Despite an increasingly divided Israel at war, it is still worth celebrating

Introductory Note: I spoke earlier this week on Israeli Independence Day in Washington, D.C. to members of the Adas Israel Congregation. I was invited by the synagogue’s rabbis, on the occasion of the publication of my Memoirs to reflect about how Israel and Zionism have changed since my childhood and where I believe we liberal Zionists and lovers of Israel are today, especially since October 7. I will announce here in the coming days when my Memoirs become available through Amazon and/or the publisher.

The following is what I said to the Adas Israel Congregation, a large Conservative Synagogue in the nation’s capital:

Today is the 221st day of the war against Hamas. Many Israelis are saying יש יום העצמאות אבל כולנו עוד בסוכות – “This is Israel Independence day, but we’re all still in Sukkot.” It will remain so until, I suspect, the surviving hostages in Gaza are all home – May that day come as soon as possible.

So much has changed since October 7 in the Jewish world as our people are pondering the meaning of this painful inflection point in Israeli history. I think that at the very least, what’s required of us all is to revisit what it means for us to be part of the larger Jewish family that encompasses both Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

Despite the many questions we likely carry in the midst of this longest war in Israeli history, I believe that celebrating this day of Yom Haatzmaut is still a necessity for our people, for the story of the Jewish people and the founding of the State of Israel are unique in world history. I say this despite the fact that Israel is increasingly divided between what Haaretz’s columnist Alon Pinkus describes as a

“…high-tech, secular, outward-looking, imperfect but liberal state – and the Kingdom of Judea, a Jewish-supremacist, ultra-nationalist theocracy with messianic, antidemocratic tendencies that encourage isolation. Never in the proud 76 years of Israel’s sovereign existence has there been a sadder, more somber, depressing and acrimonious Independence Day than this year. On a day that usually highlights and extols Israel’s major achievements, the country will instead be solemnly introspective, despondent, angry and devastated by the catastrophe of October 7, 2023.”

So much has changed about Israel since I was young growing up in the 1950s. I was raised to understand Zionism and Israel in romantic idealistic terms and that our people, long-persecuted, had transformed the narrative of Jewish Diaspora identity from that of being a powerless and victimized religious community into a free, independent, strong and empowered people by virtue of returning to our national home and establishing for the first time in 2000 years a Jewish and democratic state.

I spent my first year of rabbinic studies in Jerusalem beginning in the summer of 1973, only a few months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. In the months following that transformative event, the atmosphere in Israel dramatically changed, not unlike what has occurred this past year since October 7. A dark pall of gloom and grief settled over the country. Gone were the ebullient years following the ‘67 war. Gone was a sense of can-do optimism. Gone was the feeling that the ’67 lightning Israeli victory against Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan would deter future Arab attempts to destroy the Jewish state. The ‘73 war shook the nation and transformed Israelis’ self-image from that of David battling Goliath to a far more vulnerable country. Israelis were reminded that antisemites still wished the Jewish people harm. Nothing had so shaken Israel since 1948 as the Yom Kippur War, until October 7.

In my lifetime, Israelis and the Jewish world have not been as stunned, convulsed with fear, grief and outrage as by the Hamas attack that reminded us of our Jewish vulnerability and of Israel being situated in a dangerous neighborhood.

For decades leading up to October 7, in addition to the internal changes described so accurately by Alon Pinkus, I believe that both Israelis and Zionists abroad didn’t take seriously enough that the international ground was being prepared by Israel’s enemies over many decades to transform our Zionist narrative as one of longing to be new kinds of Jews – strong, independent and resilient in our ancient Homeland – into the image of a foreign colonial transplant thrust into the heart of the Arab Muslim world, an usurper of Palestinian land and homes, an oppressor over the oppressed, an occupier and victimizer of the indigenous Palestinian people.

Accentuating this change internationally of the image of Israel as a racist oppressor state is the rise of the intersectional movement in America. Intersectionalism is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, and intersect in the experiences of marginalized people and groups” thereby forming alliances by oppressed groups against oppressors. Intersectionalism eventually conflated the blacks under Apartheid in South Africa with Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli occupation. Israel is now hated as the despised “other” by too many vulnerable far-left black and brown progressives who actually have nothing personally to do with the Middle East, who have little knowledge of the history of and nature of the Zionist movement or the State of Israel and its multiple contributions to the world, its democratic and pluralistic character. Those anti-Israel far-left people of color do not know, I suspect, that the majority of Israel’s population are non-white former immigrants from the Arab world, North Africa, Ethiopia, Latin America, and Asia. Nor do they understand the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the multiple times Israel was prepared to exchange land for peace in a two states for two peoples resolution of that long conflict.

Since October 7, I’ve worried about a great many things, the most prominent being the security of the State of Israel, the well-being of the Israeli hostages and their families, and the shattered families of those murdered on that day, two of whom, young sisters ages 25 and 20, who grew up in my synagogue’s elementary school and lost their lives at the Nova concert.

I worry also about the lives of every Israeli soldier in Gaza today, the more than 750 families of soldiers who lost their lives fighting in this war, and the masses of innocent civilian Palestinian families who’ve lost their loved ones and homes and are in dire need of more adequate humanitarian assistance.

