Like some of the past celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day, the fuss being made about Israel’s 70th birthday this year hasn’t penetrated too far into the American Jewish consciousness. While those Jewish activists who are already interested in Israel-oriented events are doing their best to acknowledge the passage of seven decades since 1948, for millions of Americans who identify themselves as Jews, Yom Ha’atzmaut, April 19, was just another day on the calendar.
The problem in our thinking about 70 years of Israeli independence is rooted in its normalcy. Those who grew up in the second half of the 20th century, let alone the 21st, think of Israel’s existence as a given. We relate to it in terms of what we think of its prime minister or our opinions about what it should do to solve the conflict with the Palestinians, with battles over religious pluralism and its treatment of migrants from Africa — or whatever the issue of the day might be.
But its 70th birthday is an apt moment to try to take the long view of Israel’s importance.
What has been forgotten in its rise to the status of a first-world economy and a regional military superpower is just how unlikely its existence was considered before 1948 and what that has meant to the lives of every Jew on this planet.
A century ago, even after the Balfour Declaration gave the Zionist movement its first real triumph, the notion of a Jewish state in what was then called Palestine was still considered a fantasy. For nearly 2,000 years, the Jews had been deprived of sovereignty over any part of their ancient homeland. Homelessness was not merely an unavoidable element of the plight of the Jews, but part of their identity. Many religious and secular Jews — each of them thinking this way as a result of different reasons and ideologies — embraced the absence of the Jewish people from the world stage as a virtue.
Many religious Jews thought that a return to the Land of Israel must await the arrival of the messiah. Secular liberals believed values rooted in universalism were a better defense than sovereignty over their own land. Zionism — the notion that Jews must take charge of their own fate — was, even after Theodor Herzl helped found the modern movement, supported by only a minority of the Jewish people and had little backing from non-Jews.
Yet however the Jews conceived of their role in the world, the non-Jewish world thought of them as a largely despised and homeless minority. The consequences of this for Jewish security everywhere were incalculable. Anti-Semites have always had a variety of contradictory reasons for hating the Jews. Regardless of the motives of the haters, the lack of a national home inevitably rendered efforts at defense futile in a world in which Jews were thought of as deicides by Christians and as a dhimmi people who deserved second-class status by Muslims.
Herzl’s insight was based on his experience covering the trial of Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus in France in the 1890s. He understood that if crowds could still cry “death to the Jews” in what was then thought of as the freest and most liberal nation in the world, any hope of Jewish security in Europe was a mirage. He was right. Jews had no future in Europe or a Muslim world where they could never hope to be treated as equals. While the democracies of Britain and the United States proved to be havens of safety, only the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland could provide an answer to the precarious nature of diaspora life.
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Herzl was wrong about a Jewish state solving the problem of anti-Semitism. That most potent virus has shown its ability to adapt itself to the ideologies of the 20th century and now focuses its animus on Israel. Yet he was right when he supposed the creation of a nation for the Jews would change the lives of every Jew for the better. What happened in 1948, and in the years that followed, caused every Jew in the world — whether religious or non-religious, Zionist or non-Zionist — to stand a little taller. It also changed the way much of the world looked at Jewish existence for the better.
What is needed on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not so much a day of cheering for modern Israel, though it certainly deserves plaudits for its economic achievements, military valor and vibrant culture. Rather, what is called for is an appreciation of how extraordinary the mere fact of its existence is in the context of Jewish history. Its rebirth and ability to defend itself and thrive in the face of continued hate and terrorism is something previous generations of Jews would have considered a miracle. Though many of us may scoff at such terms and prefer to focus on geostrategic realities (as well as what is often the necessary process of self-criticism), we should not be so quick to dismiss this perspective.
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Like any human creation, Israel is imperfect and faces problems. But what the country and its people have done in the last 70 years is something few rational individuals would have imagined possible before they did it. In our own time and with our own eyes, we have seen 70 years of miracles as the Jewish state survived, thrived and enriched the lives of all Jews, even if they lived elsewhere. That is the point of Israel at 70 and why we should pause this week and appreciate what it means to all of us.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate.