Israel at Sixty Dr. Yoel Wachtel Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis, MD Shabbat, 12 Iyar 5768 May 17, 2008
Rabbi Dr. Weisblum, veterans and congregants, thank you for inviting me for this important occasion, as we simultaneously commemorate two events, the 60th Independence of Israel and Armed Forces Day. I am thrilled to come to you both as a native Israeli, a Sabra, a Professor of Israeli Studies but also as a veteran of Zahal, the Israel Defense Forces, where I was in Zeva Keva, a professional soldier after fulfilling my three years military duty.
I first would like to begin, as is customary, with a Devar Torah- a word of Torah. On this Shabbat morning I was asked to say a few words as the State of Israel turns 60. In the Tractate of our Fathers (Ch 5, 21) we read that Shmuel the small שמואל הקטן says: "בן ששים לזקנה" "sixty years for old age (or at sixty to be an elder)."
If we explained it as a matter of age then this saying would not be considered a virtue, but rather one’s recognition of the futility of physical strength. Yet, in his commentary of Avot, Derekh HaChayim, the Maharal of Prague, who was one of the most important Renaissance expositors of the Midrashim, or Talmudic commentaries, reveals to us that there is another explanation for that dictum.
The Maharal says that according to another rabbinic scholar, the Ritba, Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Eshboli, a commentator on the Talmud of 14th Century Spain, the correct version of Avot should read "בן ששים לחכמה", "sixty years for wisdom," as an acronym- נוטריקוןin Aramaic, for the verse from the Book of Job, Job12, 12 "בישישים חכמה":"בישישים חכמה ואורך חיים תבונה" "With aged men is wisdom; and length of days brings understanding." Says the Maharal: "You will find as a rule every where and by all, that the intellect has a quality above quality" "כי השכל יש לו מעלה על מעלה", you may say a super quality, a gift of intellectual endowment. The Maharal then expounds that as mankind is distinguished from all other creatures, so the Temple in Jerusalem is unique from any other place in its divine sanctity, as the entire universe is nourished from the essence of the Land of Israel.
Can we draw an analogy between a sixty year old person, who, as told by our Sages, reaches a stage of intellectual maturity to the embodiment of our national aspirations- the State of Israel to which we came today to commemorate sixty eventful years?
Our yearning for national wisdom is mentioned in the Prayer for the Peace of the State of Israel תפילה לשלום המדינה, which we proclaim every Shabbat. We petition God Almighty to "send His light and truth to the heads of the State of Israel, its ministers and advisers, thus mending them with His "good advice."
Ladies and gentlemen, when I often speak about the profound cultural changes that the Israeli society has endured in the last six decades, I try to refer to what Israelis now call ארועים מכוננים, which may be translated as "life-altering events, or constitutive events," or "major" societal elements, which continue to define and shape Israeli culture, thus defining again what Israelis like to refer to as the "Israeli Experience""החוויה הישראלית
Immigrationעלייה , is without any doubt one important element which continues to shape and revamp the society of Israel as we know it. I, in many ways, personify that "melting pot," which the Zionist founding fathers of Israel foresaw as the ideal solution for the multicultural influx of new immigrants, עולים חדשים, who swept through the newly established state in its formative years.
In particular, one should point out the relatively recent Russian Wave of close to a million ‘olim and the distinctive Ethiopian immigration, which arrived as part of the Moses, Joshua and Solomon’s Operations. Though distinguished from each other, these two important additions to the Israeli population undoubtedly will make a formative impression on Israeli society. David Ben Gurion, the first and longest serving Prime Minister of Israel, often remarked that he "wanted Israel to have a Yemenite Chief of Staff." There was a desire among the official Israeli establishment to create a new Israeli in the new homeland through the process of a melting pot.
Having been born to a father, who as a result of the rise of the Nazis in 1933 in Germany, was born in Budapest and barely escaped them and their Arrow Cross collaborators, and to a mother who arrived in Israel in 1949, as part of the famous Magic Carpet Operation, which brought some 50,000 of the Yemenite Jews to the Promised Land, I believe that I benefited from both cultural worlds.
