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Israel Isn’t a Ketchup, and Other Thoughts about 66

by Shmuel Rosner

May 5, 2014 | 3:10 am

Israeli air force jets fly in formation during a rehearsal for Israel's Independence Day over the president's residence in Jerusalem, April 16, 2010.
Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

Lost in battles of minuscule importance, surrounded by the constant noise of the daily news, mired in debates over policy and politics and symbolism, we often forget how lucky we are. How lucky we are to be a part of a generation that can battle over this or that policy of a Jewish state. How lucky we are to celebrate an Independence Day as a Jewish state. How lucky we are to celebrate the 66th Independence Day.

What’s so special about the 66th birthday, you might ask.

The answer would be — nothing. Nothing is special about 66, and that’s what is special about it. It is most pleasing to celebrate the routine of Independence Day. Another year, another day.

We are no longer in awe, as we should be, of the fact that there is a Jewish state in the land of Israel. We are no longer in awe, as we should be, of the fact that it survives, thrives and, well, ages. We have nothing unique to say about the year 66: Israel is not marking a milestone. It is not crossing a threshold. Unlike a couple of years ago, when Israel was 50 and then, again, when it was 60, when we had to suffer through a string of “will it live to 100?” articles. The 66 celebration is not an answer to this question, and 67, if there’s no catastrophe in store for the country, also will not provide us with the answer, nor will 68 or 69. Of course, when Israel turns 70, and then 75, it will probably be subjected to yet another round of such articles. But, at some point, maybe at 113, the discussion about Israel’s “future” will become old. At least, one hopes it will.

There is something simple and quite wonderful about having an Independence Day routine, a routine that is not ignorant of the many problems Israel faces, but is also far from being hysterical about its future prospects.

Of course, there are good reasons to worry about Israel’s future — and Israelis are justifiably worried. At the mature age of 66, though, proportion and perspective should be in place: The fact that the last round of Israeli/Palestinian talks was not successful is not the “end of Zionism,” as some pundits have claimed. The fact that Israel has a growing ultra-Orthodox population is not reason for doomsday predictions (for one, because Charedis aren’t the enemies of Israel and also because Charedi society can adjust; and because trends can reverse themselves). The fact that we haven’t yet found an exact, agreed-upon definition of what “Jewish and democratic” means is not a sign that Israel isn’t “Jewish” or “democratic,” as some Israelis have cried. The fact that J Street was not accepted to the Conference of Presidents is not the end of Jewish-American support for Israel, as some Americans have threatened.

Surely, the Israel of tomorrow might not be the Israel of yesterday — for good and for bad. Surely, some of Israel’s citizens and supporters may not be satisfied with the looming alterations to its character. In fact, there are many things about which I’m also not at all satisfied. Tough luck: Some people weren’t satisfied with Israel’s previous characteristics, and they had to live with them or fight for their agenda, and those who aren’t satisfied now have the same choice to make. Of course, they could also abandon Israel. If they do, it would be Israel’s loss — but also theirs.

I was forced to think about this issue as I was reading an article by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Bankler in The New Republic. He is, no doubt, one of the smart Israelis who have made careers for themselves abroad. His article is critical of the decision not to accept J Street into the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations — the type of criticism that we have heard before and that is certainly reasonable. There are reasons to exclude J Street and reasons to include J Street — good reasons on both sides. Bankler believes that the reasons for inclusion are the stronger ones, and he lays them out. He doesn’t bother to also lay out the reasons not to include J Street, either because he doesn’t understand that there are such reasons, or because he doesn’t think they deserve to be heard, or because he doesn’t have space for everything and had to cut the arguments that do not support his own beliefs.

While I may revisit the J Street saga later, my interest today in Bankler’s article is not because of the J Street vote, but rather because of this one paragraph: “[A]n American Jewish community that will support Israel even if it chooses to lose its democratic character rather than its Jewish character will ultimately lose the next generations of American Jews, who will simply turn away in disgust from a state that represents a Judaism that cannot be squared with the rest of their identity.”

Of course, this is not my first encounter with the threat of “turning away in disgust” from Israel. We occasionally hear such threats whenever Israel chooses a policy that is not to the liking of Peace-Now crusaders or those of Greater-Holy-Land extremists. And there’s always this wonder: Where will these Jews turn when they “turn away” from the one Jewish state?

Israel is not a product for which there is a substitute. You cannot drop this ketchup, and buy another brand, or even take mustard instead (sorry, I have just been watching the “Mad Men” Heinz episode). There is no substitute for Israel at the moment, so turning away from it means turning away from having a national political Jewish expression. Turning away from it would be a great loss — possibly for Israel, if it loses valuable supporters, but no less so (in fact, much more so) for those who decide to abandon it. In other words, the threat is not exactly a threat. Bankler warns us — well, I’m not even sure to which address this warning is mailed — that U.S. Jews might end up cutting their own noses to spite their faces.

I’m quite certain that Israel isn’t following Bankler’s script – in fact, to be fair, even Bankler is careful enough to say that Israel might still be able to save itself from the horror he has in mind (in a nutshell: an Orthodox undemocratic state). I also don’t think that the possible punishment of abandonment and rejection Bankler prescribes is good for one’s health and well-being — and thus I don’t think American Jews are going to follow this script.

Thus, such threats over an issue as minor as a vote — faulty or not — concerning the seating of this or that organization near this or that table, are of course exaggerated and uncalled for. But they are the inevitable result of the Israeli miracle becoming a routine. They are the unavoidable consequence of it becoming strong enough to withstand such threats, and other, more serious ones. That is to say that at 66, it is probably time to celebrate the routine of independence and to calmly accept its downside. 

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