When I was nine, I wanted to spend as much time with my father as possible. I pretended to shave in the bathroom with him, went on bike rides in Marin County overlooking the San Francisco skyline, and watched a long list of must see movies that he saw as his parental duty to pass on.
And so, I jumped at the chance to drive with him to Yom Kippur worship services on that fateful day 50 years ago. I remember getting into the car and watching him turn on the radio, as the color drained from his face. He explained that Israel was being attacked by multiple Arab armies, surprising the young Jewish State on the holiest day of the year in the hopes of accomplishing what they had failed to achieve in 1967.
We drove in near silence as we listened in the days when only news radio provided up to date information on far-away places. Even as a child, I sensed the real, existential fear that the State of Israel might not make it through the afternoon, its cities laying in ruins, its citizens killed or imprisoned as the sun set.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War this week, Israel faces a crisis as dramatic as that battle for survival. But now, the existential threat comes, not from beyond Israel’s borders, but from within. For the Jewish State is in a struggle to determine the essential nature of its national character and the true meaning of Zionism. Will it continue to thrive as a bastion of pluralism, liberalism, and humanism? Or will it descend down the path of ethno-nationalism, autocracy, and religious extremism?
In 1973, the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen felt compelled to travel to Israel during the War. Cohen described it as a journey to his “mythic home.” We all know what he means. There is the Israel shel ma’alah—the Israel of the heavens—the Israel of faith and dreams and holiness. And there’s the Israel shel ma’atah—the earthbound Israel of realpolitik, social struggle, and tribal conflict.
At this critical moment that demands clear-eyed candor, American Jews must separate the ideal Israel from the endangered Israel–peering through the gauzy nostalgia of blooming deserts and struggling underdogs and tanned kibbutzniks. For the Israel of today—a nation of hard choices and harsh realities–threatens the Israel of lofty hopes and longing hearts.
Many in the current government argue that this is an internal matter, that we American Jews should keep our mouths shut and our wallets open. Who are we to say what another nation is or does? The answer, of course, is that Israel is not merely another nation. It is the realization of the great, historic project of the Jewish people. As author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi contends: We American Jews not only have a right to speak out—we have an obligation to act on behalf of this national restoration of Jewish sovereignty.
It is painfully ironic that the first legislative step to undermine Israel’s democracy occurred in the days leading to Tisha B’av—the ninth of the month of Av—the commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples. For tradition attributed this tragedy less to the power of the Romans than to sinat chinam—wanton hatred and internal strife. The legacy of sinat chinam speaks profoundly to the current moment, in the need to rise above division toward unity, and in the need to rise against extremism and the violence that it breeds.
Uniting the moderate majority requires empathy to see another’s motivations as not evil or ignorant, but as well-intentioned and as valid as our own. Israeli Rabbi Donniel Hartman envisions bringing together a broad coalition around a new social contract—one that inspires the cynical, excites the apathetic, and affirms the fundamental goal that we all strive to achieve: A more humane world for our children and our grandchildren.
And we learn from our tradition that what fractured the Jewish community of antiquity and evoked the ire of our enemies was religious and nationalist zealotry—the brutal imposition of narrow ideologies and the violence it incites against those deemed unacceptable.
The convening of a broad coalition around a new social contract will lay the foundations for a rebirth of Zionism and revitalization of the Jewish State. And the courage to confront zealotry requires an awareness that there will always be those who are irredeemably beyond reason and reconciliation.
For those who truly love and care about Israel, we have no choice but to speak words of pained rebuke in a moment that calls for clarifying honesty. For the true character of a person or a nation emerges in struggle and strife–when the mettle of moral courage meets the trials of a generation.
In the early days of the street protests in Israel, marchers began to carry Israeli flags, conjuring swirling forests of blue and white. Bearing the flag of a nation has often been associated with the performative patriotism of the reactionary nationalist. But the growing Israeli coalition has reclaimed both the flag and the essence of patriotism, not as unqualified support for anything a government does, but as an obligation—a mitzvah–to rise against this assault on the fundamental nature of a Jewish and democratic state. It is a reaffirmation of the blessings of what Israel has attained, while holding fast to the hope—hatikvah—of what Israel can and must be if it is to remain the heart and soul of the Jewish people.