Thursday, May 08, 2008

Happy Birthday!

Today is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel (Yom Ha'atzmaut). In many ways, it is the most successful state formed out of former European colonial possessions. The area that became Israel was a British possession and before that part of the Ottoman Empire.

It has a growing and stable economy, rich in high-tech and bio-tech. It is also one of the more successful countries to shift from a centralized, socialistic economy to a more decentralized, freer economy. This is, of course, one of the main reasons for its growing economy.

Israel has fought 4 major wars with its neighbors, not to mention decades of battling terrorists. Its air force is one of the best in the world. Many of the tank fighting strategies deployed in both the Gulf Wars were developed by the Israelis on their battlefields. The cooperation between the militaries of Israel and the US has been a boon to both countries.

Economically and militarily, Israel is an unquestionable success story.

Yet, Israel still struggles with its identity. It is largely a secular society, but identifies itself as a Jewish state. It struggles with dealing with issues of democracy and equality regarding the Israel Arab minority as well as differences between Jews of European descent and those who emigrated from the Arab world. It wrestles daily with the weight of controlling disputed and violent territories. And even after 60 years, it contends with an international community that is, at best, unsure how to relate to with her.

Somehow, this is fitting for a Jewish state. Individual Jews have, in analogous ways, the same struggles. Many of Jews outside of Israel are also secular but do not shed their Jewish identity and connections. This balance between secularism and religion is always a challenge for Jews--even those who are expressly religious. This is why some retreat into the confines of Hasidic communities where they largely cut themselves off from the outside world. And why others reject their identity all together so as not to be connected with religion at all. Most Jews, however, find themselves somewhere along the spectrum of secular and religion; not wanting to jettison their Jewish identity, but not wanting to live by restrictive and arbitrary rules.

Individual Jews also contend with the differences between Jews. Since the Jewish Enlightenment, The Haskalah, in the 18th century when Jews began to integrate into European society and culture, Jews have struggled with the choices their fellow Jews have made. Some chose to completely assimilate into European society--going so far as converting to Christianity. Others chose the opposite path fighting against any integration and forming insular communities that avoid Christian Europe. Again, most were some where in between, balancing being Jewish and European.

In Europe and American, there was and is prejudice between Jews. The more highly cultured and assimilated Jews looking down upon and embarrassed by the Tevyas of the world. We see this in the late 19th century when German Jews, already established in the US, had to deal with these Yiddish speaking, peasant immigrants from Eastern Europe. And we see it today between Hasidic communities and other Jewish communities. A Reform Jewish family living in Manhattan has more in common with (and get along better with) its Presbyterian neighbors than with the Hasidic Jews living across the river in Crown Heights.

And Jews today are still uncomfortable and unsure of their relationship with the non-Jewish world around them. We are, largely, successful economically and socially. Anti-semitism is still an issue, but it is not respectable and usually hidden. Jews do not worry about not getting jobs or in to schools anymore. They don't worry about getting into social clubs or politics. Few fear being dragged from their work and beaten. And yet, most Jews, deep down, have some nondescript, undirected worry. "It could happen again. It happened in Germany and Jews were comfortable and successful there"

And this brings me back to Israel. One of the main reasons Jews are so supportive of Israel is because we need to know its there. We need to know its there as an escape valve--if things get bad enough, there is always Israel. We need to know its there as a source of pride--see what Jews can do. We need to know its there because it unites Jews--it's one of the few things most Jews can agree on.

I hope that the next 60 years will bring more prosperity to Israel, peace with its neighbors and its Arab population within, and wider acceptance within the world community. But Israel, like all Jews, will always struggle with its identity--that is, ironically, our identity.

1 comment:

Michelle Cohen said...

Thank you for your heartening tribute to the State of Israel. You are correct to praise Israel's economy. One misconception about Israel is its apparent dependence on the U.S. In fact, U.S. financial support to Israel amounts to 1.7% of the Israeli GNP.