By Rabbi Maurice Harris on behalf of Reconstructing Judaism.
“From tiny roots.” That was the caption on a popular poster a few decades ago, depicting tiny roots growing underground but manifesting above into a beautiful young tree — a metaphor celebrating the improbable fact of a flourishing, strong, and vibrant Israel. The image inspired both awe and anxiety: awe at the astonishing accomplishments of the little Jewish state in such a short time span, and anxiety about the fragility of those tiny roots, despite all that had grown resilient and sturdy from them.
Now as the State of Israel turns 70, its strengths are so visible that it is easy to forget the scale of the challenges it has overcome, often with ingenious creativity, cooperation, and determination. People with few resources and limited options founded a new society in part of their ancestral homeland; revived their ancient language for daily use; and used their hands, minds, and hopes to make for themselves an independent safe haven in a world that had become catastrophically lethal for Jews. The Jewish immigrants to British Mandate Palestine, and the waves of Jews who arrived in the first decades after the founding of the state, carried trauma, displacement, loss, and weariness within their spirits, yet somehow managed to take those energies and redirect them into building a shared society that works and even prospers. Israel rose out of the ashes of destruction — not just of the Nazi Holocaust, but also of hundreds of pogroms killing tens of thousands and displacing even more, throughout Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and other parts of Europe, as well as blood libels, riots, and periodic massacres of Jews in parts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Seventy years later, Israel is a country that does the amazing on a daily basis. It recycles close to 90% of its water (#1 in the world by far), and desalinates enough seawater to meet its domestic consumer needs. Its researchers have developed medicines and therapies that are improving the lives of people with autism, Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, and more. It’s currently pioneering ultrasonic surgery (surgery without cutting the body). Tel Aviv now hosts the largest annual international medical cannabis conference in the world. High-tech and green-tech in Israel have been integral to shaping the information era, and make a positive difference around the world. As a country without major deposits of natural resources, its historical investments in higher education have paid off in the form of a dynamic and diverse global economy.
At 70, Israel remains a very young country. The place pulses with an energy whose signature is so potent and specific that people who spend time there find themselves seeking for the right words to describe its buzz. Even as it has, in many ways, moved far from its socialist and communitarian founders’ ideals, a spirit of cooperation and optimism still animates Israeli society, despite intense pressures on its citizens. In a region whose peoples are suffering catastrophically in multiple failed states, Israel remains a stable state, with real elections, peaceful transitions of power, an independent judiciary, a mostly free press, strong labor unions, national health insurance, great hospitals, stable food prices, and a citizen-army that provides Jewish Israelis with the shared responsibility of defending themselves. While being a stable state isn’t an end in itself, in the Middle East it’s not something to take for granted either.
Israelis are a people who carry on despite great pressures. Their daily security conversation isn’t confined to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather considers the decisions, ideologies, and intentions of many regional governments and non-state actors. Israelis know what it feels like to have a group like Hezbollah with a stockpile of over 100,000 rockets and possible access to Syrian chemical weapons across one border, and a group like Hamas building tunnels and stockpiling mortars and rockets just across another border. It can be hard to keep in mind the courage that Israelis are being asked to manifest as part of any peace agreement that would involve Israel ceding some of its strategic power.
If only everything written above were the whole story. But in truth, there are aspects of the Jewish state that run counter to its own best ideals, which are beautifully expressed in its Declaration of Independence. As Reconstructionists, we must face these counter-currents with clarity to remain true to our tradition’s deep commitment to collective self-examination, shared moral responsibility, and the acknowledgement of harms done even in righteous causes. And so, as we mark Israel’s 70th birthday, understanding that every nation has contradictions, we also take time to acknowledge some of the ways in which Israel falls short of its own best ideals.
First and foremost, 50 years spent occupying another people has hardened and embittered three generations of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Venture into the West Bank today, and one quickly sees that the democratic norms that are the pride of Israel proper dissolve into a different political, social, military, and moral reality. In the West Bank two different sets of laws apply, Israeli civil law to Jews living in settlements, while military law and military courts govern Palestinians still living under occupation. Separate roads have been built on land expropriated from Palestinians in order to connect settlements to Israel proper, and the ongoing expansion of settlements in the West Bank continues to shrink the physical spaces that theoretically would comprise a future Palestinian state living alongside Israel. While Israel proper is not an apartheid state, it’s notable that two former prime ministers of Israel, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, have publicly stated that Israel risks slipping into a permanent apartheid-like reality in the occupied territories.
The occupation was intended to be a temporary administrative state of affairs pending the final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thirty years ago the central organization of Reconstructionist congregations issued a resolution calling for an end to the occupation, stating, “we believe that the continuous occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has an increasingly corrosive effect on the democratic nature of Israel and on its moral fiber and could eventually undermine the Jewish nature of the state…” Thirty years later, despite the initial optimism generated by the Oslo Accords, there is plenty of blame to go around for why no final status agreement has been reached. However one assesses this blame, today Israel presides over a system in the West Bank that is neither just nor sustainable, and, according to many top Israeli security and military experts, actually degrades Israel’s security more than it supports it. Reconstructing Judaism’s most recent policy statements on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis affirm the need for both peoples to have an independent state and for the occupation to end, as part of a political agreement that supports the security of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Apart from the occupation, many Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora today are also taking a harder look at an issue that is central to Palestinian narratives of the conflict: the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (“the catastrophe”). While the Nakba remains a highly charged subject in much of the North American Jewish community, in Israel it is actually a subject that is openly discussed. Even national Israeli landmarks like the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv have exhibits that address it without providing easy answers or rote justifications. Historians and political leaders will continue to debate who bears most of the moral responsibility for the losses Palestinians have endured, as well as the moral, practical, strategic, and military questions involved in considering Jewish collective rights and security needs alongside Palestinians’ claims and demands regarding the Palestinian refugees of 1948.
