Mishael Zion

Choosing Israel

My kindergartener colors an Israeli flag, and I remember that we all, from immigrant to sabra, are in this Israeli society together

Yesterday, when I returned home, I found my daughter Sapir lying on the ground drawing an Israeli flag. The two blue stripes became the earth and the sky, the Star of David — a light blue heart. And she wrote on it in kindergartener letters: “I Love Israel. Sapir.”

I had just come from a day full of sad Memorial Day stories of fallen soldiers and wondering why we do this to ourselves — living in such a complicated place. A place in which two brothers are murdered at the most miserable intersection in the Middle East. In which two sisters are buried in the ground instead of vacationing on the Kinneret. And two days later, their mother joins them there. Meanwhile, in the streets, a steadfast struggle for the future of our country. And when exactly did I choose this life, for me, for her? For such a country we draw flags?

On this Yom HaAtzamut 5783 I answer: Yes. And I am not alone. These days in the State of Israel, it seems that we are all on the ground drawing flags, writing on them: I choose Israel. To be clear: We do not agree on the meaning of our flag. There is no one opinion. Our family members and friends are on all sides and opinions and barriers of Israeli society. But these days, more than ever, we raise together a flag that says: We choose Israel.

To choose Israel is the many people who chose to make aliyah to Israel. To move the center of their lives to it, to acquire Hebrew language and Israeli culture and to learn the songs and sharpen their elbows and manifest their Jewish lives in Israel. And to see their sons and daughters enlisting in the army — an army that they don’t know and don’t understand, but actually understand completely because they chose it, chose Israel.

To choose the State of Israel is to be members of the second, third and fourth generation and more — who have never chosen this country. Our predecessors chose for us. And maybe they didn’t really choose either, but came here because they had no choice. But now that we are here — I am a second-generation Israeli — a moment comes when we choose to be here. And most especially when our country is in trouble. Not because I have no other passport, but because here I am part of the story, the Israeli story: I invest in it, educate my children around it, and I also shape and influence it. Not only because I was born here, but because I choose Israel.

To choose Israel is to be part of the Israeli machloket (debate), to vote, and influence, and grumble in front of the screen, and organize with others, and go out and demonstrate, and pay taxes with pride, and serve in the reserves, despite it all, and want things to change, and get angry when it does not work out the way we wanted, and thank God when sometimes it does. And remember that the state is not the goal; it is the means. A means to what end — we will argue about that, but we will do it together, as a family, as partners, here in Israel.

To choose Israel is to choose Israeli society, with all its shades, colors and stories, from the East and the West, old and new, and to understand that we have no choice but to get to know it more deeply, to travel and visit and go beyond the comprehensible and familiar, to “work at it,” as they say. And the truth is that many of us work at it. Here in our community (the Klausner Minyan in Jerusalem) are members who work in government offices; in the Israeli Knesset; in welfare institutions; in mental health; in religious, ultra-Orthodox, and secular education; in academia and research; in the high-tech industry; in investment capital; in hospitals and clinics…. These settings are not only our workplaces, but spaces in which we meet the diverse Israeliness. And these last few months have taught us that we still have a lot of work to do in building a joint Israeli society — and that each and every one of us has a role in deepening our acquaintance and partnership; that we cannot stand by and watch the disintegration of our society, but must choose it anew, together.

To choose Israel is to live with our fallen. With Tzipora Gutman, who fell 75 years ago on the road that leads from Ramat Rachel to Arnona, and is buried at the end of that road, the same road which many of us drive our children to school on every day. And to choose Israel is to live with the memory of the Lehi fighter Emanuel Hanegbi, father of Tzachi Hanegbi, or his underground name “Adam,” because perhaps your children — like some 20 children in our community — were born on the street named in his memory. To choose the State of Israel is to live with the memory of Uri Grossman, the son of Michal and David Grossman, who fell in the Second Lebanon War, and whose family lived at 2 Ein Zurim Street here in Talpiot, in the building where I was also born. And so to the rest of the fallen whose memory surrounds  this neighborhood where we chose to raise our children and build our families and community.

To choose Israel is to “stand up for our souls.” This, as David Grossman put it in his eulogy for Uri, is the essence of Israeliness as Uri taught it. And to “stand up for our souls” means two things: “to defend ourselves, but also to insist on our souls” — to grasp the blue and white flag, but also to paint it in the colors of our values, in the colors of our souls, and to insist on them, together, in partnership, with those who agree with us and those who do not, A hard-headed and insistent people who stand up for themselves until the whole country flies flags.

To choose the State of Israel is to stand in the setting sun at the Memorial Day ceremony in the month of Iyar and sing the songs and tell the stories and remember the fallen and chase after our children and pray Hallel on Independence Day and celebrate with a barbecue and dancing and know that “it is not up to us to finish the job, yet we are not free to withdraw from it.”

And no one will do it for us, and no one will do it except us, because we chose Israel.

Adapted from a Yom haAtzmaut speech delivered at the Klausner Minyan in Jerusalem, April 2023.

About the Author
Rabbi Mishael Zion, an educator and community entrepreneur, is a founder of Kehillat Klausner, a partnership minyan in Talpiot, where he lives with his wife and four daughters. A faculty member of the Mandel Leadership Institute, Mishael was the founding director of the Mandel Program for Leadership in Jewish Culture, where he currently serves as a faculty member. Mishael is the author of Esther: A New Israeli Commentary (2019) and is the co-author of Halaila Hazeh: An Israeli Haggadah (2004) and A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices (2007), together with his father, Noam Zion.
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