I know what you’re thinking. A blast in Israel? Shmuley, you mean a bomb?
I mean a blast, as in, a great time. A party. Non-stop fun.
Yes, my week in Israel for its 75th birthday was one of the most stimulating of my life. And I share it with you not to make you envious (but if you are, then it’s time for you to visit Israel). But rather to remind all us American Jews who thought the worst when I said the word blast, that it’s a total lie what you’re reading in the newspapers.
Not only is Israel not going down the toilet with political divisions and existential crisis. But the country is positively on fire…. Ok, there I go again. I mean, on fire, as in, it’s electrifying.
I went to Auschwitz for this year’s Yom Hashoah and the next day, in Warsaw for the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. My great hero has always been Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the ghetto uprising who, together with his counterpart Pawel Frankel, hoisted the Israeli (Zionist, as Israel did not yet exist) and the Polish Flag over the ghetto in April, 1943, as he held out for three weeks with his 700 fighters against SS tanks and artillery. Three weeks doesn’t like much. But consider that that’s how long it took Hitler to conquer all of France, and you get an idea of what a truly great man Anielewicz was. As I stood over his makeshift grave at Mila 18 just before my flight to Israel, where in May 1943, at the tender age of 23, he blew himself up with grenades along with most his fighters, I was in tears. It was a somber day.
The sadness continued as I landed in Israel on Tuesday for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, where the 29,000 soldiers and victims of terror are commemorated. I went from the airport to the Kotel and then to the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery where I prayed at the grave of Yoni Netanyahu, older brother of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s greatest fallen war hero. People from all over Israel were praying and crying at the hundreds of graves in the cemetery.
Then night fell and I joined the national commemoration on Mount Herzl celebrating Israel’s 75th. It was unbelievably moving.
I had made sure to be in Israel for its 50th, 60th, and 70th Independence Days. There was no way I was going to miss the 75th! And yet, it seemed a more subdued affair in terms of international participation. The hotels were not completely full. And there were not as many international and American visitors. Perhaps that resulted from the news we’re all reading of serious divides in Israel’s politics.
But the Israelis themselves would never have known it. The celebration featured hundreds of soldiers in beautiful formations, technological extravaganzas in blue and white, and the leadership of Israel with our friend Amir Ohana, the speaker of the Knesset who is openly gay, as the host of the evening.
Then, the streets of Jerusalem erupted with song and celebration the likes of which I had never seen anywhere in my life at any time. Go to my Instagram and look at the videos. Thousands and thousands of young people jammed Machane Yehuda, Ben Yehuda, and Jaffa Street as bands played the entire night and the people danced their hearts out.
The next day we had a BBQ with my former Oxford student President, Ron Dermer, now Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs who, with his usual brilliance, gave me in depth of analysis of the judicial reform debate.
But things in Israel were just getting started.
The very next day Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, gave a major address for Israel’s 75th at the new and beautiful (and enormous!) Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. And three days later, Kevin McCarthy, the US Speaker of the House, addressed the Knesset as only the second Speaker in Israel’s history, Newt Gingrich having been the first. In a single week, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, for whom I had spoken on a Shabbat dinner when he was running for Congress against an avowed antisemite, came to the Jewish state, as did Steny Hoyer, the Democratic House Leader and for decades a phenomenal friend of Israel.
McCarthy’s speech was a triumph and he was addressed by both PM Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid. Amir Ohana’s introductory speech was powerful and moving as he reminded Speaker McCarthy of the dangers posed by the Mullahs of Tehran who barbarically murder their own people and plot the annihilation of Israel. Right after the event, Amir invited me to his office and showed me that he keeps my book “The Israel Warrior” behind his desk. Talk about a salve for my bruised ego!
Two incredibly moving things. First, on Shabbat I met with Rabbi Leo Dee, the courageous hero whose wife and two daughters were murdered in the middle of Passover by an as yet unapprehended terrorist. He reminded me that I knew his wife Lucy, of blessed memory, from Oxford, and even told me that I had indirectly introduced them. I had been invited by Lucy to speak on Shavuot at the Jewish Society but had to speak at our L’Chaim Society, so he came from Cambridge with a group of students to fill in for me. And he met her that night!
What a truly great man. Confronting a tragedy of holocaust-level family annihilation, he asked all the people of Israel to post the Israeli flag as a symbol of unity rather than divisiveness. He spoke of how the world had to stop equating victims of terror with their perpetrators. And launched a campaign to unite all of Israel amid the considerable divide.
Two nights later, for our family, finally, after losing my beloved mother just two months ago and on the eve of my father’s third Yahrtzeit, a phenomenal blessing. Our son Yosef, our seventh child and an Israeli combat soldier, got engaged to a fellow soldier in Raanana Israel, Dalia Cohen. Neither Yosef nor Dalia had to serve in the IDF. Both chose to spend their early twenties in the olive green uniform while their friends of the same age around the world got business degrees or partied. As a teenager Yosef had traveled with me to Birkenau, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, and many other holocaust sites. He was so sickened by what he saw that he pledged there and then to join the first Jewish army in 2000 years so that Jewish life would be protected and have value. He is the third of our children to fight in the IDF, may God protect them all.
Hundreds of people came out to celebrate the new couple. Yosef and Dalia glowed. Rabbi Dee drove all the way from Efrat and honored us by addressing the couple.
He is a symbol for all that makes the Jewish people great. Even amid unspeakable pain and tragedy, still we choose life. Still we attend engagements. Still we applaud the joy of others, amid our own shattered hearts.
At 75, the State of Israel is indomitable, electrifying, and unconquerable. The greatest Jewish blessing in two thousand years, Israel is, yes, on fire, and going there at any time is a blast!!