Israel: Sixty-One, with No Apologies

The State of Israel celebrates its sixty-first birthday this coming week. I find myself wondering whether there exists another country in the world that has to apologize for its existence in order to celebrate, as Israel does.

More countries than we care to contemplate cheered Mahmoud Ahmedinejad this week as he spoke at the second UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism in Durban, and regaled those present with his characteristically vicious anti-Israel rant. Once again, as so often is sadly the case, it is more than a little sad to have to celebrate Israel’s birthday against the malignant backdrop of such bizarre and irrational hatred.

Once upon a time Israel was the darling of the liberal world, but those days are clearly long gone. Only Fox News junkies and right-wing Christians love Israel now- and, of course, some Jews. Unless Israel is signing agreements on the south lawn of the White House with wonderful folks like Yassir Arafat, or expelling her citizens from Gaza in order to hand it over to the Palestinian Authority (that went really well, didn’t it?), the liberal western world can’t bring itself to say anything positive about the Jewish State. When Israel turns her proverbial other cheek, she is treated kindly. But when Israel acts aggressively in her own defense, in the face of relentless negativity and violence from her rejectionist neighbors, she becomes a pariah in the world community. Happy Birthday, Israel…

It’s not that Israel doesn’t have policies that one might differ with, or that might merit criticism. All countries do, and Israel is no exception. Good people will disagree about settlements, who is to blame for the plight of the Palestinians and more, not to mention her internal political turmoil. But why is it seemingly only with Israel that difficult issues are seen in a vacuum, as if without context?

We should ask Ahmedinejad that question. A Holocaust denier like him – and those who cheer him – would probably have no trouble answering it. Hate mongers don’t need context. It only complicates things.

Truth always does complicate things, doesn’t it…

As we approach Israel’s birthday just these few days after Yom Hashoah, I am both comforted and challenged by the ancient teaching of Hillel some twenty-one hundred years ago. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

The remarkable story of modern Jewish philanthropy sings to the fact that, as a people, we are not only for ourselves. We Jews support a staggering array of charitable causes both within and outside the Jewish world- and so should it be. The challenge, though, is more to be found in whether or not, across religious and ideological lines, we are able to “be for ourselves.” Can we find it within ourselves to unambivalently support the very existence of Israel, its right to exist as a free and sovereign country, without being disabled by those who would have us believe that Israel’s mere existence is, in and of itself, a crime against humanity? Can we even understand Israel’s existence and viability as vital to our own, no matter where we hang our hats as Jews? If we cannot celebrate the miracle that is Israel without apologizing, then who might be able to? And if not now, when?

I’m an old Yankees fan, and for me, the number sixty-one has always been associated with the asterisk appended to it. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record by hitting sixty-one homers (Ruth had hit sixty), the lords of baseball decreed that the record should go into the books with an asterisk, because Maris did it in a 162-game season, while Ruth had but 154 games to work with. Maris was never given the honor due him, as if he had to apologize for breaking Ruth’s record.

Against the backdrop of Durban II, this particular sixty-one must not have an asterisk appended to it. Happy birthday Israel. As a proud Jew and an unabashed Zionist, I celebrate your existence. No apologies. No ambivalence. And no asterisk!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.