Posted on May 7, 2018 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
“When God returns the exiles to Zion, we will be like dreamers.” – Psalm 126
The State of Israel is the fulfillment of a dream. As we sing in Hatikvah, the modern return to Zion was a hope — a dream of 2,000 years!
Today, on Israel’s 70th birthday, it still seems like a miracle that a people could renew its national life after 2,000 years of living among the nations of the world — an existence that was precarious and tenuous, and frequently disastrous.
The founding of the State of Israel was an extraordinary turn of history — a new lease on life for a people decimated by the Shoah. A bleak outlook for our future became one filled with promise, albeit amidst continued great uncertainty. The early years were marked by an existential struggle with hostile neighbors who were numerous and better armed, and of the challenge to create the human and physical infrastructure to sustain, govern, and manage a diverse population, most of whom arrived just as the state was born, or shortly thereafter. Most of these immigrants were either survivors of the Holocaust or refugees from Arab lands that, with the founding of the Jewish State, had suddenly turned hostile to Jews.
Today, one has to marvel at what has been accomplished in just 70 years. The physical reality of Israel is that of an impressive modern nation with economic and military strength and world-class cities. Millions of Jews from all over the world have made aliyah and been absorbed into the multi-colored tapestry of Israeli society. The Hebrew language has been revived and has been used to create great works of literature and scholarship. Israel has also developed world-class cultural institutions, artistic creativity of all types, fabulous cuisine, award-winning wines, and so much more.
Israel is home to top-notch universities that help fuel cutting-edge technologies of all sorts, especially digital, medical, and agricultural. One example that hasn’t received sufficient coverage in the western press is the fact that Israel has resolved its dependence on rain through economically efficient desalinization. In this era of damaging climate change and increasing desertification, Israel stands out as the only nation in the world to counter this trend.
And yet, for all that Israel is the fulfillment of a dream of 2,000 years, there are many ways in which it has failed to live up to its promise. Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Compared to the rest of the Middle East, Israel is a bastion of freedom and enlightenment. But compared to the standards of western liberal democracy to which Israel intentionally set out to aspire, it has come up short on many fronts.
The 20 percent of Israelis who are Arabs enjoy complete religious and political freedom, which is no small thing, but there are huge economic and social gaps between them and Israel’s Jewish citizens. Israeli Palestinian Arabs bear an equal share of the tax burden but do not receive a just proportion of state allocations for their municipalities to fund education and infrastructure. This population has been extraordinarily loyal to the Jewish state, especially considering the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but its loyalty has not been requited adequately, and there is a deeply troubling increase in anti-Arab racism, which the government has failed to address sufficiently.
Ironically, non-Jews enjoy greater freedom of religious expression in Israel than Jews who are not Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox state rabbinate has a monopoly on Judaism that ranges from funding of rabbis and synagogues to kashrut, marriage, divorce, conversion, most burials, and religious education. As most of you know, there are Reform and Conservative Jewish institutions in Israel, but they receive little or no funding from the government and are denied legitimacy when it comes to all matters pertaining to Jewish status, such as marriage and conversion. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men receive draft exemptions to study Torah, while others put their lives on the line to defend them and their country — a fact that is a source of outrage to a majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens. As if all this weren’t enough, both the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox populations rank prominently among the poorest of Israel’s citizens, with all the complications that brings.
After decades of humanitarian leadership around the world, including always being among the first to send advanced medical and relief teams to sites of natural disasters like Haiti and Turkey, the government of Israel has hardened its heart to 40,000 asylum seekers from Africa, claiming that they are illegal immigrants and opportunists who should be deported. A significant proportion of Israelis, many of whom are Holocaust survivors who cannot accept the idea that the Jewish state would close its borders to refugees, look upon these people with compassion and openness. Fortunately, Israel’s Supreme Court, in its enlightenment, has issued a stay on their expulsion.
And then there is the ongoing occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Yes, Israel has made significant attempts to resolve this situation over the years, which have been thwarted by the failures of the Palestinian leadership and the actions of the Israeli right, especially the settler movement. The Palestinian leadership has failed time and again to make the commitments necessary to achieve peace and reconciliation, and the massive growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is making the possibility of a two-state solution less and less realistic.
Some American Jews are so disappointed that they are giving up on Israel. This is a terrible decision. First, there is simply too much good in Israel to render such harsh judgment. Be critical and speak loudly and responsibly about Israel’s flaws, but do so in a way that is loyal to our people and fair to those who bear the burden of the reality on the ground. Most importantly, understand that approximately half of the Jewish population of Israel shares your disappointments and needs our support in their struggle for Israel’s future.
The renewal of Jewish sovereignty is a miracle after 2,000 years. It is a reality that every Jew and all who would be our allies should cherish, not just as a dream come true but also as an unparalleled opportunity. The dream shouldn’t end with the return to Zion. The return is just the beginning, and the first 70 years are just prelude and prologue to the story that will yet unfold. As the psalm says, “when God returns the exiles to Zion, we will be like dreamers.”
To realize the exalted vision enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence will require the full commitment and participation of the entire Jewish people the world over. Israelis cannot and must not be left to do this alone. We American Jews must bring the fullness of our spirit to the cause of building Zion into the beacon of light we envision. Israel needs us as full partners. It needs both our love and our passion. It especially needs our experience of liberal democracy and our commitment to justice.
So, let us continue to dream dreams of Zion. Let us renew our embrace of Israel on this auspicious birthday of our precious Jewish State. And let us work shoulder to shoulder with our Israeli sisters and brothers to bring about the full realization of our highest dreams.
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Originally published in the May-June 2018 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.