The understandable worldwide obsession with the COVID-19 pandemic should not obscure the fact that the Jewish people have much to be thankful for as the State of Israel celebrates its 72nd anniversary.
Israel as a home for the Jewish people, as a vibrant democracy, as a modern economic wonder, as a society that strives to be just and to care for its people, as a country that can defend its citizens against those who wish it harm, are all causes for celebration and gratitude. At the same time, the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut comes at a time when COVID-19 is not the only virus in the land. We are living in a moment when anti-Semitism is resurgent around the world. And so, the rising spectrum of anti-Jewish hate gives many pause on this day normally devoted simply to joy and celebration.
And yet at ADL, an organization dedicated to a timeless mission of fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, we see Yom Ha’atzmaut in 2020 as a time to recognize how much the existence of Israel has contributed to countering Jew hatred and to protecting Jewish communities around the world.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, got it right when he predicted in 1897 that if the Jewish people will it, there would be a Jewish state reborn in 50 years. He did not get it right, however, when he foretold that anti-Semitism largely would disappear with the founding of the Jewish state.
Herzl was far too rational in his understanding of the so-called oldest hatred. He claimed that anti-Semitism was a product of the abnormal occupational situations that Jews were forced into in Europe. The journalist felt that Jews would be regarded as aliens no matter how long they lived in particular countries.
He argued that having a home of their own would solve all these problems – normalcy for the Jews would end anti-Semitism. In fact, anti-Semitism was far more irrational a phenomenon than Herzl imagined. Fantasies about Jewish conspiracies could flourish whether or not Jews were present in societies. For many an anti-Semite, the collective Israel became the new Jew toward which to ascribe all evil.
In sum, Herzl thought a Jewish state would eradicate anti-Semitism. He was wrong. However, Israel has become an effective safe haven from the worst effects of Jew hatred.
As we commemorated Yom HaShoah only a week ago, we can’t help but think about how different the destinies of millions of European Jews would have been had a Jewish state existed in the 1930s and 1940s. And while anti-Semitism as a phenomenon has not disappeared in a post-Holocaust, Israel-present world, the instances where Israel’s existence and actions have saved Jewish lives and protected Jews from bigotry and violence are legend.
Let us not forget that the Soviet Union was the leading state sponsor of anti-Semitism in the post-World War II world. And how vulnerable Soviet Jews were to that state-sponsored anti-Semitism, which placed them in special danger beyond that faced by other Soviet citizens. The fact that Israel existed and that heroic stories such as “Exodus” thrilled and inspired Soviet Jews like Natan Sharansky, played a major role in the ultimate freedom for that community. Today, more than a million former Soviet Jews are living in freedom in Israel today.
While some might debate whether anti-Jewish riots in the Arab world in the 1940s and 1950s were simply a response to Israel’s rise or actually the culmination of historic anti-Semitic attitudes and policies, Israel’s rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab lands was a historic new development.
When the impoverished and marginalized Jews of Ethiopia envisioned a future in the state of Israel, the Jewish state came to their rescue when the opportunity presented itself with the fall of communism.
And in today’s uncertain times with anti-Semitism exploding around the globe, Israel and Israelis provide three vital elements in the fight. First, it lends political and emotional support to besieged communities. Second, it provides assistance and intelligence to neutralize security risks through aid and innovation; and finally, it offers the promise of Israel as a haven should things deteriorate.
So yes, the problem of anti-Semitism is still with us. But Israel’s presence has changed the dynamic of Jews in the world in a way that the effects of anti-Semitism are not nearly as severe as they were in the past.
Finally, as critics often remind us, Israel is far from perfect. It is a country full of contradictions, one with complex problems to solve and deep inequities to address. And yet its persistence and success is one more reason for us to cheer Israel’s existence on this particular Yom Ha’atzmaut.