There was a time – not that long ago, actually – when commitment to the well-being of the State of Israel brought together American Jews of different backgrounds and ideologies. Today, it often seems, the very commitment that once brought Jews together is increasingly driving them apart. It was easy to find consensus when an economically and militarily vulnerable Jewish state was defending its precarious existence against the combined might of surrounding Arab states many times its size – states whose leaders repeatedly promised to drive the Jewish state’s inhabitants into the sea. But now, when the Jewish state has a thriving economy and a well-respected military, when political decisions become more complicated and the available options more controversial, consensus becomes harder to achieve.
Yes, I know, the consensus was never complete. There were always Jews on the fringes of the community who were hostile to the very idea of a Jewish state. There were the fanatics of Neturei Karta, who insisted that it was heretical to create a Jewish state without waiting for the Messiah, and there were the hyper-assimilationists of the American Council for Judaism who proclaimed that support for a Jewish state undermined our allegiance to the United States. But these fringe groups made little or no impacton the mainstream Jewish community because virtually no one else took them seriously.
Today, by contrast, it often seems that the easiest way to create strife among American Jews is to discuss how Israel should handle the various political, diplomatic, and security challenges it faces. One recent permutation of this phenomenon is the increasingly acrimonious debate about what it means to be “pro-Israel”– a debate that, in one guise or another, has preoccupied American Jews in venues as diverse as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and your local college campus. Can a group be considered “pro-Israel” if it publicly criticizes the security policies of Israel’s democratically elected government? What if it actively lobbies the American government or Congress to take actions that Israel’s government considers inimical to the Jewish state’s security? Or suppose that it advocates the imposition of boycott, divestment and/or sanctions (better known as BDS) in order to coerce Israel’s government to take actions that those responsible for Israel’s security consider too risky? At what point does a group’s stance place it outside what remains of the communal pro-Israel consensus?
The substantive issues underlying these disputes are complex, and any proposed course of action is fraught with hidden dangers. When it comes to defining the term “pro-Israel,” however, let me make a modest proposal. People or groups should be considered pro-Israel if on one day each year – let’s say Yom Ha’atzmaut – they refrain from any criticism of Israel and instead focus their attention exclusively on celebrating both its achievements and the miracle of its existence AND are prepared to join in that celebration with any other person or group that does the same. The next day they would be free to go back to their usual divisive behavior.
No, this proposal wouldn’t solve Israel’s problems or settle the acrimonious debates over its policies. But an agreed twenty-four hour period of cooperatively focusing on the positive would remind us how fortunate our generation is to have these problems instead of the types of problems faced by our ancestors over the centuries of exile. With luck, it might even help us realize that those Israeli and Diaspora Jews who have a different vision of Israel’s future or a different analysis of the risks it faces, are not Israel’s enemies, but at worst misguided friends.
All right, I don’t actually expect this modest proposal to receive widespread support. The beauty of it, however, is that it doesn’t have to. Each of us can decide to spend Yom Haatzmaut focusing on the positive. We can force ourselves, for twenty-four hours to suppress our condemnatory impulse. Perhaps we can take some time to read – and maybe even think about – the thoughts of someone distant from us on the religious or political spectrum.
Most important, we can remind both ourselves and those around us of that which we too often seem to take for granted. We can seek to reacquire the sense of grateful amazement at all that the State of Israel, despite the obstacles and challenges it has faced throughout its history, has managed to achieve. It has restored Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after a lapse of nearly two millennia. It has absorbed Jewish immigrants from a dizzying array of countries across the globe, has revived Hebrew as a spoken vernacular; and has built — against all odds and despite numerous risks and challenges — a modern democratic state with a thriving, technologically advanced economy.
Recognizing Israel’s past accomplishments does not obviate its need to meet the challenges of the present and future. Even if we succeed in setting aside its current problems so as to focus on Yom Ha’atzmaut solely on its miraculous achievements, the problems will still be there the next day. But we will return to the fray inspired by a renewed appreciation of the miracle that is modern Israel.
“This is the day that the Lord has made — let us exult and rejoice on it.” (Psalms 118:24)