What Israel Means to Us

Posted on Apr 25, 2012


“Turning the World Upside Down,” by Anish Kapoor, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

For my Yom Ha’atzma’ut blog, I have invited Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, alumnus of The Rabbinical School and The Davidson School, to engage me in conversation on what Israel means to us. Before coming to JTS, Charlie, a U.S. citizen, voluntarily served <em>with distinction</em> in an infantry unit of the Israel Defense Forces (2003 to 2005). He is currently our director of Digital Engagement and Learning.

Dear Arnie,

You asked me to write you and share some of what I’m thinking and feeling this Yom Ha’atzma’ut. As a rabbi, non-Israeli veteran of the IDF, and a Jew committed to the State of Israel, I feel the complex mix of emotions I’ve come to experience on every Israeli Independence Day: namely joy, pride, and—to be 100 percent honest with you—anxiety. Let me explain.

The joy I feel on Yom Ha’atzma’ut is tied to my deep sense of Zionism and love for the State of Israel. To say I feel privileged and blessed to live in a time when a Jewish state not only exists but thrives (albeit with the challenges that face every country in the 21st century) would be an understatement. For me, the creation of the State of Israel represents the type of miracle only possible when people take up the work of the Divine will, when the collaboration between God and humanity is realized.

My joy on Yom Ha’atzma’ut extends beyond the creation of the State of Israel to the benefits the State has afforded me. The vibrancy of Jewish life, culture, and religious practice flourishing in cities like Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva, Haifa, and Jerusalem has helped to shape me as a Jew, and provided me with spiritual and intellectual sustenance. When this vibrancy comes into contact with the renaissance of Jewish life underway in the Diaspora, Judaism’s power to provide meaning, inspiration, and fulfillment becomes clear.

I constantly find myself marveling and taking familial pride at what the State of Israel has been able to accomplish in its relatively short history, and at how the citizens of Israel engage with the numerous challenges facing their country. From security threats, to the role of religion in the public sphere, to growing economic disparity, to the clear moral challenges posed by the Israeli presence in the West Bank, the issues faced by Israel are many. Yet, Israelis respond with passionate debate, organizing, and activism. As shown by the widespread support of last summer’s social justice protests, the large-scale demonstrations on matters such as the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the racism still present in Israeli society, there appears to be a national Israeli ethos that says working to better the State of Israel is an obligation of every citizen. In this I take pride.

The anxiety I feel on Yom Ha’atzma’ut comes from the difficulty of the work that lies ahead. The challenges facing the State of Israel have no clear answer, nor does the increasingly important question of how to meaningfully connect Jews in the Diaspora with our Israeli family.

At times, the political and security situation leads me to despair. But in those moments, I am reminded of the great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was asked if he believed in the coming of the Messiah. Leibowitz, not missing a beat, slyly responded, “I believe that the Messiah is coming.” Clarifying the intentional ambiguity of this statement, Leibowitz continued, “The essence of the Messiah is that He will always be coming.”

I take this to mean that the messianic age is an ideal to aspire to. Put into the context of Israel, as Jews we have the responsibility to continually push the State of Israel to better itself and to fully actualize the values of the Jewish people. And while this ideal will never be fully attainable, we are still obligated to work, hope, and pray for it.

So that’s some of what I am thinking and feeling on Israel’s birthday. What’s on your mind?



Dear Charlie,

Thanks for sharing those thoughts. I will pick up where your letter left off. The quote from Leibowitz called to mind a remark by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. His subject was the Messiah:

I say, Messiah has not yet come. I do not wish that the Messiah will come. At the moment that he comes, he will cease to be Messiah . . . The days of Messiah are more important than Messiah, and the Jewish people lives in the days of Messiah, expects the days of the Messiah, believes in the days of the Messiah, and this is one of the main reasons for its existence.

Israel to my mind exists simultaneously as a real-world place, with all the problems of any modern State and then some, and as a place that in its very being anticipates messianic fulfillment. I walk the crowded streets, sit in the cafes, curse the traffic jams, read the papers, argue about politics, marvel at the beauty of the landscape, reflect on the fact that a guard checks my bag at every gate and doorway, worry when there is no guard to check my bag at certain gates and doorways, and wonder how the State can possibly solve its immense problems of air pollution, shrinking water supply, unemployment, growing gaps between rich and poor, a severe housing shortage and, yes, its unending conflict with Palestinians and neighboring states.

And, in the background, I cannot help but hear the words of the prayer I say fervently each Shabbat—with Jews around the world—that God will finally appear from God’s place and rule in Zion (soon we hope) in our days and forever more. “We are waiting for You.” I’ve never had much sympathy for Jews who proclaim with utter certainty that Israel already inhabits messianic space and time. The Jews who identify God with their own politics, and justify the violence they practice in the name of bringing messiah, positively scare me to death. I have much more sympathy for Ben-Gurion’s notion—a foreshadowing of the careful formulation we utter weekly in the prayer for Israel—that it marks “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” I read that prayer as a reminder to all of us: Israel’s existence is a miracle, a chance to bring the lessons of Torah out of the private sphere and into every realm of public life. We have to work hard and make sure Israel really is the beginning of that beginning of redemption. We dare not blow it by turning aside, resting complacent, or failing to grasp hold of the miracle.

