02 May 2017

Israel, Thy Very Name is Struggle - Yom haAtzma'ut 5777

Today is Yom haAtzma'ut - Israeli Independence Day.  In Genesis, when Jacob receives his eponymous name for our people, we are told that it means the one who struggles with God and humanity.  [Gen. 32:28]  Nowhere else is this more apparent than in our modern day redemption in the state of Israel.

For millennia, our people have lived by the oft-repeated Biblical exhortation to remember that we were strangers in Egypt, and to empathize with those not in power; who felt like strangers in their own land.  Without political and state power, there was little to put this maxim to the test.  For the past 69 years, Israel has given us the blessing of a real, physical homeland - a source of pride and the ultimate redoubt for our people. However, we have also been given the opportunity to apply the politics of  minority to the power of the nation-state.  In many ways, we have succeeded.  Israel is a democracy, surrounded by dictatorship.  Yet, not only does the shadow of religious fundamentalism tinge the democracy of its Jewish citizens, but the increasing insularity of the Jewish populace continues to encroach on the rights of all the non-Jews - citizen and non-citizen alike - who find themselves sheltered with Israel's borders.

This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the miraculous victory of the Six-Day War, which brought with it the dubious benefit of increased territory and a vast refugee Arab population.  When its neighbors washed their hands of responsibility, Israel became the breeding ground for a Palestinian resistance - one which dominates the political landscape of Israel - both within its pre-1967 borders and without.  The miraculous underdog of 1967 and 1973 is now perceived as the bully of the Intifada. Israel has failed to find a solution for the Arab population that it finds itself in control of, and we are being changed in ways that only a few (Moshe Dayan, for example) imagined.  Force and repression have become our only tools.

The Palestinians, separated now by name from the rest of the Arabs in the Middle East, have become the underdogs.  Americans, always sympathetic to the underdog, are torn. Many American Jews turn away from an active engagement with Israel because the situation is too divisive, too fraught with difficult moral issues, so different from the David and Goliath story of 1948, 1967, and 1973.

Yet, today is Yom haAtzma'ut.  Atzma'ut - independence - comes from the root ayin-tzadi-mem - which is not only the self-reflexive term in Hebrew, but is also the root for "bone".  Israel is in our bones.  We, as Jews, no matter what our genetic origin, pray for the peace of Israel at every service, and long to return to mythic Jerusalem at every seder.  We cannot ignore our connection with Israel, lest we lose our backbone, our support and structure.

We are Israel - those who struggle with God and with humanity; nowhere more evident than in the modern state of Israel.  Right struggles with left; Ultra-Orthodox with Reform and Conservative; Ashkenazic with Sephardi/Mizrachi/Indian/Ethiopian; Jew with Arab; Diaspora with Sabra.  The struggle is not new.  Judaism teaches us that - but also that we engage in the struggle with certain values to guide us - love your neighbor as yourself; help even your enemy with his fallen burden; and treat the stranger as the native.  The passage in Genesis says that Jacob not only struggle with God and with humanity, but that he prevailed.  Prevailing is not necessarily winning.  Let us hope that we, too, can find a way to prevail  - a way that preserves not only our own rights and dignity, but those of the ones we, today, find as enemies.  Then we can truly live up to the name which has been bequeathed to us by the generations - Yisra'eil.

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