Photo: A topsy-turvy Knesset seen through a crystal ball. Source: Marc Israel Sellem. Photo and caption from The Jerusalem Report.
Published in the May 8, 2023 issue of The Jerusalem Report.
The nation-state of Israel is celebrating its 75th anniversary. No one could have imagined in the aftermath of the Shoah that the two millennial-long yearning of a people praying for a return to their ancient homeland could have been fulfilled, creating a vibrant democracy in an inhospitable part of the world. The miracle occurred despite its tiny size and being outnumbered and surrounded by bitter enemies for every year of its existence.
Unlike in 1948, when five Arab armies invaded within hours of declaring independence, Israel in 2023 is militarily strong and self-confident in its ability to defend itself. Since its very first days, despite being economically a basket case, Israel has prioritized the ingathering of Jewish exiles from every corner of the world. It has been a blessing and a challenge for the Jewish state to incorporate all the different ethnicities, perspectives, and cultures these exiles have brought from their 2000-year Diaspora.
The people of Israel are a gorgeous mosaic of every color of humankind. From the black Jews of Ethiopia to the fair white Jews of European ancestry to what most Israeli Jews are from Spanish and Arab lands. Israelis are indeed a rainbow of appearances, what Americans call people of color. And today, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, and Sephardim are not separate but marry one another, adding to the beauty of the people.
This year Israel was named the fourth happiest nation, despite those existential challenges, while being an open door for every Jew who needs to flee persecution. However, that survey was conducted before Israel’s constitutional crisis, which has divided the nation. Those who claim its democracy is threatened have not noticed that the protesters and the supporters of judicial reform wave tens of thousands of Israeli flags, proclaiming they are proudly Zionist, a love for their nation that at least half of Americans do not have for their country.
The difference between Israeli and American Jews is that Israelis are overwhelmingly Zionists, whether from the right or left, with love for the country, despite their political differences and bold conversational style. They stand shoulder to shoulder, religious and non-religious, in the IDF to defend their country. I have witnessed this many, many times. That is why the most recent protest by reserve soldiers strikes such a sensitive nerve in the Zionist dream.
As Yaakov Katz, the former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, noted, there is a “silver lining” to the protests, a “patriotic reawakening” in Israel. “Many of these protestors were the people who the Right has claimed for years had abandoned Zionism and embraced post-Zionist thinking. They were the so-called Tel Avivians. These so-called post-Zionists either never left Zionism, or they have re-found it, and are now embracing the uniqueness of Israel” with their patriotic protests. This is something US and Diaspora Jews have failed to see, only focusing on the disagreements.
During the 2,000-year-old Diaspora, surviving inquisitions, crusades, pogroms, and a holocaust, every Jewish community prayed to be next year in Jerusalem. Secular Jewish Americans don’t appreciate that secular Israelis, including many Israeli protesters, consider themselves very Jewish. They have family Shabbat dinners, speak Hebrew, fight for their country, and live in the land of our forefathers.
Israel’s problems of the last 75 years unfortunately continue. Most prominent are its relations with the Palestinian Arab people. Despite being offered a state of their own five times during those 75 years, they have rejected every opportunity. This is mainly because the Palestinian people have been taught to believe that Israel has no right to exist in any Arab land and that the Jews are colonialists, thieves who stole their land. Even Palestinian citizens of Israel, Israeli Arabs, have similar views, even if they have climbed the socio-economic ladder as Israeli citizens.
Far too much of the Arab population believe Judaism has no legitimate national dimension and has no right to any land in their vision of Palestine. They see Judaism only as a religion; how unfortunate and shortsighted, as the Palestinian people are well educated and could have had their own state and benefited from close economic cooperation with a first-rate, innovative economy.
The last proposal of prime minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinian Authority (PA) 100% of the West Bank with land swaps and East Jerusalem as their capital. This was the ultimate test, proving the conflict is not about two-states-for-two-peoples as American Jews overwhelmingly believe, but about the Palestinian desire for a one-state solution combined with an unlimited right of return to end the Jewish state demographically. Well-meaning State Department negotiators have repeatedly ignored this critical fact.
Then there are the further existential threats, most notably, the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose leadership is hell-bent on destroying the Jewish state and its people. These challenges are not disappearing soon, but during those 75 years with the assistance of the United States, Israel has become a first-tier military that can defend itself, something the 2000-year diaspora never afforded its second-class Jewish residents, always being at the mercy of empires and peoples who more times than not held Jews in contempt.
What about the next 75 years?
