Israel at 64: Love is Complex

Paul McCartney worried for all us when he famously sang, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" When we love someone deeply, of course age doesn't matter, but there is a fear, when we are younger, that love can wear off, that the feelings we had in our youth cannot or will not survive a long marriage, which can often bring challenge, disappointment and regret as we age together. The most beautiful of relationships, in any context, are able to not only survive, but to thrive, not by ignoring issues or challenges, but by dealing with them, addressing them and trying to learn from them. The love at the core of the relationship is what sustains us.

As I have gotten older, I have come to understand Ecclesiastes (Kohellet) famous words in chapter 3: "there is a time for everything under heaven." Earlier in my life, I didn't know why he articulated that there was a "time for hating ... a time for war ... a time to refrain from embracing ... a time for despair." As a younger person, I wanted to believe that hate and war and isolating ourselves were symptoms of a world that was not fully formed, a world that was not yet fully enlightened, a world not yet complete. And while that may be true, I have come to better understand Kohellet as saying that in the world in which we find ourselves, in human reality, there will be times when we have to seek love in the midst of hate, we will have to seek peace in the midst of war, we will have to try to embrace in the midst of isolation. And, we will have to celebrate in the midst of despair. So, it is in the midst of these polarities that I find myself coming to think about and articulate celebratory thoughts as we honor Israel's 64th birthday, Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.

While it is fashionable to try and focus only on the good and happy aspects of a person or a nation on their birthday, I want to use Kohellet's teaching to balance what feels like a necessary moment to both celebrate the joys and achievements of Israel, and analyze and discuss some of the challenges facing Israel today. I want to try and balance between what I received from the Jewish National Fund this week, reminding me of all the amazing things Israel does and gives to the world with no mention of any of the struggles, and what I have been reading from uber-critics that have nothing nice or positive to say about Israel this week. To be sure, the Jewish community, the Israeli community, the world community, is in a huge discussion right now about the challenges, which vary depending on if you read Peter Beinart, Daniel Gordis or Prime Minister Netanyahu. And, to be sure, there are incredible achievements to celebrate, from Nobel Prizes to medical advances, from humanitarian gestures to technological genius, from economic success to literary and artistic gems. I spent time in the past few weeks trying, on the one hand, to convince my Methodist pastor friend why a divestment proposal by the church being discussed right now at their national convention is bad for Israel and relations with the Jewish community, and on the other hand, arguing with a friend as to why settlement expansion is a major issue in trying to make peace. It is tightrope when talking about Israel, if we are addressing all sides of the complexity. As Dr. Michael Berenbaum, our speaker this past week at PJTC reminded us in regard to the Holocaust, the Jewish people are today different than they have ever been in the past, in control of their fate in all places that they live, in Israel and in the diaspora communities around the globe. That control, and that success, demands of us different approaches to celebration and achievement. I jump for joy, as we celebrate the blessing and miracle that is the State of Israel, a return to our holy land as a people, living out dreams and destinies, changing our future, securing our future. I hope others can feel joy for the Jewish people, too. There is deep simcha, deep joy in the fact that we are celebrating 64 years, but along with that deep joy, as we know from our counting of the Omer, we are called to balance that with the appropriate measure of seriousness, of discipline and of honesty.

In my estimation, the biggest issue facing Israel right now, and it is not a happy situation, is whether or not the government is going to follow the path toward war with Iran, thereby continuing to not deal seriously with the main obstacle to living in peace, dealing with the Palestinians and finding a way to end the occupation, and not seriously focusing on the religious fanaticism, Jewish religious fanaticism, that is starting to overtake the civilian life of the country. So, we can put the candles on the cake, sing together songs of joy, but we must also think about tomorrow, the next day, for birthdays take on a different meaning when we are suffering. And this is not to say that Israelis would say they are suffering. The economy is strong, tourism is up, terror is way down, and the average Israeli on the street will probably tell you that life is great, no worries, al hakefack, as they say in Hebrew! But, as a friend, as a lover of Israel, as a passionate Zionist, as someone who cares so much about Israel's future, I feel that when a friend is in trouble, in a state of denial perhaps about the reality, unable to see clearly from clouded vision, either by fear, hysteria, myopia or just plain closed eyes, it is incumbent upon me to try and help that friend see what is really happening, even on, and perhaps especially on, a big day like a birthday. It is a day when we have a heightened sense of awareness and, hopefully, openness to hear things that might get ignored on any other day. A birthday is special not only for the accolades and gifts, but for the true love and devotion one shares. Birthdays are markers in time, moments for self-reflection and introspection as much as they are about parties, parades and self-congratulatory speeches. This is the way of tiferet, the attribute in the Kabbalah of balance, harmony and beauty. Leon Wielseltier said it well this week, in a piece entitled "The Lost Art," when he wrote, "So Israel must be defended and Israel must be criticized. Almost nobody any longer practices the lost art of doing both at the same time, with similar emphasis, out of equally intense convictions, in a single breath."

And so, with love and commitment, along with a healthy dose of a grandma's worry and concern, we wish our beloved Israel yom huledet sameach, happy 64th! We have had 64 years of building a homeland for the Jewish people, an heroic task that has at times succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, and of which we are immensely proud, and at times let us down in deep and painful ways. That is what it means to be in a loving relationship. Nobody is perfect, and I will always stand with and defend Israel in our world, even as I continue to prod and poke at the policies of the government when they do things that endanger the future of the very homeland we cherish. I stand with the Israeli generals who are calling for serious peacemaking, with the Israeli generals that understand that a war with Iran is the worst possible option for Israel to take at this time, with the Israeli politicians and citizens of the State of Israel who understand that the increasingly belligerent tone that Israel is presenting to the world, coupled with the increasing fundamentalism in the civil-religious society, are huge dangers to the future. And, I stand with the filmmakers of "Footnote," a beautiful and poignant Israeli film that graced the world this year; with Masorti rabbis who are making inroads for equality in religious freedom, including the momentous decision this week to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis; and with the Israelis who are educating their children in a pluralistic and inclusive way. Dr. Berenbaum concluded his talk by reminding us that we cannot simultaneously be victors and victims if we want to survive. In Kohellet's formula, there is a time for victimhood and a time for victory. On this birthday, I embrace, and encourage my brothers and sisters in Israel to embrace, being victors, thereby heralding a new way of seeing themselves and their destiny in the world. I can't think of a better birthday present.