As I sat down to write a blog post for Yom Ha’atzmaut — celebrating 71 years of Israel’s independence — missiles fired by Hamas fanatics in Gaza were raining down on the cities and towns of southern Israel. At least four Israeli civilians in Ashkelon and Ashdod had been killed by rocket fire. Palestinian casualties had been higher, though the reliability of the claimed casualty figures were hard to assess. The Israeli death toll would almost certainly have been higher were it not for Israel’s Patriot missile defense system, which knocked out many of the missiles.
The missile barrage was apparently in retaliation for Israel’s targeted killing of two terrorist operatives, which in turn was in retaliation for the wounding of an Israeli soldier. Israel’s response to the Hamas rocket barrage was intended to deter future such attacks, and it will probably succeed — until the next time. Neither side was seeking an escalation of hostilities, and the flare-up was short-lived. Both sides seemed eager to to restore the previous cease-fire, and the two sides have returned to the uneasy coexistence that passes for normalcy in that part of the world.
Although this latest episode in the ongoing conflict in Gaza appears to have been resolved, it serves to underscore the solemnity with which many of us will approach Yom Ha’atzmaut this year. Ordinarily I try to focus attention on the positives of Israel — not to deny the challenges Israel faces, but to appreciate its remarkable achievements in spite of those challenges. But this year seems different.
Since last Yom Ha’atzmaut, American Jewry has suffered two acts of lethal anti-Semitic violence. The recent shooting, at Poway Chabad, resulted in one death and three injuries, and would have been worse had not the shooter’s gun jammed. The victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh six months earlier were not so fortunate; eleven lives were lost that day. Add to that the four Israeli civilians killed by Palestinian terrorists firing missiles and throw in the two Jewish teenagers (a brother and sister) who were among the 300-plus people murdered by Muslim terrorists in Sri Lanka, and you see why it’s hard to be upbeat this year.
Most anti-Semitism isn’t lethal, of course, at least not directly. Nobody died as direct result of the anti-Semitic cartoon that found its way into the international edition of the New York Times last week, nor from Omar Ilhan’s frequent anti-Jewish remarks, nor from the anti-Semitism that is increasingly infesting Jeremy Corbin’s Labour Party in Britain. But while none of those manifestations of anti-Semitism took lives, they helped create an atmosphere that threatens Jewish safety. History is replete with examples of hate speech leading to violence.
Yet most American Jews, even in the wake of these synagogue shootings, aren’t cowering in fear. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions are taking sensible security precautions, but for the most part we’re going about our business, just as Israelis do in the face of terrorism. Even more important, most of us are not afraid to speak out, to denounce Jew hatred and to call the haters to account. This isn’t the 1930’s.
There’s a reason for that difference. We’re not braver than our grandparents were as the Nazi menace was casting its shadow over Europe. We were formed by our experiences as they were by theirs.
A fundamental part of our experience has been our awareness of the existence of the State of Israel. However far we live from Israel and however indifferent we pretend to be to its fate, all Jews know deep down that we have an option, that we will never again be without a refuge from Jew hatred. Many of us don’t mind if the world thinks Israel is too aggressive. We know that the world is still adjusting to this new reality — that there are Jews who fight back.
This is the ultimate significance of Israel’s independence. The Jewish State serves as a refuge for Jews who are threatened, as a defender of Jews everywhere, and as a source of pride that inspires and encourages us to stand up for ourselves. Aside from all its other accomplishments — and they are numerous and impressive — Israel, first and foremost, represents the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the land of our ancestors after a lapse of nearly two millennia, a restoration of the Jewish people to the history of nations and a refuge and defender of Jews throughout the world. It is the closest thing to a nes niglah (overt miracle that we are likely to see, a miracle for which we must all be grateful.
“This is the day that the Lord has made — let us exult and rejoice on it.” (Psalms 118:24, JPS translation)