As Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence approached, you may have heard murmurs of discomfort about celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut. You may even have felt that discomfort yourself.
And who could argue? After all, not a day goes by without headlines trumpeting a new affront to many people’s sensibilities. It might be fear of an assault on democracy, another power grab, religious coercion, harsh crackdowns in the territories, spiraling lawlessness as people take the law into their own hands — take your pick.
Sometimes, it’s whispered, as if someone is scared to say the quiet part out loud. Other times it’s shouted, as if it’s not OK to not ask it. It’s always some variation on a theme, something like: “How can we celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence with all the headlines?”
Ah, the headlines. For some, that’s a reference to the Israeli government’s judicial reform proposals. For others, it’s all about the occupation, or the stalemate in the moribund peace process, or the status of women, or the treatment of Arab citizens or … the list seems endless.
I get it. With each passing week, more and more Israelis are joining the protests aimed at slowing the rapid pace of “judicial reform” legislation, even people who proudly identify as “not political,” “not the kind that take to the streets,” not the ones who get alarmed easily. The truth is that you’d need to be actively not paying attention in order not to be bothered by some kind of news coming out of Israel.
Here’s the thing: All the way back to the Bible, we’ve understood that there’s really nothing new under the sun. There has literally never been a time any of us can remember when we loved everything about Israel. For that matter, there’s never been a time any of us can remember when we’ve loved everything about anything. Where is it written that we need to focus on our least favorite part of anything? Or to gauge our feelings based on the most troublesome part of the complex mosaic of our lives?
I posed the question to a group of 18- and 19-year-old Israelis a few weeks ago. They’re all Shinshinim, gap-year kids doing a year of service in the Chicago Jewish community before they head home to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. I asked them about the programs they’re planning for Yom Ha’atzmaut in the community, and before they could share their ideas, I added a follow-up question: What do you say to anyone who questions the very idea of celebrating at a time like this?
To them, it was crystal clear: “Israel is more than the government,” one said. “I celebrate the people, not the politicians.” Another seemed incredulous and answered my question with one of his own: “Here in the United States, did anyone stop celebrating the Fourth of July because they didn’t like the president?”
Indeed: Even if we set aside the fact that an equal number of Israelis voted against the current government as voted for it — and that recent polls indicate support for the government is slipping fast — it’s just wrong to boil everything down to the pressure points that make any of us most uncomfortable.
Shortly after my conversation with those young people, Eastern Turkey and Northern Syria were devastated by a massive earthquake. Within hours, hundreds of Israeli search-and-rescue workers and medical professionals were on the ground in Turkey, hunting for victims and treating those who had survived. And despite the deep enmity that continues to divide Israel and Syria, Jerusalem was sending humanitarian aid to its northern neighbor. Asked why they help, many Israelis seem to have trouble comprehending the question. We help because we’re human, they reply. As in: What else would we do?
There’s more to Israel than heroic aid ministered around the world in times of disaster, just as there’s more to Israel than all the technological innovation that benefits every human in the world. And the opposite also is true: There’s much more to Israel than a slew of policies we may not like, and just as we may take pride in what we love about the country, so, too, should we shout from the rooftops about the things that bother us.
Even on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
But as we wring our hands and express concern about the future, let’s also allow ourselves a modicum of pride about the past and, yes, even the present. One need not justify every act in order to express admiration for what Israelis have built in 75 short years to revel in the safe haven the country has provided to millions of Jews since 1948, and to glory in the vibrant, diverse society that continues to be invented every single day. It’s all part of the package, and ignoring the good is just as wrong as ignoring the bad.
Early in the Second World War, David Ben-Gurion famously exhorted the Zionists to “assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and … resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” If the founding generation could juggle multiple priorities, surely, we can, too.
Let’s keep the tough conversations going in our schools, sanctuaries and gathering places. Even as we debate, even as we show solidarity or express concern, let’s all take a moment to consider with satisfaction all there is to celebrate.
Carl Schrag is a senior educator with The iCenter and previously was the editor of The Jerusalem Post.