Commentary Magazine


Topic: Israel Independence Day

Israeli Independence Day and the New Reality for World Jewry

As fighting picked up in Ukraine and the government in Kiev proved helpless to stop its spread, it was easy to miss a three-paragraph story in Haaretz about the Jews caught up in the unrest. And once reading the story, it was just as easy to forget it. The news item was about Israeli security experts being dispatched to Ukraine to train the Jewish community, because of the fear that should anti-Semitism–not exactly alien to Ukraine–bubble back to the surface, the government would be unable (or unwilling) to protect them.

The fact that the story of Israeli-facilitated self-defense passed without much notice says much about the way the existence of the State of Israel has completely changed the conversation about the world’s Jews. It’s a point especially worth remembering today on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the year preceding which we saw speculation on the once-unthinkable notion that French Jews might have to take up an “aliyah of rescue”–a development that serves as an alarming reminder of the status of European Jewry.

Those two stories, one about the concept of an aliyah of rescue and the other about Israel dispatching trained security professionals to Jews in isolated communities, demonstrate a crucial point about Israel’s value to the Jewish world: not only do Jews feel safer in Israel than in most places in the world, but Jews feel safer all around the world simply because of Israel. Compare the situation in Ukraine, for example, to previous episodes in Jewish history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries, some of whom were Jews. In her new history of Israel, Anita Shapira describes what happened next:

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As fighting picked up in Ukraine and the government in Kiev proved helpless to stop its spread, it was easy to miss a three-paragraph story in Haaretz about the Jews caught up in the unrest. And once reading the story, it was just as easy to forget it. The news item was about Israeli security experts being dispatched to Ukraine to train the Jewish community, because of the fear that should anti-Semitism–not exactly alien to Ukraine–bubble back to the surface, the government would be unable (or unwilling) to protect them.

The fact that the story of Israeli-facilitated self-defense passed without much notice says much about the way the existence of the State of Israel has completely changed the conversation about the world’s Jews. It’s a point especially worth remembering today on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the year preceding which we saw speculation on the once-unthinkable notion that French Jews might have to take up an “aliyah of rescue”–a development that serves as an alarming reminder of the status of European Jewry.

Those two stories, one about the concept of an aliyah of rescue and the other about Israel dispatching trained security professionals to Jews in isolated communities, demonstrate a crucial point about Israel’s value to the Jewish world: not only do Jews feel safer in Israel than in most places in the world, but Jews feel safer all around the world simply because of Israel. Compare the situation in Ukraine, for example, to previous episodes in Jewish history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries, some of whom were Jews. In her new history of Israel, Anita Shapira describes what happened next:

The tsar’s assassination sent shock waves throughout the Russian Empire, as well as a spate of pogroms in Ukraine. The Church and the government made no effort to rein in the mob, and Jews suspected both of collaborating with the rioters. While the damage was mainly to property, the shock was great: mass rioting against Jews had not occurred in Eastern Europe during the previous century. The assumption had been that the strengthening of the absolutist state ensured public order and security. Now it suddenly appeared that, whereas in most of Europe and in America the Jews were citizens with equal rights, the Russian masses could still go on the rampage while the government either stood passively by or was itself involved in the rioting.

Even after educational reforms brought the Jews far more inclusion into society, and even after the Jews of the Russian Empire thought they had solved the riddle of how to establish themselves as a protected minority, pogroms broke out in Ukraine–coincidentally, the riots began on today’s date on the Jewish calendar–from which they were left indefensible. Back to the Haaretz story about violence in the wake of the fall of the Ukrainian power structure:

Three instructors from Ozma — a special project supported by the forum that sends Israeli security specialists to communities around the world where local Jews are under threat – will run the workshop. A similar workshop was held in Brussels last month.

The Ozma instructors are all former members of the Israeli security services with training in first aid. About thirty members of the Kiev Jewish community are expected to participate in the workshop. Besides teaching them self-defense techniques, the instructors will also focus on crisis management tactics required in emergency situations.

There is a prosperous, strong, democratic Jewish state that answers the call when Jews are in danger anywhere in the world. This gets at why, in addition to the obvious reasons, the noxious accusations of dual loyalty or undue Jewish influence on politics in the West ring so false. Among the great many things that Israel Lobby conspiracy theorists like to ignore is the fact that when they argue for a weaker, more isolated Israel they are arguing for weaker Jews around the world.

They may not intend this to be the case; it’s quite likely that their ignorance of politics and history has left them plainly unaware of the implications of their own ideas. But that’s the reality. When you combine this with the religious implications of the existence of Jewish sovereignty in Israel–a concept that pervades much of Jewish practice, from rituals to prayer services to religious education–you can begin to understand what Israel’s Independence Day means even for those who have yet to step within its borders.

