- Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read by David ben Gurion on May 14, 1948, concludes with the words: “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we affix our signatures to this proclamation…” It is an interesting choice of words for God: “Tzur Yisrael—Rock of Israel.”
The early Zionists, most notably ben Gurion, were not especially given to statements of faith. And yet here we see how they bowed to Jewish tradition, selecting the name of God found in our prayerbooks following the Mi Chamocha. This prayer speaks about our redemption. On Shabbat morning we sing: “Tzur Yisrael, rise in support of Israel and redeem Judah and Israel as You promised…”
It would appear that our ancient dreams of redemption are realized in the creation of the State of Israel. Ben Gurion, who most people believe primarily, if not singlehandedly, authored this founding document, was not known for his attendance at shul. I suspect that this phrase was therefore not meant to hearken to our prayers. Instead it was chosen because he knew that many Jews were moved by the tradition with which they were reared. The new, fledgling, state required the Jewish people to be unified. The language of prayer achieved this.
More importantly the name for God is rooted in the land. It evokes the rocks and trees, mountains and fields of Eretz Yisrael—the land of Israel. For many of the founding Zionists the land was their primary text. It was not the prayerbook. They did not want to sit around their seder tables singing “Next year in Jerusalem,” they no longer wished to echo Yehudah Halev’s words “My heart is in the East but I am in the depths of the West.” Instead they wished to make such dreams a present reality.
And yet 68 years later that present reality appears beleaguered. For all of Israel’s extraordinary successes, its thriving economy, its absorption of millions of Jewish refugees, its technological prowess and its survival despite repeated attempts to destroy it, the country, like our very own, remains messy and imperfect. There is a widening gap between our dreams and present reality. The modern State of Israel does not match our prayers.
Here, however, is what we get wrong. It was never intended to be synonymous with these prayers.
When we begin to see present reality as the fulfillment of our most fervent prayers, we become distant from the present and from those different from ourselves. The situation can become dangerous and even toxic. We begin to lose sight of what we set out to accomplish and hoped to achieve on this day 68 years ago. Ben Gurion remarked: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.”
We set out to become normal. Zionism is about the Jewish people achieving sovereignty. It is about gaining control of our own destiny. History is messy and imperfect. The exercise of power, especially in defense of lives, is oftentimes violent. Israel and its leaders sometimes make flawed decisions.
We should not be embarrassed by this. We should not be ashamed by Israel’s might, by its vigorous protection of its citizens and the safeguarding of Jewish lives. On the other hand we should not be accepting of Israel’s flaws and mistakes. A critic is not a traitor. We are inheritors of the prophetic tradition as well. Criticism does not mean that a Jew loves Israel any less. The tendency to see all criticisms of Israel as treasonous rather than flowing from a deep and profound love is one of American Jewry’s great failures. It sheds light not on our achievements but instead on our insecurities.
There is today a growing tendency to apologize for Israel’s imperfections and excuse its misjudgments. While we should not bow our heads in shame because of the power the Jewish people have achieved, while we should understand the compromises that sovereignty and politics entail, we should continue to agitate for Israel to live by its highest ideals. With power comes less clarity about morals. When we were the victims we could be more certain about the justness of our cause. Even though we were persecuted we could tell ourselves we were right.
For millennia, history was far more uncertain in the diaspora. To the early Zionists history was once fraught with uncertainty, terrible fears and unspeakable dangers. Lives were far more insecure. All we had was to take comfort in the virtuousness of our victimhood. And now instead we have power. It remains messy.
I continue to wonder. Why can’t Israel be both imperfect and wonderful? I do not expect it to square neatly with my Jewish dreams. Why do we insist on making it perfect, and miraculous, in order for it to be wonderful? Still I will forever remain steadfast in my gratitude. I am thankful for Israel’s existence. I count it an unimaginable blessing that I am one of a privileged generation who lives alongside a sovereign Jewish state.
Today we have conquered Jewish homelessness and the malaise that beset our people for two thousand years.
And yet we must take to heart this important lesson. Israel was never meant to be a prayer.