inequality in Israel (as there is in the United States and in other democracies)? Yes. Is it written into the law, no. Is there a minority oppressing a majority with a legal edifice justifying it? No.

But the apartheid label fits the authors’ purpose of indicting Israel and justifying its call for creating equality in one state. There is equality before the law in Israel of its citizens, including its Arab citizens who vote and hold parliamentary and judicial office, even if this is not necessarily realized in the daily reality of those citizens. Obviously, the Palestinians in the West Bank are treated differently.

And, to be fair, there is a drift toward a binational state that needs to be arrested and reversed. We wrote a book about the need for Israel to have a political leadership that will make the hard decisions—and override the inevitable backlash of those like Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and extremist settlers—to ensure that Israel does not become a binational state where either it gives up being a democracy or it gives up being a Jewish state.

By definition, in a binational state, Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic. For the extreme in Israel, they see no contradiction between being Jewish and denying rights to Palestinians. We do. Unlike the authors, who see the extremist vision having “strong grounding in Zionist thought and practice,” we see that vision as a fundamental contradiction of Zionism and its basic values. The most important Zionist theorists and leaders shared a deep belief in democracy and the rights of all people, including that the rights to Arabs must not be denied.

In no small part, the backlash today in Israel and the strong movement domestically to save Israel’s democratic character is a response to an extremist vision of Israel. They see the Supreme Court as the institutional safeguard against those trying to impose their values on the country—whether it is to block the religious parties trying to impose their values on the secular majority in Israel or it is the settler-dominated parties who don’t want the Court to block their ability to claim private Palestinian land.

One of the basic things that Barnett et al fail to see is that the democracy movement has the potential to address not just the internal threat to Israel’s democratic character but also the one posed by continuing occupation of Palestinians. Drifting toward a binational state is also a threat to Israel as a Jewish democracy. Yes, to date that drift has seemed far too abstract to produce a serious public backlash against it—especially with Hamas in control of Gaza, the Palestinian Authority characterized by dysfunction and corruption, and no sign of any Palestinian willingness to compromise. But with an aroused Israeli public more sensitive to the threats to democracy, it may no longer be possible to postpone the necessary debate on the dangers of a binational state.

While Barnett et al put the onus only on Israel, two states for two peoples requires something of the Palestinians as well. In fact, a serious Palestinian move to reform the Palestinian Authority or a determined and more public and peaceful form of Palestinian protest against occupation could help stimulate the debate in Israel. Violence plays into the hands of those in Israel who favor one state. They see it as definitive proof that Israeli territorial concessions will make it more vulnerable and not more secure. But ultimately one state is a threat to Israel and the drift toward it needs to be addressed.

For Barnett et al, one state is not just a reality, it appears desirable. But this, too, is a misreading because there is no such thing as a one-state solution. The authors fail to understand that the separate national identities of Israelis and Palestinians are deeply rooted and will not melt away. Both Israelis and Palestinians have paid a heavy price to preserve who they are. Israelis have built a state in an environment where they were rejected and wars were forced on it. Does a country with a flourishing culture and which successfully achieved its raison d’être by ingathering more than a million Jews from the Soviet Union, as well as providing a home to Jews from Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, and throughout discriminated communities in the Middle East, suddenly yield that identity? Does a country of close to ten million—over seven million Jews and two million Israeli Arab citizens—that has persevered through wars to become the “start-up” nation with a GDP per capita now ahead of Germany, Britain, France, and Japan, say their state and identity has failed?

Contrary to the claims of its advocates, the “One-State Solution” does not even really exist, because “one state” can never be a viable resolution to the conflict  (Image: Youtube screenshot of an Al-Jazeerabroadcast)

Palestinians, too, have persevered. In their dispersal, in the refugee camps, and through two intifadas and profound suffering, they have not surrendered their identity. Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah activist who remains close to Marwan Barghouti, once explained why he favored two states: “in one state, one of us [Israelis or Palestinians] will feel the need to dominate the other.” Ghneim is right. A binational state would guarantee that the conflict would turn inward. For a country that does not share the same language, religion, or experience, this would turn into a nightmare very quickly.

Two states for two peoples may be difficult to achieve but it serves both Israeli and Palestinian interests. Barnett et al are too focused on their one-state reality to address how it would be certain to doom both Israelis and Palestinians to enduring conflict. Indeed, the bloodiest wars are civil wars. Having a flag and a soccer team is not enough. The authors ignore that in the Middle East there is not a post-nationalism reality. Every state in the region that is characterized by more than one sectarian, tribal, or national identity is either at war internally or completely paralyzed. Does anyone really want Israel-Palestine to look like the tragic conflicts that have engulfed Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, or Yemen? Is that the future that we should hope for these two peoples?

Yes, it is hard to go from where we are to two states for two peoples. And, yes the United States tried three times to achieve an end of conflict result requiring major compromise. You would not know from the authors of the essay that the Palestinians were a large part of the failure of those efforts, even if there is enough blame to go around. Even if the end of conflict moment is not at hand, Israel needs to have a policy that has two states for two peoples as a destination. The starting point for getting there is having that as a vision; moving to improve the realities on the ground for Palestinians; reforming the Palestinian Authority the way it was done in 2007 when Salaam Fayyad came in and restored law and order and created transparency economically; pressing the Israelis to help a reforming PA to deliver; restoring a sense of possibility for both Palestinian and Israeli public.

Given the complex realities of the Middle East, it is not enough for an idea to have abstract appeal. It has to provide very detailed, real-world answers that would satisfy deeply held nationalist aspirations on each side of this conflict. One state cannot and will not do that. If one state may seem too simple and misguided, that is because it is.

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization. Ambassador Ross’s distinguished diplomatic career includes service as special assistant to President Barack Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Middle East Envoy to President Bill Clinton, and Director of Policy Planning for President George H.W. Bush.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations. He is also an adjunct professor in Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In 2013–2014, he worked in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State, serving as a senior advisor to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.

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