For one thing, 75 years is how old our ancestor Abraham was when God called him to journey to the land that would one day be called Israel (Genesis 12:4). Thus began not our 3,000- but our 4,000-year history. In that context, 75 years demonstrates beyond question the miraculous nature of the Jew and the authenticity of our sacred writ. Not once did we relinquish our sense of self-value, neither as individuals nor as a people, even though year after year, decade after decade, century after century, there appeared no sign of the ancient promise heralded by our prophets.
Nonetheless, every Shabbat we celebrated our liberation, even while loathed and oppressed by the world around us, subject to annual Easter pogroms and frequent expulsions. And every Passover—though remaining as exiled from our homeland as the Passover before—we concluded our seder with the song of audacity, leshanah ha’ba’ah b’Yerushalayim, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” until one day, 75 years ago, that is precisely where we found ourselves. This is the empowerment threading through our lengthy history, woven by the tradition that kept us afloat through the tsunamis of the past to this very moment. It is knowing deep inside that there is nothing we cannot face when we remember that God is facing us.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
How is it even possible to judge the meaning of Israel against the very long history of the Jewish people and its Hebrew-Israelite-Judean predecessors? In the context of what necessitated a Jewish state, the State of Israel provided a true sanctuary, gathering Jews from the “four corners” of the world. Our ancient language was revived and our calendar and customs became culturally normative. Most significantly, Israel placed the Jewish people back on the stage of history, a Jewish nation determining its own destiny. But this also poses its biggest challenge.
To run a nation is to have power. In Israel’s case this power includes ruling over several million non-Jews. And because Jews in Israel hail from different Jewish subcultures and religious backgrounds, this power also generates nonstop infighting over the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Add Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry—with its own stake in the state’s definition of Jewish authenticity—and the project becomes even harder. As the first modern attempt at a Jewish state, Israel is certainly unique. What it will ultimately mean in the context of 3,000 years of history remains to be judged by future generations.
Rabbi Jeffrey Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI
A mere three generations! So much built and accomplished, so many challenges met and overcome. Having an independent Jewish state for 75 years—it’s but the blink of an eye in the context of our three millennia of history. And yet, à la Benjamin Franklin, the question is, can we keep it?
Our last independent Jewish state lasted only about 100 years—from the Maccabean victory in 164 BCE until the Romans took over. (Life lesson: Never invite the Romans in to solve your domestic problems.) We didn’t do too well governing ourselves during that century. As Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, noted in The Forward, the Hasmonean state saw a succession of venal Jewish leaders, rampant corruption, territorial expansion and annexation of non-Jewish populations, the blurring of separate internal institutional powers, divisions within the government and reliance on a single foreign power. He added: “The miracle ends in catastrophe, and becomes a short-lived, failed experiment.”
Eventually, after the collapse of the Second Temple, the rabbis created a jewel, rabbinic Judaism, out of the ruins. Babylonian Jewry built a new Talmudic Judaism to engage the mind and spirit. What about us? Will we learn from the past and avoid going off the rails? Will we fuse the greatness of democracy with the best of Judaism to keep Israel from falling into sectarianism, ultra-nationalism, expansionism and continuing violence? God, I hope so.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Sovereignty can be overrated. Sometimes, though, it’s vital. In order of importance, there’s Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael—people, land and state. Masada, that storied site, actually marked a first-century dead end: Extremists there held independence as the supreme value, even above life. Jewish history and values moved north, where, in choosing to accommodate rather than revolt against Rome, the Jews of that region accepted reality, lived in the land and developed the Mishnah. For nearly two millennia since then, while solemnly singing of sovereignty, we’ve pursued holy, creative, communal Jewish life under crescent or cross. Though precarious, we often flourished; tragedies abounded, too.
With 19th-century secular nationalism, we debated the cultural Zionism of Ahad Haam versus the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl. Had sovereignty returned a decade earlier, many more Jews might be alive today, so yes, independence matters. Yet nationalism breeds insularity, and home ownership has its headaches. This diaspora rabbi prays (and donates, organizes and advocates) for many more years of a State of Israel that’s yet more democratic than it is at 75—while nurturing moral Jewish spirituality that transcends space and time. To tap statehood’s great potential, let it never become our idol.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Jewish yearning for a home and place of self-determination in the land of Israel dates as far back as the prophet Jeremiah, who lamented the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon around 586 BCE. Psalm 137, attributed to Jeremiah and popularized in song by Don McLean and Jimmy Cliff, among many, grieves, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.”
Today should be a time of joy and celebration. We have a home and the national self-determination that we yearned for over millennia. Yet instead, many of us continue to weep. While we may have returned to the land of Zion, we have not yet fulfilled the dream of Zion—the creation of a sovereign nation and society that embraces all Jews, all peoples, and that is grounded in righteousness, justice, democracy and peace for all. As a lover of Israel, I approach this Yom Ha’atzmaut with a breaking heart. I weep for our unreached potential to truly be a “light unto the nations.” I weep for the pain, fear and threat that currently runs like a river through the land.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
I celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary with a full heart. We are living in only the third time in 3,000 years that Jews have had sovereignty in the one land to which we are indigenous.