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What Israel Needs From American Jews

Israelis are celebrating their Independence Day today, and it’s not likely that too many of them are spending their holiday worrying about American Jewish efforts to save them from themselves. The imbalance in the relationship between the two sides of the Israel-Diaspora relationship lends a touch of comedy, if not pathos, to the celebrated anguish of liberal American Jews who will spend this day, if not every day, publicizing their angst about Israeli policies and dramatically predicting doom for the Jewish state if it does not listen to their criticisms.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the imperative for “liberal Zionists” to speak out. Israel is a democratic country with a bewildering array of political parties and ideologies (almost all of which have some representation in its parliament), and if American Jews wish to identify with a particular brand of Israeli politics, there’s nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with some of the political views expressed on the Zionist left, but I consider the debate with those who are devoted to Israel but who wish to improve it in various ways, arguments undertaken, as Jewish tradition calls it, “for the sake of heaven,” which ought to be conducted with civility and respect on both sides and mutual commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Israel does not need blind devotion from its foreign friends or from Diaspora Jews. Nor does it require anyone to pretend that the Israeli state is perfect. Its democratic system, its politicians and even its military are no more perfect than those in the United States. But it does deserve a degree of respect that I think is lacking lately from some who call themselves liberal Zionists.

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Israelis are celebrating their Independence Day today, and it’s not likely that too many of them are spending their holiday worrying about American Jewish efforts to save them from themselves. The imbalance in the relationship between the two sides of the Israel-Diaspora relationship lends a touch of comedy, if not pathos, to the celebrated anguish of liberal American Jews who will spend this day, if not every day, publicizing their angst about Israeli policies and dramatically predicting doom for the Jewish state if it does not listen to their criticisms.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the imperative for “liberal Zionists” to speak out. Israel is a democratic country with a bewildering array of political parties and ideologies (almost all of which have some representation in its parliament), and if American Jews wish to identify with a particular brand of Israeli politics, there’s nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with some of the political views expressed on the Zionist left, but I consider the debate with those who are devoted to Israel but who wish to improve it in various ways, arguments undertaken, as Jewish tradition calls it, “for the sake of heaven,” which ought to be conducted with civility and respect on both sides and mutual commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Israel does not need blind devotion from its foreign friends or from Diaspora Jews. Nor does it require anyone to pretend that the Israeli state is perfect. Its democratic system, its politicians and even its military are no more perfect than those in the United States. But it does deserve a degree of respect that I think is lacking lately from some who call themselves liberal Zionists.

Much ink has been spilled and great deal of space on the Internet has been wasted debating the dubious merits of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, but as off target as his views about American Jewry may be in many respects, his ignorance of Israel has made it a symbol of all that is wrong with the liberal Jewish critique of the country. It’s all well and good for Beinart and other American Jews to wish for peace or to argue that different policies might bring it closer. It’s that they operate in an intellectual vacuum in which the real world dilemmas of Israeli life and the realities of Palestinian nationalism don’t exist.

That’s why, despite the fact that the vast majority of Israelis desire a two-state solution and are no more enamored of extremist settlers than Beinart, they support the government they elected in 2009 and are almost certain to return it to power when it faces the electorate sometime next year. They do not see their country walking off a cliff bent on suicidal policies as Beinart and others preach. Instead, they believe they are undertaking prudent measures of self-defense and asserting their right to exist in peace and freedom. Israel has achieved much in its 64 years of existence, but it cannot magically transform the political culture of the Palestinians that rejects the legitimacy of any Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

This is a basic truth that most Israelis intuitively understand but which continues to elude some of their liberal American friends. Israeli Independence Day is as good a day as any for some of these preening liberal Zionists to ask themselves why is it that the average Israeli regards their impulse to save Israel from itself with a mixture of humor and contempt? After a generation of territorial withdrawals, peace accords and peace offers that have been consistently rejected by the Palestinians, Israelis are right to view those who act as if the history of the last 20 years never happened as simply irrelevant.

Those American Jews who support Israel against the assault on its existence are often accused by their foes of believing in a mythical Israel and having no conception of the real place. But despite the naivete of some who wish to hear no evil of Israel, it is those liberals and left-wingers who believe that the Jewish state can unilaterally create peace or in any way diminish the ideological and religious opposition of the Muslim and Arab worlds to its existence who are really living in a fantasy world.

Liberal Zionists and other so-called progressives should not feel inhibited from putting forward their vision of what Israel can or should be. But what they first need to do is to show some respect for the people of Israel and demonstrate some understanding of the limits to which their ideas can alter political reality on either side of the security fence. Without that respect and understanding, Israelis are to be forgiven for viewing American liberal Zionism as a thin façade for self-righteous and ignorant claptrap.

 

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