Despite Israel’s recent domestic problems, it remains a vibrant democracy that will hopefully find its way toward its first constitution. But the process will be painful. The more pressing challenge is creating a formula to integrate Israeli-Arab citizens, whose women don’t work and are, at best ambivalent about living in a Jewish state. Its ultra-Orthodox haredi citizens, whose men overwhelmingly don’t work, don’t join the military and are anti-Zionists, must be incorporated into the economy and participate in public service. Both groups strain the economic growth and are the source of continual friction with those who serve in the army and pay the lion’s share of taxes. This problem could be solved if only the majority of Israelis who serve and pay taxes could come together in a coalition government. It is their divisions, not the growth of the ultra-Orthodox, that stop this from becoming a reality.
The caveat is that I am not an Israeli but an American who may or may not see things more clearly than Israelis. Israelis must have the final say, and Americans must respect the will of the Israeli electorate, even if we think we know better. American Jews, too often, are willing to abandon Israel if it doesn’t follow their desired political path. They forget that, like in America and other democracies, there will be another election sooner or later, usually sooner, and the political representation will change again. You don’t abandon a democratic country just because you disagree with the current government’s position, as far too many American Jews have done during this judicial crisis.
Israel’s dysfunctional political system, where no one party has ever received a majority of the vote and whose smaller parties extort disproportionate largess as the price to join a coalition, needs to change to make their government function effectively and not always be on the brink of collapse. This is an uphill battle that needs to be won. Increasing the minimum percentage of the vote required to receive a Knesset seat would be a good start, as well as voting directly for Knesset candidates, not for parties. Politicians in Israel are more beholden to their party than to the people, a formula for distancing citizens from their government and creating parliamentarians who choose party over principle.
As for the Israeli-American relationship, both nations are natural allies based on shared interests and values. Those in America who claim any judicial reform will move Israel towards authoritarianism are blind to the facts in context. Most Israelis need and want judicial reform, just not the one advanced by this far-right coalition.
The reality is that most American Jews are estranged from Israel, prioritizing their domestic needs over their relationship with the Jewish state. This will worsen as American Jews continue to intermarry at a rate of over 70% and are non-denominational in affiliation. There will always be a substantial American Jewish minority that prioritizes US-Israel relations among the Zionists and orthodox Jews. However, in the future, people who are actively pro-Israel in America might more likely be Christians than Jews.
America and Israel need each other to advance their shared interests for the foreseeable future. With America’s foreign policy focus leaving the Middle East, Israel is its only reliable ally. The region remains a crucial hub for energy and a fertile ground for terrorists who want to harm both nations. Israel deeply appreciates America’s generous financial support for its defense needs. Israel’s defense innovations improve the capabilities of the American military and help the U.S. remain the world’s dominant fighting force. The money America gives Israel as part of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) for defense is wholly spent in the United States to support the American defense industry and economy.
At the end of this decade, the United States must decide whether to continue supporting Israel’s security with a new MOU. Growing voices on the American right and left will call for an end to US military aid. That would be a mistake, the same isolationist one Americans made after World War I that set the stage for World War II. An investment in Israel is an investment in American security, which is why AIPAC is so important. Their strategy to directly invest in pro-Israel candidates was a wise course correction necessitated by the polarization of the American electorate and the rise of anti-Israel politicians, especially on the left.
As Walter Russell Mead wrote in his book, The Arc of a Covenant, “the idea of a special relationship with the Jewish people and the Jewish state is a thread that runs through American history and is closely associated with ideas of American exceptionalism and providential nationalism at the core of American ideology…. Israel is frequently targeted by international institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council for actions, real or alleged, against the Palestinians. To most Americans, this has always looked like antisemitism.” One of America’s finest moments was when it led the repeal of the “Zionism is racism” resolution at the UN.
Unfortunately, for most of the world and growing numbers of American academics, Zionism has always been racism. They have become more outspoken in condemning and ostracizing students who are Zionists, fostering the growth of the 21st-century incarnation of antisemitism, anti-Zionism. The importance of groups like StandWithUs, AJC, and the ADL fighting this hatred has never been more critical.
Almost all journalists seem to revel in pointing out the problems nations face; I am guilty of this as well. But for Israel, at 75, my glass is 3/4 full, and the future for Israel is bright despite its significant challenges domestically and external threats. Despite the challenges, the US-Israel relationship will survive and grow for both nations’ security interests.
Israel is an amazing place, a miracle of survival, growth, and innovation.
Happy 75th anniversary, Israel! Am Yisrael Chai!