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Challenge and Responsibility on Yom Ha’atzmaut

May 6, 2011

There were years when Yom Ha’atzmaut was cause for near-euphoria. The first sovereign Jewish state in 2,000 years, Israel represented to Jews everywhere much more than a country, a flag, and even a homeland. Independence for Jews was synonymous with a renewed lease on life, and therefore, even in the midst of unending wars, periodic economic crises and many dark clouds on the horizon, Israelis’ celebration of independence was much more than a good party. There was an existential quality to Yom Ha’atzmaut, a sense of sanctity that not everyone could articulate, but that everyone could feel.

This year, however, that unbridled euphoria is going to be hard to come by. Israel is marginalized in ways that would have been difficult to predict just years ago. Hamas and Fatah sign a treaty, but the international pressure for Israel to negotiate, and perhaps even to capitulate, continues unabated. President Barack Obama can say with impunity that America “will be relentless in defense of our citizens,” but Israeli leaders are not permitted that same unabashed determination. Osama bin Laden can be summarily killed, and no one calls it an extra-judicial killing. Egypt threatens to open the border to Gaza, Iran pursues its weapon, Turkey jettisons Israel and cozies up to Iran, Hezbollah has completely rearmed under the nose of the UN – and the pressure to make peace is consistently applied only to the Jewish state.

OUR CELEBRATION of Israel’s independence – an extraordinary accomplishment by any measure – takes place this year under the cloud of an awareness that the Jewish state’s future is tenuous and fragile.

Consider this: There is no other country about which the following two predictions can be made with equal plausibility.

The first prediction: In 50 years, Israel will be a thriving democracy, at the cutting edge of technology, medicine and education, a First World country in every way.

The second prediction: In 50 years, Israel will not exist.

There is good reason to put stock in the first. Israelis receive far more Nobel Prizes per capita than any other country, boast a hitech industry second only to the United States, have cutting-edge military power, medical care and research, and universities that are impressive by any international standard. Israel today exceeds by far what anyone in 1948 could have dared imagine. This could be but the beginning of our greatness.

But the second possibility is equally plausible. Increasing numbers of academics and diplomats, as well as rank-and-file Europeans, now assert that the creation of the Jewish state was a mistake. Polls show that Europeans rank Israel close to North Korea as a threat to international peace. Israel is the only country that British academics are eager to boycott. No other country’s “right to exist” is openly debated in the pages of the New York Review of Books. It is not out of the question that the world could end Israel’s Jewish character or bring it to its knees altogether.

We would do well to note the patterns of Jewish history. Israelite national history in the Bible began in the crucible of Egyptian slavery, marched toward homeland and independence and crested with the rule of King David. From there, it was descent into division, relentless attack from the outside, defeat and exile.

Then, the pattern began again. From the depths of Babylonian exile, stragglers returned, rebuilt Jerusalem, reclaimed independence.

The peak, perhaps, was the Maccabean revolt against foreign domination and influence along with the short-lived relative independence that followed, but that success also faded quickly. Internal division, a loss of moral compass and religious moorings, short-sighted foreign policy and external powers too enormous to contend with – again brought defeat and exile.

Might that pattern be playing itself out again? Our round of Jewish sovereignty was born in the depths of European exile and anti-Semitism, gained momentum during and after the Shoah, led us to November 29 and then May 14, and then to a country more powerful, more democratic, more stable and more flourishing than anyone had a right to expect 63 years ago.

We have had our peak moments. The lightning victory of 1967. The heroism of 1973 that turned the tides of initial defeats. Peace with Egypt and Jordan, even if chilly, suggested the possibility of a different future. Israeli leaders once went to the White House in celebration, not in dread. There was an era in which it was clear to the world that the Israelis, and no one else, were the ones pursuing peace.

HOW TIMES have changed. Today, Egyptian peace may be fraying. Jordan’s King Abdullah is vulnerable. Relations with the Obama administration are strained. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can speak at Columbia and walk the streets of New York, but Britain issues arrest warrants for Tzipi Livni. Israelis wonder with whom, precisely, they are supposed to negotiate a deal when Hamas and Fatah become one, yet the world still holds Israel accountable for the impasse.

It is an unenviable situation to be prime minister faced with a speech to a joint session of Congress, but as Mordecai said to Esther, this is not the moment to permit history to carry us away in its currents. This is the time to act, to do something, “for who knows if it was for a moment like this that you came to power.”

The prime minister’s predicament is our predicament. It is a moment in which there are no good moves, but in which not acting is also unthinkable. It is a difficult time to write a speech, a difficult year in which to reclaim the initiative.

But act we must, and celebrate we must. For only by rejoicing in the accomplishments of the past 63 years can we gird ourselves for the complicated days ahead. Only by reminding ourselves of what is at stake do we have any chance of finding the fortitude to stand firm where we must and to bend where it will serve our future.

Israel is still the Jewish people’s new lease on life, and whatever our politics, our religious dispositions or our place of residence, none of us has any obligation more sacred than to cultivate it, and to bequeath it – whole and flourishing – to generations to come.

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