Although I am sure that you are aware of the ethnic tensions which plagued some societal denomination of Israel during the 1950s, which eventually even culminated in the formation of political parties during the 1980s (such as Tam"i and Sha"s), I can assure you that the wedding of my parents, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, although rare at the time, from the perspective of their four children turned out to be a wonderful coming together of two individuals. This is the first observation I wish to share with you today: the often-discussed divide and cultural schism of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, that is to say Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel from European and Arab descents. At least in my opinion, this divide will likely lessen in the not so distant future, as the inter-denominational marriages of Israelis are on the rise.
Thus we frequently find that the sons and daughters of mixed marriages in Israel no longer regard themselves as Moroccan, Polish, or any other specific ethnicity. Indeed, the different cultural lines have blurred in the past two to three decades, a fact that gives us hope for a major decline in class conflict and ethnic divide in the foreseeable future.
I would like also to address the issue of Jewish religion and its role in the State of Israel. This is certainly one of the most talked about and emotionally-charged topics with which Israeli society continues to grapple. I am sure that you are aware of the Secular/Religious divide, which continues to beleaguer Israeli society, perhaps beginning with the Second Aliya of 1904, where secular and non-religious Jews were at the forefront of drying the swamps and blooming the desolate land.
As Zionism became a formidable force within the national Zionist enterprise, the ultraorthodox Jews from the Hareidi camp criticized the legitimacy of the idea of a secular state. Yet, it was one of the most outstanding religious Zionist spiritual leaders of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (who incidentally according to a recent ynet.com survey won first place as the Jew who contributed the most to the Jewish character of Israel, Ben Gurion being number two on the list and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson of Lubavitch third), who interpreted the role of the secular pioneers as a manifestation of divine intervention. Rav Kook was a tolerant religious thinker, who had a unique approach to Jewish nationhood. He claimed that as every individual has a soul, so does the nation of Israel have a collective soul- the "national soul" "נשמת האומה". He claimed that this "collective soul" was experiencing a spiritual revival with the ingathering of the Zionists pioneers in the Land of Israel, which as we know now eventually culminated in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. It was Rav Kook who envisioned in his Lights of Israel, Orot Yisrael, that "Our State’s desire would be to spread the idea of the monotheistic faith, so that God and His name would be one."
מדינה זו היא מדינתנו, מדינת ישראל, יסוד כסא ד' בעולם, שכל חפצה הוא שיהיה ה' אחד ושמו אחד..."..".
In Rav Kook’s thought the idea of secularism was a temporary phase in God’s master plan for the redemption of Israel from exile. He thus believed that while true nationalism relied solely on clinging to God, or the divine idea as he called it, secular Israelis would soon repent, as they would come to realize that the mass immigration to the land of Israel was a final phase in the advent of the Messianic Age. Most importantly, in Rav Kook’s thought, the mystical union between the Congregation of Israel and the Blessed Be He could take place only in the land of Israel, since Eretz Yisrael, as stated in his book Orot "is an essential unit bound by the bond of life to the people, united by inner characteristics to its existence."
But ladies and gentlemen, we are close to one hundred years past this ideology and in the last thirty years religious Zionists have begun to question the validity of the idea of a secular regime in the state of Israel in light of the surrender of territories beginning the Peace Treaty with Egypt, which led to relinquishing of the Sinai Peninsula, to the Camp David Accords, which offered Autonomy to the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, the Oslo Accords, which for the first time gave military power to the Palestinian Authority and more recently was willing to uproot thirty Jewish villages from the Katif Bloc, as part of the Disengagement Plan, which was instigated under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Thirty years ago, a majority of combat unit commanders were from the secular Kibbutzim movement. Nowadays, however, the majority of current leading positions in combat platoons and battalions are staffed by religious Zionist leaders, who oppose the dovish secular government positions vis-à-vis its policy concerning the Palestinian cause, surrendering territories and settlement in Judea and Samaria. It may be predicted that we may soon experience major opposition from the IDF forces to carry out policies that are at loggerheads with their religious convictions.