I’ve worried whether Israel would step over the line and fight this war according to international standards of war. I’ve wondered, for example, about the justification of Israel’s use of massive numbers of 2000-pound “dumb-bombs” intended to take out Hamas commanders and destroy Hamas tunnels, military command posts and arms stockpiles, but have killed thousands of innocent Palestinians. And I’ve worried about Israel’s use of artificial intelligence to bomb Hamas sites without due consideration for the number of civilian casualties that each strike would cause.

I know, even with these worries, that when Israel began attacking Hamas targets it dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets over Palestinian neighborhoods, sent hundreds of thousands of text messages and hundreds of thousands of robocalls to warn Palestinian civilians to leave certain buildings and areas before Israel attacked them as Hamas targets. I know that Israel opened up safe passage highways for Palestinian civilians to escape before Israel bombed its targets and that Hamas, embedded everywhere in and under Gazan homes, apartment buildings, schools, community centers, mosques, and hospitals and blocked the escape of so many and callously and cruelly fired upon its own fleeing civilians with the aim of deliberately increasing the death toll and then using that number, probably inflated, against Israel in its international delegitimization effort against Israel.

It’s remarkable to me that so much of the world so quickly has forgotten what started this war, Hamas’ murder of 1200 Israelis and the taking of 250 hostages, the gang rape of young dozens upon dozens of Israeli women, the wanton killing of seniors, babies and children.

It’s been my position since about the 100th day of the war that Israel should have done everything possible to get the full return of the hostages even if it meant ending the war. A majority of Israelis now put the lives of the remaining hostages as Israel’s first priority, even over destroying Hamas’ remaining military capability. Israel could have claimed victory then with the understanding that Hamas’ ability to govern and rule over Gaza was already dramatically diminished. Had Israel planned for the “day after” the fighting, worked with the United States to create a coalition of western-aligned Arab nations including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, the Emirates, and the Palestinian Authority to take charge of Gaza then (and now) and begin to rebuild it, the disaster caused in this war might have been more limited. I know, however, that Hamas is uncompromising and brutal towards its own people, and that it has wanted to continue the war to increase the numbers of Palestinian dead civilians in its delegitimization effort against Israel. But, a coalition of nations might have had a positive effect then. The world might well have been more sympathetic to Israel in its effort to help create a new Gaza without Hamas than it does now. The formation of a coalition governing power would not have left Gaza so vulnerable to Hamas resurrecting itself in Northern Gaza, as it so clearly now is doing.

There are those in Israel who justify continuing this war saying that “the only time we’ll have security is when we keep the sword on our enemy’s neck,” enter Rafiach and finish off Hamas once and for all, though most Israeli and American military and intelligence experts believe that Hamas cannot be completely destroyed. But other voices warn that “when we act like every other people, we become like them.”

Yesterday was Yom HaZikaron (May 13), the day Israel mourns the 25,000 fallen soldiers and victims of terror who have died since 1860. Today, on Yom Haatzmaut (May 14), we celebrate our people’s sovereignty and independence. Despite this traumatic year of war; despite the rule of the most right-wing extremist and racist government in the history of the state; despite the growing gap within Israeli society; despite the dramatic rise in antisemitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment around America and the world, Israel’s 76th anniversary is still an occasion to celebrate the Jewish state as the greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in the last 2000 years.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment that the Zionist movement facilitated the immigration of millions of Jewish refugees and that the State of Israel absorbed them as citizens.

It’s remarkable that ancient Hebrew has been resurrected into a modern language that flows naturally through the lips of little children and is the language of celebrated poets, songwriters and literary figures.

It’s remarkable that Israel remains a democracy (inside the Green Line – the 1949 disengagement lines) despite multiple wars and ongoing terrorism.

It’s remarkable that Israel has become a world class leader in agriculture, biotech, medicine, communication, cyber, climate, water desalinization, higher education, archaeology, and the arts, and is second only to the United States in the number of new patents every year.

It’s remarkable that there are 15,000 active NGOs in Israel, most not politically aligned, that promote universal moral values, human rights, democracy, religious pluralism, the environment, and a shared society between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arab citizens. Though racism and hostility between Arab and Jew exists, and far too often violence breaks out with deadly results (especially in the West Bank), if we visit any Israeli hospital in the country, we’ll see Arabs and Jews receiving compassionate care and treatment together on the same wards delivered by both Arab and Jewish physicians and nurses.

Thirty years ago there was a taboo against homosexuality in the Jewish state. Now, 250,000 people march in Tel Aviv’s annual Gay Pride Parade and there are estimated to be 750,000 LGBTQ individuals in Israel, many coming from the orthodox and Arab-Israeli sectors, though both communities shun homosexuality. The modern State of Israel accepts and welcomes them.

Israel faces many existential challenges from within that impact Israelis negatively and us Diaspora Jews too whose identity, pride and security as Jews and Zionists depend upon the vitality of Israeli democracy and its aspirations for peace with the Palestinian people and Israel’s surrounding neighbors.

I hope that when the dust of this war settles, the hostages are home, new leadership takes over Israel and the Palestinian authority, a new Gaza begins to emerge from the rubble of war, and the antisemitism and anti-Zionism subside, that our young liberal and progressive Jews in particular, and many of us older American Jews as well who may feel alienated from Israel because of this war and on account of the divisions within Israeli society will be able to lift our collective eyes from the barrage of dark news, tragedy and conflict and be able to see that Isaiah’s vision for the Jewish people to be an אור לגוים – a light to the nations – still is manifesting itself in Israel.

May those days come soon. Amen!

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.
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