A Reconstructionist approach trusts that we can handle the complexity and the uncertainty that comes from examining these questions, and that Zionism itself can and will be reconstructed from era to era just as other key elements of Jewish life, belief, and practice are. We are called upon to value our historical, spiritual, and physical bonds to the Land of Israel, our people’s birthplace and the focus of our prayers throughout our centuries of exile. We are also called upon to bring the highest ideals of Torah to bear upon the discussion, as well as the best ideals that we have learned from the non-Jewish civilizations of which Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan stressed we are also a part. In some ways, the challenge facing Israel and those who care about Israel was long ago coined by the great sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
The Israeli journalist, Gershom Gorenberg, writes, “A country … can be best understood by its contradictions.”1 Rabbi Amy Klein, a Reconstructionist rabbi living in Israel, has written about how precisely this embrace of contradictions fits within a Reconstructionist approach to contemporary Zionism. As Israel turns 70, its contradictions tell us so much about its heart and its future possibilities. Its democratic underpinnings are in conflict with its mission to be a secure Jewish refuge and a Jewish-identified nation state. Its understandable risk-aversion in matters of security and peace-making is in conflict with its talent for creative large-scale problem-solving. Its deep warmth and humanity is in conflict with its long-practiced military domination of another people. It is simultaneously a free-speech state and a surveillance/security state; a place of religious diversity and freedom but also of increasing religious coercion and extremism; a multi-racial melting-pot and a society that harbors deep racism; and, a social welfare state that has become a state with huge wealth and income inequality.
Israel, which until recent years was a reliable source of unity across the movements of Diaspora Judaism, is such a charged subject now that many synagogues and families avoid discussing it. It’s not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that creates these tensions. State sanctioned Orthodox control over much of Jewish religious life in Israel is now playing out in ways that are intensely alienating for people who take non-Orthodox approaches to Judaism seriously and who have loved and supported Israel their whole lives. The one state on earth dedicated to the flourishing of the Jewish people doesn’t officially recognize the various ways in which the majority of the world’s Jews practice Judaism, creating the ironic reality that Jews actually have more freedom to practice diverse forms of Judaism outside of Israel than within it.
How we in the Reconstructionist movement find ways to talk about Israel in all its complexity is one of our most important challenges today. Towards that goal, we’ve launched our Joint Israel Commission, a remarkable group of lay people and rabbis from across the movement, representing the wide spectrum of political perspectives and personal experiences to be found throughout our congregations, our rabbinical seminary, and our rabbis in the field. Later this year, we’re launching our Evolve project, an online platform for a collective, communal conversation about how to adapt and apply Reconstructionist perspectives to Jewish life today and tomorrow. There you’ll be able to join in online discussions about thoughtful essays by Reconstructionists on many topics, including Israel. In addition, we continue to offer opportunities for people to spend time in Israel and dig beneath the surface while they’re there, through trips like our recent March 2018 mission trip, Camp Havaya’s annual month-in-Israel program for high schoolers from across the movement, and through the study-in-Israel component of our rabbinical training program.
To acknowledge Israel’s moral complexity is not to stand in casual judgment from a perch far away. The Diaspora Jews who make up the membership of our international network of congregations all live in complex nation states with checkered histories and deeply unresolved moral crises. No one can stand in moral judgment of Israel without considering their own complicity in the unresolved and ongoing ethical problems of the countries in which they live.
But just as easy moral judgment is not a fair or helpful response to contemporary Israel, neither is remaining silent or offering unquestioning support for Israel’s actions. Rabbi Kaplan envisioned a deep and wide flow of ideas, influences, and information between Israel – the cultural and spiritual center of a renewed Jewish civilization – and the Diaspora Jewish community – a rich and dynamic arena of Jewish creativity. He and the early proponents of Reconstructionism also supported a Zionism that honors Judaism’s best moral and ethical ideals, and subsequent generations of Reconstructionists have carried on those fundamental values. (For a history of the Reconstructionist movement and Zionism, see Rabbi David Teutsch’s essay on the subject.)
The purpose of looking honestly at Israel, including its flaws, is to better understand, and to take part in the Israel-Diaspora relationship in a way that honors Rabbi Kaplan’s vision. To do that, we need to make genuine, complex, truthful, and necessary conversations possible, within and between the Diaspora Jewish community and the Israeli Jewish community. Because our fates as Jews are bound together, because our movement is based on the concept of peoplehood, and because of the importance of embracing Jewish diversity within a larger unity, we seek to carry on the conversation about Israel, even when it is difficult. At 70 years old, we bear witness to an Israel that we love, with which we are deeply intertwined, and whose future remains nearly impossible to predict, in part because some of its core contradictions remain deeply unresolved. May God bless Israel, and may the Source of Wholeness bless Israelis, Palestinians, and all of the peoples of the region with growing peace, justice, prosperity, and shared humanity.
Notes on some of the images:
- Grey and white ancient menorah stamp, designed by Igal Gabay, one of Israel’s leading stamp designers.
- The two boys showing their tattooed arms — Auschwitz survivors on board the refugee immigration ship Mataroa at Haifa port, July 15, 1945.
- Israeli public telephone coins (asimonim) from the late 1960s.
- 20 shekel bank note featuring Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein, part of a series on Israeli female poets.
- Additional postage stamps include official Israeli and Palestinian Authority stamps.
- Scroll of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Click here to visit a wonderful resource based on this document.
- Israeli and Palestinian women comfort each other (photo from Combatants for Peace).