Israel’s founding turned the long-prayed-for “ingathering of the exiles” into reality and massively altered the Jewish diaspora. We went from being a tolerated minority scattered among the nations to knowing we control our destiny. Jews in America could stand prouder (although Jews in Arab countries were subjected to Nuremberg-style laws and were driven out of places we had lived for many centuries). And while the Jewish leadership of 1947 accepted the UN Partition Plan, the Arabs rejected it, and resident Palestinians became either scattered refugees or citizens in a country to which they would have a complicated loyalty.
While we can take great pride in its countless accomplishments, the State of Israel has struggled to create a society that respects diversity and embraces all Jews regardless of origin or outlook.
Sephardim and Mizrahim, Ethiopians and Russians, religious and secular have all struggled to find and define their place in Israel. Israel’s founding resulted in Jews having to govern not only themselves but non-Jews—namely, the Arab population, which numbers 20 percent “within the Green Line” and 80 percent of the West Bank. Is it a state of Jews or a Jewish state? Amid the intense rancor of this period, I honor the state and pray that it can be all that its founders hoped it could be, as expressed in its Declaration of Independence.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
These 75 years of the existence of the State of Israel do not just resolve 2,000 years of exile but bring to a climax 3,000 years of Jewish history. It is a surprising redemption: Many of us were under the impression that it would come in the blink of an eye on the wings of eagles. It turns out instead to be the redemption that Maimonides, quoting the Talmud, predicted: “There is no difference between this world and the messianic era except that the Jewish people will have sovereignty in their land” (Sanhedrin 99a).
Though one can be a religious Jew in Brooklyn or Washington without the modern State of Israel, the existence of this normal and imperfect state, after 2,000 years of waiting, is a messianic gift, one vital for the continued existence, safety and flourishing of the Jewish people. Its very existence confers a new religious obligation upon us: that of being a great nation on the world stage, as God first said to Abraham when He led him to the land, to “be a blessing to all the peoples of the world” (Genesis 12).
Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Kesher Israel: The Georgetown Synagogue
When the State of Israel was declared, many skeptics thought it wasn’t going to last. Some thought that it would be impossible to create a stable country militarily or socially; others saw a Third World backwater. And yet today Israel is a military, social and technological powerhouse and the largest Jewish community on earth.
Traditional Jews do not view history as random, as a series of peaks and valleys or a Hegelian spiral. We see it as leading to a conclusion: the realization of the Jewish vision for the world and the time of messianic redemption. Israel’s founding and its persistence over the decades offers optimism that although the Messiah has not yet come, some building blocks have been put in place.
There’s the ingathering of exiles, a growing religious renaissance and a remarkable social cohesion that, despite the huge chasms that separate people politically, allows the country to come together at important moments. What we hope is for Israel to become a nation that fulfills the Jewish mission: not to lead the world in unicorns or military might, but to make the teachings of the Torah and Jewish wisdom fundamental to our families and to the running of the nation. Israel must become a light unto the nations for spiritual, not only material reasons.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
In the short time since I received this question, so much has changed in Israel that it seems to refer to another country. And yet the question is appropriate to the situation. The answer can be found in Deuteronomy 32:7: “Remember the days of old,/ Consider the years of ages past;/ Ask your parent, who will inform you,/ Your elders, who will tell you.”
How can 3,000 years of Jewish history inform us about Israel’s future when the country seems to be at the brink of a civil war and, according to some, the establishment of a dictatorship? Throughout the generations, many individuals have abandoned their Jewish identity willingly, while many others have joined voluntarily. We have experienced persecutions and catastrophes but also periods of tranquility and prosperity; the Jewish nation has expanded and contracted, but we have remained, against all odds, a nation.
This phenomenon, truly a miracle, reflects the essential values of the Bible, the principles that guide our behavior as a nation and are a corrective mechanism against apathy, dictatorship and total corruption. The ideas of Shabbat, of humanity being created in the image of God, the importance of supporting the poor, the importance of education and the golden rule “love others as you love yourself”: All Jews, even if they consider themselves unaffiliated or not observant, are guided by them one way or another.
In summary, I am a hopeless optimist. Our history teaches that we will overcome the current crisis, heartbreaking and scary as it is, and emerge from it wiser and stronger.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Seventy-five years is a long time—according to King David in Psalms, an average life span. Three thousand years (or more) is a whole other story. There is a big difference, especially in the region where Israel exists, between even an entire generation and the literal span of historical existence. The mistaken notion that Israel is somehow “only” 75 years old causes, and also reflects, several problems.
I have long thought that making peace with a 75-year-old entity, especially one that expounds Western values, is a challenging prospect for other nations in the Middle East that live with many ancient traditions. But coming to terms and even peacefully cooperating with an entity that is several millennia old might be another story. Seniority commands respect, especially in that part of the world, and we should cultivate that aspect of our identity—for others’ sake and for our own. Strengthening our own Jewish knowledge and traditions, especially in the young, is a good start here in the diaspora as well as in Israel, where basic awareness of simple Jewish concepts, historical as well as religious, is sorely lacking in too much of the population.
“Israel” is not a newcomer to the region. Basic archaeology confirms that we’ve been there as a people, with Jerusalem as our center, well before anyone else who currently claims it. But more than mere history, our real claim to the Holy Land is G-d’s promise that it will be the homeland of the Jewish people. If we internalize that sentiment and find courteous and respectful ways to share it, then prospects for understanding and for replacing conflict with coexistence are greater. Am Yisrael Chai!
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch