It sure seems like a strange time to be celebrating Israeli Independence Day.
Israel, while doing better, is still in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Israel’s political system remains paralyzed with the choice, after a fourth national election in two years, being between some kind of an unstable, ideologically confused government of one sort or another or a fifth election. The Prime Minister’s trial continues. And Iran is once again becoming a threat to Israel, whether one prefers the Trump-era policies or those of the Biden Administration.
And then one remembers what the Zionist movement was about when Theodor Herzl conceived it more than 120 years ago: normalcy for the Jewish people. So let’s keep in the front of our minds the thought, with all these challenges, that the miracle of the rebirth of the Jewish state was to be a “Light unto the nations,” but at the same time to make the Jewish people self-governing for the first time in 2,000 years. And with this transformative self-government came the need to deal with the common obstacles and crises that make up the agendas of an independent nation. In other words, normalcy.
Normalcy may not sound exciting ordinarily, but amidst a year-long pandemic, it’s a word that has gained not only increasing currency, but admiration. If only we can get back to something approaching normalcy is a refrain commonly heard.
So, on this Yom Haatzmaut, let’s celebrate normalcy with regard to Israel on three levels: First, there is the aspiration to return to that normal life as Israel leads the world in vaccinations. This, of course, is an urgency shared by all peoples around the globe as the toll in human beings lost, economies broken, and personal lives turned upside down continues to grow.
Second is Israel as a normal state for the Jewish people.
The truth is, on one level, Israel hasn’t lived up to Herzl’s ideal. Antisemitism has not disappeared as Herzl envisioned when Jews would have a state of their own. In fact, classical antisemitism is alive and well, and has been bolstered by the new antisemitism in the form of hostility to the Jewish state.
And yes, there is nothing normal about the way the Jewish state has been treated in the world throughout its 73-year history — wars, terrorism, boycotts, international isolation, and assaults on its good name.
Still, challenges and all, an anniversary like this gives us reason to be thankful about so much that is normal about the state of Israel: a haven for persecuted Jews, a nation that can defend its people, the only vibrant democracy in the region, a creative force in science, technology and economic development.
Yes, there is a lot of work to be done, in creating a more functional and healthy political system, in generating more equality among all its citizens, in providing more respect for all streams in Judaism, in integrating its Haredi and Arab citizens.
On the occasion of this annual celebration, there’s nothing wrong with applauding the normalcy that Israel represents in Jewish history and at the same time owning up to the fact that there are many areas of Israeli life that require a new commitment by its leaders to reinvigorate Israeli democracy.
The third level where normalcy enters the vocabulary of Israel this year is, of course, in its foreign relations with its Arab neighbors. While Zionism represented normalcy for the Jewish people, there was for decades a longing for the same by Israel in the region. This is a concept that comes naturally to almost all independent states but in Israel’s case was an aspiration that was not met for the first 72 years of its existence.
This is so not only because for decades no Arab state would have anything to do with Israel, but even following the two major breakthroughs, with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994; nothing close to normalcy in relations followed.
This Yom Haatzmaut, we can talk for the first time not only about the normalcy of the Jewish people in having a state of their own, but the reality of normalized relations with several key Middle Eastern states. Indeed, a normalcy truly to be celebrated this Yom Haatzmaut.
Finally, let’s come back to the dual underlying theme of Zionism: normalcy and a light unto the nations. Reflecting on that duality enables us on this day of celebration to think as well about the hard and necessary work Israel needs to take to lift itself toward that goal. We can do so without in any way diminishing from the great Zionist achievements that we applaud this day.
It is not a matter of criticism of the Jewish state on this festive day but rather a reminder of the high aspirations of those who brought that miracle of the Jewish people into reality and how those aspirations can serve as a lodestar going forward.