In the coming days, we celebrate the 74th anniversary of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. By press time, we were still anticipating the first local in-person celebration in three years, a coming together that, if all goes to plan, will be cause for great joy.
Those immersed in the daily news from Israel can lose sight of the forest for the trees. We celebrate the scientific advances, the medical breakthroughs, the cultural triumphs coming out of the small but astoundingly creative Jewish state. Yet it may be only on occasions like Independence Day that we step back to observe the big picture.
The creation and flourishing of the Jewish state is a modern miracle – not only because every advancement has taken place within the context of a nation routinely under siege, but because these accomplishments would be exceptional even in the most conducive situations. There may be no other country that emerged in the postwar period of decolonization that has created a greater model for national development – lessons (like the oft-referenced act of making the desert bloom) that were widely shared with other emerging countries until after 1967, when the anti-Zionist movement snuffed out much of that international cooperation.
As a result of that anti-Zionism, our Zionism sometimes takes on a defensive tone. Young Israelis, traveling after their military service, meet young people from around the world in hostels and on hiking trails and are expected to justify their nation’s policies. Never mind Israelis, Jews in Canada and elsewhere are subjected to litmus tests to determine whether they are, by the standards of the interlocutor, a “good Jew” (anti-Zionist) or a “bad Jew.” (Of course, Zionists also engage in the good Jew/bad Jew game.)
Anti-Zionist voices dismiss claims that hyper-criticism of Israel endangers Jews in countries where mobs condemn the Jewish state in ferocious terms. These dismissals are disprovable through statistics. One could claim that the spike in antisemitic incidents in the Western world is unrelated to the precipitous rise in anti-Israel activism. But is there another case of a group of people in Canada or the United States or Europe telling people that their inflammatory rhetoric risks real-life violence only to have those concerns dismissed as a coincidence or as a trick to divert attention from alleged “war crimes”?
Aside from the physical dangers created by anti-Israel rhetoric, the insistence that none of this is aimed at Jews outside Israel is nonsense. Intent does not trump effect. The vast majority of Jews have familial, historical, religious and/or emotional connections to this land and the agitation against Israel is felt by Jews everywhere, no matter their views or feelings about Israel. Whether the mobs intend to strike fear in the Jews along the parade route is irrelevant – they do. Does this scenario constitute antisemitism? Well, if you seek the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state while striking fear in Jews worldwide and chanting “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism,” you have already demonstrated a spectacular indifference to the well-being of Jews everywhere. Does it really matter what we call that?
The trope that Israel was a consolation prize from the world to the Jews for the Holocaust is perhaps the most common misconception surrounding the history of the region. The world gave Israel nothing but a vote at the United Nations. After that, the Jews of the Levant were left to their own devices to build a state while under internal and external bombardment from neighbours.
Where the creation of the Jewish state intersects with the history of the Holocaust is in the collective global renaissance that the proclamation of the Jewish state meant for Jewish people. As the scope of the Shoah became known, Jews turned collective horror and grief into the constructive project of building a new country. Whether that was direct – fighting in the War of Independence or tilling the soil on a kibbutz – or indirect – supporting Zionist organizations abroad – this was an almost universal mobilization by the Jewish world. The agony of all the irredeemable losses of the past was channeled into reviving Jewish life in a sovereign state. Fairly or not, when Israel is attacked, it is received not, as the perpetrators insist, as “criticism of government policies,” but as an assault on the memory of all those who redirected what could have been existential collective despair into something redemptive.
As we begin the 75th year of Jewish sovereignty, let us situate the celebration in the biggest picture possible: despite all the naysaying, the war of words and the war of bullets and blades, the achievements of Israel are a source of pride for almost every Jew. Israelis, with the support of people like we who will gather at the Vogue Theatre on May 4, have made the desert bloom with agriculture, music and dance, science, medicine, high tech, art and almost every imaginable outlet of human creativity.
This is worth celebrating with unbridled joy.