Charlie, I don’t see how Jews who are alert to Jewish tradition and Jewish history can avoid feeling the tension that you express. It’s built into our double relationship to Israel, itself a combination of “above” and “below.” Israel is a place that really does make deserts bloom, ingathers dispersed Jews from the four corners of the earth, and builds the greatest of high-tech companies in close proximity to holy sites and archeological digs that go back many centuries. This is life with a capital L, made all the more incredible because the Nazis nearly ended our people’s life and Israel’s enemies seek to end it still. The stakes could not be higher nor the problems more formidable, and this makes the mistakes committed there all the more painful and difficult to bear.

Which is why I’m so happy to recite Hallel and sing on Yom Ha’atzma’ut, and dance and eat falafel and all the rest of it, lest the worry crowd out sheer celebration that Israel is there and we can be part of it.

On that note: what was Yom Ha’atzma’ut like in the IDF?


Dear Arnie,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I’m glad to know ambivalence about the messianic age extends beyond religious philosophers. You ask a difficult question about what my experience of Yom Ha’atzma’ut was like while serving in the IDF at the end of the Second Intifada. My recollection of the immediate experience was one of unadulterated joy and celebration. I was fortunate to be off duty during each Yom Ha’atzma’ut that I spent in the army. Instead of manning checkpoints, performing random searches, and guarding settlements in the various Palestinians areas, I served in Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem, and the Gaza Strip, and was able to celebrate the day with friends, community, and what felt like the entire State.

As a soldier, I felt a deeper connection to the narrative of the State of Israel on those holidays than I had ever felt before, giving me a sense of pride and gratitude in the fact that I was living a personal dream of serving in the IDF. But when I returned to the army from those Yom Ha’atzma’ut furloughs, the mix of emotions I described came flooding back. In your letter, you called that mix a “double relationship of ‘above’ and ‘below,’” to use the language of the Midrash of heavenly Israel and earthly Israel. Regardless of what we call it, I distinctly remember feeling it as I left Jerusalem post–Yom Ha’atzma’ut, overstuffed bag in tow, rifle over my shoulder, and on my way back to active duty.

The infantry unit I served in was largely made up of young Israelis who spent a year volunteering in underserved communities as an expression of their Zionist ideals. They taught in schools on Israel’s periphery, facilitated group therapy sessions for recovering drug addicts, and bolstered struggling agricultural settlements before learning to become soldiers. Mixed in with these Israelis were a number of new immigrants from around the world, who came from countries such as France, Morocco, Belgium, and even Iran.

In many ways, my unit, like many units in the IDF, embodied the idealized Israel, an ingathering of the exiles brought together by a true sense of Zionism and a desire to meaningfully contribute to the betterment of the State of Israel. Yet, at the same time, we were constantly confronted with elements of the “real” Israel—most notably in the moral and ethical challenges faced by soldiers serving in the West Bank, and of the dehumanizing effect of viewing every Palestinian—whether man, woman, or child—as a potential threat, a possible suicide bomb. While in the army, I was unable to feel the unadulterated joy I felt on leave, and it is that mix of emotions I carry with me during Yom Ha’atzma’ut and throughout the year.

Frankly, I don’t see this mix of emotions in totally negative terms. Rather, I see it as a very Jewish response to the complexities of the world. To that end, I’ve always been amused by the fact that there is no Hebrew word for “fun.” Kef, the modern Hebrew word you’ll find listed as meaning fun in the dictionary, has its origins not in biblical or rabbinic Hebrew, but in Arabic.

Hebrew has plenty of words for religious joy: simhahsassonrina, and gilah to name a few, but no word for plain fun. What separates religious joy from simple fun is its complexity, the range of emotions, both happy and sad, embodied in the Jewish festivals and in Jewish life for that matter. We are commanded to be happy on Sukkot, while being reminded of our vulnerability; we are joyous on Rosh Hashanah, while contemplating our mortality. Maybe on Yom Ha’atzma’ut we are meant to have a mix of emotions as well: to celebrate with joy, while using the anxiety as a reminder of the work left to do.

My question to you is, how to maintain the balance between the joy that the State of Israel is there and the despair, anxiety, and ambivalence that worry about it can produce?




Thanks for that honest and personal response to my question—and for the question you ask me in turn. The truth is that I have no theory of how to balance the love, anxiety, critique, awe, enthusiasm, admiration, and all the other complex feelings I have about Israel. I just know that, above and beyond anything else, I feel enormously thankful and blessed to be alive at the same time as the State of Israel. I am all the more thankful that I’ve been able to spend so much time there, share experiences close-up with Israeli friends and family members, and work with Israeli leaders (including those in the Masorti Movement) on Jewish concerns that we share. I know something else too: how happy it makes me just to walk the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, or gaze at the landscape of the Aravah or the Galilee, or feel that I am somehow helping in a small way to bring the dream of Israel closer to realization. No theory here, just an unshakable conviction that the meaning of my life is tied up with that place and its people. The hope for its continued flourishing—which I think depends on peace with Palestinians and neighboring states—is at the core of my soul, worthy of the definite article—“TheHope”—it bears in the title of Israel’s national anthem.

Two memories, in conclusion:

The Haredi, Neturei Karta resident of Mea She’arim, who said to me as we stood on his balcony overlooking the old city, “Either the three religions will learn to live in peace with one another here, or this will be Armageddon.”

The Israeli cousin, visiting the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum last year, who could not stop looking at the shards of pottery on display created some 2,000 years ago and dug up from the area around the Dead Sea: “I too make pottery in the Land of Israel,” she reflected quietly. Her daughter and granddaughter took in the scene.

Hag sameah.