“I care about Israel, I just can’t remember why.” These are the words a senior European diplomat shared with me in a recent meeting. He was describing the evolution of his personal relationship with Israel, and the difficulty he faced in explaining its significance to his children. The words stuck with me, because I wondered how many share this sentiment. How many, in the midst of the screaming headlines about Iran, the negotiations with the Palestinians, and the challenges within Israeli society, ask themselves why it even matters.
The first response, perhaps, is to question the question itself. Why does Israel owe anyone an explanation of its significance? Israel is. It has all the rights and responsibilities of any other sovereign state, without needing to embody some greater meaning. Its citizens deserve peace and security like all others. Like so many modern states, its birth is the subject of historical controversy. And unlike other states, it is mired in ongoing conflict with enemies that threaten it physically and question its legitimacy at the same time. But why should any of that mean that Israel should need to justify its existence?
There is a place for this moral indignation. Israel’s right to exist should be unquestionable. But the need to respond to the question of “why care?” remains for several reasons. First, because we ask people, especially our soldiers, to sacrifice for the defense of this state. We owe them, if no one else, as compelling an explanation as possible as to why it is worth fighting for. Second, because we seek, and need, international legitimacy. Even as a matter of narrow self-interest, we want to strengthen appreciation and support for Israel so that we are better equipped to confront our adversaries and better able to build lasting alliances with present and future friends.
But, above all, asking “why?” is important because we are the Jewish people. A people with a history such as ours knows that a nation’s greatness is measured by the power of its ideas, no less than the power of its economy or armed forces. An Israel that can capture the imagination, that can inspire, that can connect to people’s greatest aspirations is a country which thrives, rather than just survives. By contrast, an Israel that is not tied to some higher calling is an Israel which risks having a diminishing claim on people’s hearts and minds.
Some of the responses to the “why” question are familiar, and have accompanied us from the founding of the state. For many, Israel is the necessary answer to the torrid history of Jewish persecution, and the embodiment of the promise of “never again.” For others, Israel’s value lies in its role as an outpost of democracy in a turbulent and oppressive Middle East. For some, Israel is the realization of a divine promise and part of a divine plan. And for others still, Israel is an opportunity – finally – for Jewish self-determination and renewal in a sovereign space and ancient homeland that is our own.
Each of these responses remains important, and can be compelling to different audiences. To some extent, their resonance today can depend on an argument as to whether Israel is in fact living up to these aspirations, or on the worldview, or age, of the listener. Our task, however, is not just to remember “why.” It is not just to look backward to Israel’s founders to divine the original purpose of the state. It is to create the “why” ourselves. It is to imagine for ourselves, for our generation, the state we wish to have.
At a deep level, Israel’s mission can be seen as a fundamental test of the proposition that power and morality can coexist. Our history as a people has rendered us victims, time and again, of the abuse of power. And our tradition, which champions the idea that all human beings were created in the image of God, is in a profound way, a revolt against the excesses of human power. So often, we were the moral conscience of the societies in which we lived, and our treatment at their hands was the measure of their humanity. How incredible then, that this people now enjoys sovereign power, and faces the daily challenge – out of duty both to its past and its future – of wielding it justly in the face of excruciating dilemmas.
This, for me, is an enormously powerful contemporary response to the question of “why care?” But it too is not sufficient. The question is not asked in one way, and it cannot be answered in one way. Our ongoing effort to develop and articulate multiple responses to this question of Israel’s significance, which can inspire both Jews and non-Jews of diverse attitudes and backgrounds, should be one of our great national preoccupations. Not because we owe it to others, but because we owe it to ourselves. And because the greatness and vitality of our future will be shaped, in no small part by the depth, richness and sensitivity with which we answer it.