By Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl
As part of our preparations for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, our Beth Tzedec
Congregation in Toronto hosted Rabbi Daniel Gordis and Hon. Irwin Cotler as our Shabbat guests. They each touched on themes that have become more evident in recent years.
On the one hand, Jews have much for which to be grateful. The Jewish people made great strides from the time of the Balfour Declaration
more than 90 years ago to the establishment of the State of Israel 60 years ago. We received international recognition of efforts to build a Jewish state, initiated a movement of Jews to the Land of Israel, and formed a political-administrative structure to develop Jewish statehood. Our people passed through the horror of the Holocaust and moved from destruction to the redemptive reality of a Jewish State.
The frail and endangered newborn country of 1948 grew into a confident, strong Israel following the Six Day War in 1967. The State of Israel was critical to the rescue and resettlement of Jews from the Levant, Arabia, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Israel has become a First World country with a flourishing, knowledge-based economy, a strong commitment to democracy and human rights, and a determination to defend its national interests. Moreover, the vibrancy of Israeli life has contributed to a tremendous renewal of Jewish culture and commitment in the Diaspora.
However, we also note a “gathering storm,” an ominous sense of foreboding that casts a shadow over the successes of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Threats of Iranian-sponsored terror in the north (from Lebanon), active attacks in the south (from Gaza), and the steady development of the Iranian atomic bomb all threaten the possibility of peace. The rise of radical Islam, terrorist threats to Jewish institutions in the Diaspora, and the recrudescence of anti-Semitism create great unease.
Prof. Cotler contended that singling out Israel by the international community for excessive criticism is part of an effort to undermine its legitimacy as a nation-state. The criticism of Jews as a “powerful lobby” seeks to defame our efforts and to diminish our rights of free speech and petition. The criticism of Israel’s justified defense of its territory and citizens and a denial of its sincere efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians contribute to an inversion of a narrative celebrating the return of an aboriginal people to its aboriginal land, its aboriginal language and its aboriginal culture. This has led to a weakening of internal confidence in the historic mission of the Jewish people.
The problems and challenges are real. So are the achievements. We must not lose sight of the many accomplishments of Israel. The Israeli narrative of progress and redemption may require some revision, but the essential elements of the story remain true. Rabbi Gordis and Professor Cotler argued that to reclaiming our narrative required deeper self-knowledge and a more forceful advocacy of Zionism and a Jewish state as legitimate expressions of the national identity of our people.
It is critical that we share with others the many ways that Israel includes people of different ethnic and religious background, thus giving the lie to charges of apartheid. It is essential that we point out that the continued condemnation of Israel by the United Nations and other international bodies demonstrates deep bias, weakens the legitimacy of those organizations and undercuts the very cause of human rights they claim to uphold. It is crucial that we visit Israel and support efforts to enable a new generation to experience the excitement of a people reborn in its ancient land.
We are facing a “long war” that initially targets Israel, but over time endangers much of democratic civilization. Our efforts on behalf of Israel are also important in the struggle to maintain the vitality of democratic institutions, the legitimacy of free speech, and the open expression of culture.
As Prof. Cotler reminded us, Jewish self-respect and defense of Israel can and should be framed within a powerful concern for human rights. This resonates with our deepest values and allows us to “reclaim the narrative.” We must speak about these issues in the public square and not confine these conversations to the Jewish community. We must gird ourselves with knowledge, faith and hope in order to strengthen our commitment to the future.
Sixty years ago, on erev Shabbat, 5 Iyyar 5708 (14 May 1948), “placing trust in the Rock of Israel,” the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was signed. Its concluding words included a hopeful call to Jews everywhere that still resonate today:
“We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz Israel in the tasks of immigration and rebuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”
That dream remains valid and vital and so does our role in this drama of hope.
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair in Rabbinics and Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Canada. He is a Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute