Israel's 66th Birthday Celebration: a Spiritual Progressive Perspective

I still celebrate Israel's existence even while I deplore its racism and oppressive policies toward the Palestinian people, just as I celebrate the existence of the U.S. even as I deplore the genocide of Native Americans and the enslaving of African Americans which accompanied the creation of my homeland here in North America.

I celebrate Israel not only because I believe that until all remnants of teaching hatred toward the Jews is eliminated from the New Testament and the Koran that Jews need to feel that they have protection from the deep-seated anti-Semitism that persists in our world and will persist as long as two major religions have negative things to say about us. I also celebrate Israel because of the amazingly vibrant culture, scientific achievement and intellectual creativity I've encountered there in the years that I lived there and in subsequent visits. And I'm glad that Israel provided a homeland to so many Jews who were refugees from oppression, though I mourn not only for the Israelis who lost their lives defending the newly emerging state in 1948, and the many victims of terrorism against Israelis ever since, but also the many victims of Jewish terrorism that contributed to the flight of 800,000 Palestinians in what they recall as the Nakba (the Disaster).

And yet, every year I mourn for Judaism that has become increasingly identified with a blind loyalty to the State of Israel and its policies, and the willingness of Jewish religious leaders to call it "the Jewish state" and see it as a religious duty to support its current government policies toward Palestinians. Those policies are in complete opposition to the Torah's most frequently repeated injunction, namely one version or another of the following command: "When you come into your land, do not oppress the stranger (the other, ha'ger), remember that you were strangers (the Other) in the land of Egypt."

Israel today presents the Jews as one of the more arrogant nations on the planet. Having entered into an agreement to release prisoners as part of the deal that allowed the Palestinian Authority to engage in negotiations even while Israel continued to expand Israeli settlers on the West Bank, Israel then refused to fulfill its agreement and then suspended the negotiations altogether when the Palestinians sought membership in various U.N. committees. Over and over again, Israel has double standards for Israelis and Palestinians, violating the Torah injunction "One law shall be for you and the stranger that dwells in your midst." Israeli Human Rights organizations like B'tselem continue to document Israeli human rights violations and violations of international law. And I've witnessed first hand the oppressiveness of the Occupation on the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians. It's enough to make a Jewish soul cry in despair.

What's worst is that the central motif of Judaism has been perverted by what has become the defacto idolatry for Israel worship. Go into any synagogue or Jewish community center and say that you don't believe in God, don't think highly of Torah, and certainly don't follow Jewish law, and you are likely to be greeted and welcomed in with a smile and a shrug. But say you don't support Israel and immediately you will be shunned and told you are likely a self-hating Jew. Israel has become defacto the God of the Jews.

In order to defend Israeli policies, Jews around the world insist on the need for the Jewish people to have power and dominate others, because that's "the real world" in which we live. This is the logic of Roman imperialism, Christian colonialism, Hitler and Stalin and all those who have opposed Jews through history.

Judaism came into being to proclaim a different logic: that the world was not run by power but by a Force of Love, compassion and generosity, the Force that makes possible the transformation from "that which is" to "that which ought to be." The slaves who elected to not follow Moses intot he desert were the realists, the Jews were those who saw that reality could and should be transformed to a just reality. Abandoning this is the destruction of Judaism. As one of my congregants said to me, "If Judaism is about being realistic, why do I have to do it in Hebrew, and not marry a non-Jew and follow Jewish laws--after all, global capitalism and American power are plenty realistic so I don't need Judaism for that."

So although I celebrate the State of Israel's existence, I pray daily that the God of love and kindness will return to Jerusalem, rebuild Jerusalem to be in fact a city of peace in a state that embodies the loving kindness and generosity that has always been the hallmark of the Jewish people's aspirations, even if not always our actuality.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine a Jewish and Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture and Society, co-chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in S.F. and Berkeley, Ca. and author of 11 books, most recently Embracing Israel/Palestine. He can be reached at

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