Three months ago, I was with my family in Toronto for Rosh Hashanah. We went to a local park for Tashlich, throwing bits of bread in the stream to symbolize casting away our sins from the previous year. We blew shofarot to announce the Jewish New Year. I noticed, with feelings of self-consciousness, passers-by looking quizzically at the strange ritual our family was publicly performing.
Fast-forward to last week: my friends and I lit the channukiah almost every night outside in Bialik Square in central Tel Aviv. As we sang the brachot, Maoz Tsur, strangers joined in with the familiar tunes. I couldn’t help but to feel the stark contrast between the two experiences.
I have lived here for a year and I’m still amazed by the privilege of being in a country where Jews are the majority and my religious holidays are nationally celebrated. I don’t feel self-conscious when practicing a religious ritual in public here, but it’s something that I’m still getting used to.
Being in a position of power is also unfamiliar to the Jewish people as a whole. After two thousand years of living under others’ rule in exile, being the masters of our own collective destiny is relatively new to us. We learn in our schools and synagogues of our persecution since the very beginning of our peoplehood. For very good reasons, we are acutely sensitive to external threats posed to us—whether they be in the form of physical violence or social ostracism—or internal ones such as the erosion of Jewish identity. It just so happens that these are all themes in the Hannukah story.
Even with a country to call our own, many of these threats remain. But our fears, real or perceived, sometimes come into conflict with Israel’s responsibilities as a powerful democratic nation. Fears of demographic and economic consequences have come in the way of fair and humane treatment of African asylum seekers. Threats to Jewish identity create unnecessary obstacles for converts to Judaism and for adherents of non-Orthodox streams. When Israel’s critics or haters disregard its need for security when challenging its record on human rights, far too often do Israel’s supporters respond by ignoring the human effect of its security implements.
Absent such threats, we have seen the Jewish nation’s actions proudly reflect Jewish values: last year, Israel participated in disaster relief in the Philippines after a deadly typhoon struck. Medical expertise is exported to developing nations through independent organizations like Save a Child’s Heart. Hundreds of Syrians have been treated in Israeli field hospitals since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. In these ways and in many more, Israel continues to punch well above its weight class.
As a people, a country in a position of power—as tenuous as it might sometimes seem—it is incumbent upon us to remain conscious of our responsibility as a privileged class, especially in times of crisis. As we reap the benefits of nationhood, and as we face real threats to our land and to our identity, we cannot ignore the welfare of those most vulnerable in our jurisdiction.
Happy new year!