Of the variety of lectures and other presentations that were part of the hotel Pesach program my family attended this year, there is one whose title stands out in my mind: “Sometimes the Sky Doesn’t Fall: Inspirational Stories About Israel and America from the Year That was.” The stories the speaker told were for the most part familiar ones, many of them dealing with technological breakthroughs created by Israeli scientists or with economic developments or trends that inspire confidence in a prosperous future for the Jewish state. Those stories were indeed inspirational, but what stands out is the title. Is there a more daunting challenge imaginable than trying to persuade a group of Jews that the sky is not falling?
Of course, the well-established Jewish tendency to find the dark cloud in every silver lining didn’t come out of nowhere. As a people, we Jews have come by our paranoia honestly; through much of our history they really have been out to get us. We have certainly had every reason to be suspicious of any situation which seemed to promise a happy ending.
For those who love and support the State of Israel, this past year has certainly had its share of disappointments. In the world of diplomacy, the supposed peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority predictably fizzled while the threat of a nuclear Iran looms ever larger, and optimism over America’s commitment to preventing that threat from becoming reality has been difficult to sustain. Moreover, any remaining hope that the so-called “Arab spring” would bring about a fundamental political or cultural change in the Arab world has crumbled.
It was a year in which American Jews were focused to an unusual extent on the boundaries of legitimate dissent from Israel’s security policies. Hillel International, American Jewry’s premier service organization for Jewish college students, has in the past been adept at staying above the political fray. That talent was nowhere in evidence, however, as the organization managed to get into a public-relations war with one of its smallest campus units over a purely hypothetical disagreement as to which speakers might be invited to campus under Hillel’s auspices. Meanwhile, at the highest level of the Jewish communal hierarchy, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations this past week rejected the application of J Street, which bills itself as “the political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” to join the Conference.
Religious differences among Israelis, and between Israelis and Diaspora Jews as well, also proved contentious. Diaspora Jews, particularly in the United States, were angered by the chief rabbinate’s heavy handed approach to conversion — which would barely have been noteworthy except that some of the criticism has come from within the North American Orthodox rabbinate. The continuing saga arising out of the demand by Women of the Wall of the right to pray as a group at the Kotel – a controversy that most Israelis have probably never heard of – continued to draw angry attention on this side of the Atlantic. Whether even the formidable diplomatic skills and unique moral stature of Natan Sharansky are equal to the task of designing a viable resolution of that controversy remains to be seen.
Many Israelis have also been focused on religious controversy in the past year, but one of a different kind. Many secular Israelis, and some from the dati leumi (religious Zionist) camp have long resented the yeshiva draft exemption, which enables most chareidim to avoid military service, but political realities were not conducive to major reform effort. This year , however, the combination of a Supreme Court decision invalidating the existing legal framework for the exemption and the exclusion of the chareidi parties from the governing coalition for the first time in decades led to Knesset passage of a bill intended to phase in strict limits on the exemption. The enactment of the bill has defused tensions a bit for the time being, but the phase-in is so slow that many of the most passionate secularists are unlikely to be satisfied, and more litigation seems likely.
When Diaspora Jews think of Israel, they often relate to it as the sum total of its problems, flaws and controversies. Israelis, who experience the day-to-day realities of life in the Jewish State, are more likely to take a balanced view, but even they can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the Israel depicted in their news media, which like news media everywhere, tends to accentuate the negative. Please don’t misunderstand — Israel, like any human institution, is inherently imperfect. .Its problems need to be solved, its flaws corrected and its controversies mediated. The ancient rabbinic prohibition against relying on miracles did not end in 1948. Until God sends the final redemption (may it come speedily in our day), the tasks of protecting and improving the Jewish State are human tasks and must be accomplished through human actions.
But Israel is far more than the sum of its problems. It is more than the stage on which a remarkable people has demonstrated a series of remarkable achievements in a broad array of fields, whether technological, economic, cultural or political. It is even more than the first step toward the fulfillment of God’s promise of ultimate redemption.
Israel is all of these things, but it is something else as well. It is the fulfillment of the dream that sustained our ancestors during the most miserable years of exile. .It is a gift for which generations of Jews have yearned, and which ours has been privileged to see. On this Yom Haatzmaut, let’s put aside for one day the controversies that divide us and the problems that preoccupy us – they’ll still be there when the day is over, I promise – and focus instead on our gratitude for the miracle of Israel’s existence, for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after a lapse of nearly two millennia. “This is the day that the Lord has made — let us exult and rejoice on it.” (Psalms 118:54).