Two Stories as We Celebrate 73 years of the State of Israel

In 1991, I was living on Kibbutz Sa’ad as part of my Nativ gap-year program. As that year’s Shavuot ended in 1991, we turned our TVs on and learned about the wonder of Operation Solomon, the clandestine and heroic effort to save over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews. The operation brought them covertly to Israel in stripped El Al airliners, על כנפי נשרים (al kanfei n’sharim) on the wings of eagles. I will never forget the sentence I heard on TV that night (which I think was uttered by Brigadier General Nachman Shai, who was then the spokesman for the IDF). It went something like this: “This operation shows that had the Jews had an airline and an address in 1939, there would have been no Auschwitz.”

It was perfectly appropriate and poignant statement, and only slightly hyperbolic at that. He was, in one sentence, reinforcing one of the driving forces of Zionism, which is that the world has continued to do everything in its power to prove to the Jews that they actually do need their own home (even as many in that same world do everything possible to wrest that home from those Jews). Within Rabbi David Hartman’s Sinai-Auschwitz paradigm, in which the Jewish condition is one of balancing two nodes (living on earth with a divine purpose and ensuring that we are not eradicated so that we can actually just live), the post Operation-Solomon sentiment was that Israel was a bulwark against a future Auschwitz, on behalf of any worldwide Jew of any race, denomination or personal observance. That sentiment remained a critical part of what was created in 1948, and we dare not take it for granted — even as we try to live out and retroactively earn Sinai, even as we aspire to be lights unto the nations, even as we continue to learn and evolve into a healthy version of the odd organism which is a Jew with power.

I think about 1991 as we sit in 2021, as much of the fraught conversation about Israel’s identity and soul zeroes in on 1967, which for me is too often a smokescreen that occludes the true target date, which is 1948.

This smokescreen was painfully reinforced to me during one memorable moment when I traveled as part of the Encounter program to meet with and listen to Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As I have spoken and written about before, my Encounter experience was heart-opening but not only, or even primarily, in the direction one might assume. I am grateful for the experience, and hold admiration and true respect for Encounter’s leadership and vision. And with my heart pried open, what I experienced and heard during those four days made me less optimistic about the possibility of a two-state solution, not more so.

At one point we were speaking with a young Palestinian Arab, a Christian woman who, with Jerusalem residency, enjoyed more access and unfettered travel than many other Palestinians do. She had grown up in the Fatah youth movement, hoping to improve her life and the lives of her peers through political activism. At some point she gave up that hope, finding too much corruption, graft and fecklessness everywhere she looked. “A pox on all their houses,” was sort of how she described it.

So she turned towards mindfulness and other forms of peacemaking, deep within the spirit. She helped launch a meditation and mindfulness center in the West Bank, open to all. She spoke the language of togetherness and unity and human bondedness. She claimed to hold no hatred in her heart, and I believe her. She rhapsodized, quite compellingly, about how intertwined the Jewish and Arab stories and fates are; about how when it rains, it rains the same on either side of the fence; about how this region has the potential to be the next Dubai in terms of openness and mutual thriving; about how human understanding and open-heartedness will bring us past this quagmire. I was moved. I wanted to make a donation on the spot to her organization and help support her vision.

On Encounter, we are taught — properly, I would say — only to ask questions to which we do not know the answer. We should ask questions not as a “gotcha,” not to embarrass or demean or to make a point. But only to learn. After this woman spoke, I asked a question that was burning in my soul: Can you imagine anywhere in your consciousness a resolution to the conflict that includes, in some way, the State of Israel?

I truly wanted to know, as she extrapolated out from the beautiful and holy work she was doing, whether we Jewish visitors, who deeply wanted to partner with her, could dream together of a workable peace, a mutually dignified existence, a cessation of nihilistic aspirations of annihilating the other — and that it would include something called Israel, the Jewish state.

But she had a one-word answer. And it broke my heart. She said, “no.”

I heard my mind literally say these words to myself as I processed her answer: I want to support her and her work. I want her and her fellows to live with freedom, dignity, national identity, her human rights celebrated and guaranteed. I want her to feel that she is living a blessed life in a blessed part of the world, lacking nothing that human beings ought to lack, at the core.

But not if it means no Israel. My Zionism teaches me, and Nachman Shai teaches me, that to go back is no option.

My Zionism teaches me, and Nachman Shai teaches me, that to go back is no option.

It seems that in this Jewish moment, even wishing the State of Israel a happy birthday is laden with controversy, judgment and rancor. I have no illusions about the complexity of maintaining a Jewish polity in the twenty-first century. But today, especially, on יום העצמאות, I celebrate and I only celebrate.

I celebrate that in 1948, the Jews won the war, for to lose it would have meant to lose everything and everyone. I celebrate that the State of Israel exists, for its existence is incalculably better for the Jewish people than would be its non-existence. I celebrate the home and address to which Operation Solomon brought Jews from Ethiopia, the very home and address my inspiring Palestinian friend cannot imagine deserving to exist.

And I celebrate dreaming about the next time I will be able to visit, all the while committing to doing my part to earn the love of the fragile yet sturdy, vulnerable yet mighty, maddening yet exquisite, divided and divisive but also singular in purpose State of Israel.

Happy Birthday Israel.  יום חג העצמואת שמח.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld

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