It was propitious planning that brought together a small group of Jewish communal leaders on the evening of Yom Ha’atzmaut this year. The topic for the study session was appropriately Israel, with a local rabbi as thoughtful facilitator chosen to guide a conversation among the dozen or so past Wexner Heritage Scholars.
The rabbi, soft spoken with a quiet demeanor, opened the discussion with a heartfelt expression of concern about the increasing polarization within the American Jewish community over Israel’s wrenching struggle to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. “Why?” he asked the group, do we find it so difficult to come to some consensus on Israel?
He drew on the May 14, 1948, Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel to deftly frame the question, which turns on the duality of the Jewish state — its identity as the Jewish homeland and its identity as a democratic state —evincing the roots of the disagreement among Israel’s supporters. Does Israel’s endemic Zionist mission and purpose, as stated clearly in the document, preempt its just as clearly stated fundamental commitment to freedom and justice? Or the reverse? And can the two be reconciled?
It is the enduring conundrum that continues to beleaguer the Jewish state, and continues to vex those who fervently support its existence, even as they disagree on the primacy of its purpose.
And it evokes deeply emotional responses, that often provoke heated exchanges and result in the troubling polarization that the rabbi, like so many of us, laments.
I am anguished by the situation, distraught by the spate of violent attacks on Israel’s streets, while disturbed at the very notion of occupation and what it means in terms of the abrogation of essential human rights. I am troubled, too, at the cost to Israel’s moral character, to its imperative to be a light unto the nations, to serve as a beacon of good in the world.
And, now, just past the celebration of Israel’s miraculous founding, in the midst of the counting of the omer, the season that spans the ancient Israelites’ journey from liberation to revelation, the current status of Israel both at home, and within the community of nations, torments me.
My thoughts toggle between the seemingly irreconcilable difference between Arab and Jew, with its roots planted deep in the land, and the metaphoric journey between Pesach and Shavuot, between freedom in Egypt and responsibility in the Promised Land, and the dedication to self refinement that the counting of the omer encourages. Such focus on honing human virtue to be ready for divine encounter perhaps is needed as much now as then.
The blessing for counting the omer extols divine province as the judge who will judge justly, as the guide who will guide the nations of the earth forever. And perhaps, in this time, at this place, that guide will find a way to lead us towards resolution and a new era of justice and reconciliation.