Israel is celebrating the 71st anniversary of her independence this week.
I usually spend Yom Ha’atzma’ut in New York, but when the day comes, I am always sorry that I am not in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. I have been a proud pro-Israel activist all of my life, but the problem with being an activist is that when you spend so much time focusing on Israel as a cause, you sometimes lose touch with Israel as a place. Thus, I always find myself thinking how much I would prefer to be in Israel for Independence Day—for the sounds, the smells, the arguments, and the passions of the Jewish state.
I am also reminded every Independence Day of how blessed we Jews are. I know that Jews today are privileged to do what Moses was never permitted to do: Walk on the soil of the Land of Israel. And not only that. Jews can build on that land, plant in it, and watch children grow up on it, speaking the language of the Hebrew Bible.
I am perplexed—and angered—by those American Jews who suggest that their Jewish lives can somehow be separated from their connection to Israel. I know that this separation is impossible, and that Judaism and Zionism constitute a natural and harmonious blend. The great American Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver expressed it best: “The upbuilding of the Jewish national home in Palestine is one great, urgent and historically inescapable task of Jewry. The upbuilding of a Jewish religious life in America and elsewhere throughout the world, inclusive of Israel, is another. One is no substitute for the other. One is not opposed to the other.”
And Israel’s role as the central actor of world Jewry has taken on a special urgency at this moment. Israel offered a remedy to a people that had long been homeless and powerless. And anyone who thinks that such matters are unimportant now should look at the world that we live in.
There are 2.5 million Jews in Europe today. And not a single Jewish community there is truly secure. Not one. Many pray in camouflaged synagogues, hidden from public view, and protected by soldiers armed with machine guns.
In a recently released survey, 51% of European Jews said they are afraid to wear any jewelry or ritual object that identifies them as Jewish, and 27% of European Jews said they fear for their physical safety and their future.
Consider this: The leader of the opposition in Great Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, is an anti-Semite. No euphemisms, please. He is an anti-Semite. He hailed Hamas and Hezbollah representatives as “our friends.” He attended a wreath-laying at the graves of the 1972 Munich terrorists. And he might be the next Prime Minister of England.
And then there is France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community. Anti-Semitism there is spreading like poison. In 2018, the number of anti-Semitic acts surged by 74%. During the previous wave of anti-Semitism, only a few years ago, 14,000 French Jews left for Israel.
So tell me:
When a crisis develops in France, or England, or Russia, or Poland, or Hungary; and when the anti-Semites on the right and the left join the government in those places; and when the population turns against the Jews, who will take them in if they need to flee?
Can we count on Trump’s America to do so? Surely not. Think of the turmoil that exists today over every aspect of American immigration policy. The answer to my question, therefore, is: Israel will take them in. There is no one else to do it.
And American Jews know this in their gut. When Jews the world over face a deadly and swelling tide of anti-Semitism, Israel is more important than it has ever been.
The Jewish state was created for this purpose, and the benefits of Jewish sovereignty and Jewish power have never been as apparent and as compelling as they are right now.
Of course, my concerns about Israel do not disappear on Independence Day. Not for a second.
I think of the government that the Prime Minister is in the process of forming, and I know that Bezalel Smotrich will sit in that government as a proud minister of the State of Israel. The problem is not, as is often claimed, that Bibi Netanyahu brought together Smotrich’s faction with a Kahanist faction to form a single party likely to join in coalition with Likud.
The problem is that Smotrich is Kahane. He proclaims that Arabs are of inferior intelligence to Jews, believes in segregating Arabs and Jews in Israeli hospitals, opposes admitting Arabs to Israel’s top universities, and demands that Palestinians in the territories must either relinquish all political rights or acquiesce in expulsion. He is also a ferocious homophobe who rejects evolution and places a primitive view of Biblical teachings before the teachings of modern science.
The question on this Independence Day is not whether Israel’s leaders will be “hawks” or “doves.” By now, most Jews agree that they must be realists—not pretending that Palestinian rejectionism does not exist, or that that danger from Hamas and Iran is not real, or that both sides are somehow equally guilty according to some perverse and absurd claim of moral symmetry between Palestinians and Israelis.
The question, rather, is this: What will happen to Bezalel Smotrich and his disreputable band of followers and hangers-on in the months and years ahead? Smotrich is not personally important, of course; he is a villain and an embarrassment, but, bizarrely, a bellwether for this fraught political moment.
Will Bibi Netanyahu cultivate, flatter, and advance Smotrich, or finally find the courage to say “no” to him? And will the leaders of the Jewish state reject the moral and spiritual disintegration that Smotrich represents, choosing instead the enlightened Zionism and progressive approach to Judaism that reflect Israel’s historic identity?
I am optimistic here. After all, the party of Benny Gantz, a political newcomer, almost matched the number of seats won by Likud, and Bibi’s primary political message was one of vagueness and evasion. There is still a substantial center-right consensus, open or at least amenable to a political settlement. The point is that I trust the instincts of Israel’s people, and I believe that the leaders will ultimately follow where the people lead.
They will do so because Zionism is not primarily a set of geopolitical principles but a body of moral obligations, rooted in a Jewish tradition that rejects racism and radicalism in every form. They will do so because Palestinian nationalism has too often been wicked and extremist, and Israelis have no desire to follow the Smotriches of the world down that path. And they will do so because an Israel committed to compromise, cautious realism, and peace will flourish and grow, while an Israel committed to fanaticism and hatred will slowly wither and die.
And so I ask my friends in America to join me in my optimism. This is the time to proclaim our love for Israel, to celebrate her achievements, and to join in the struggle for her future. This is the time to rally American Jews to Israel’s side, declaring ourselves as untiring partners in the building of Zion. This is the time to affirm Israel’s capacity, with our help, to foster a vibrant Jewish life. And this is a time to remember that Israel’s fate rests not only in the hands of her citizens, but in the hands of Jews everywhere.