This observation that I share with you is quite in contrast to the unifying role we often describe in the IDF as the "people’s army-" צבא העם. In my view, the religious /secular divide is one of the topics which should be more thoroughly discussed, debated and reconciled among Israelis, high-tech Tel Aviv residents and Hesder yeshiva students from the settlements, for example, in order to bridge the cultural gap, which in my estimation can lead to a further crack in the delicate Israeli societal tapestry.
Another issue which always stands in the shadow of Israel is the Holocaust שואה . Earlier I indicated that my father was in Hungary during WWII. The Israeli Broadcasting Authority recently released a program entitled "Last in Line for Death," discussing the very late annihilation phase of 400,000 Hungarian Jews during 1944. This phase began in earnest only after D-Day - the invasion of American troops in Normandy in June 1944. The anomalies and questions that arose concerning the plight of the Jews of Hungary were numerous, especially those raised by the survivors, what if we knew? We could have fled, what if there was a Jewish army to protect us?
It was Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who by recent polls was voted the most popular and revered Prime Minister of Israel’s history, who often remarked that he wanted to write a book about Shoah and Tkumah, or Holocaust and Resurrection. He alluded to the fact that he escaped the Holocaust and later led the Irgun (Etzel) – the militant Jewish Underground which actively fought the British during the Mandate Years.
The establishment of the State of Israel and the Holocaust which took place only a few years prior are often regarded as historically interdependent by way of causality. People ask both A) whether there could there have been a state without a Holocaust, and B) whether the Holocaust could have been prevented if there was an Israeli Jewish Army which could have defended European Jewry.
We can only speculate about what could have been, but recent research shows that without any doubt the build up of Israel’s nuclear capability was highly influenced by David Ben Gurion’s idea that a second Jewish Holocaust would never reoccur, provided that Israel would be capable of amassing a very strong deterrence against its enemies. The founder of Israel, who was secular and atheist, but a great admirer of the Bible, would very interestingly interpret the verse from the Book of Psalms: "The dead will not praise God" "לא המתים יהללו יה", as his self acknowledgement that dead people can not praise the Lord, and therefore Israel must do what it can to rely upon its own power in order to survive. "There is a saying [noted Ben Gurion in a letter to an Israeli scientist] "The dead will not praise God"-"and if we face the threat of destruction-and unfortunately we do, and Hitler’s Holocaust was only the most extensive and terrible attempts to destroy us during history-to a certain extent this is the most fateful of our existence."
Doesn’t that premonition by the old man, הזקן, as Israelis used to call him, give you a chill when Israel forty years after these words and sixty years after the Holocaust has to face a major challenge to its existence by a descendant of Haman the Aggagite- Mahmud Ahmadinijaad?
This idea brings me to talk about the IDF Tzahal, thus touching upon the special occasion which we commemorate today, the Armed Forced Day.
Forty years ago, another veteran, Lt. General Yitzchak Rabin, gave a speech in front of the Jewish War Veterans Annual National Convention.
It was in 1968, a year after Israel prevailed in its most successful victory - the Six Day War. Rabin, who had served as Chief of Staff during that war had just been appointed the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. He said the following on the eternal bond which lies at the heart of the Israeli-American military friendship: "There is no doubt that serving in the military is a great and unique experience to any man. Even more so to those who served during a war and experienced the difficulty and cruelty of war. We have a lot in common. You are the veterans of the greatest and strongest nation in the world, a nation which never initiated a war and aspired always for peace, a nation which went to two world wars a long way from its borders to protect the freedom, independence and peace of democratic countries, to defend from tyrants and totalitarian regimes, who tried to force their rule with brutal force over smaller and weaker nations."
Rabin further offered a get well wish for Dwight D. Eisenhower, General of the Army, thus emphasizing Israel’s gratitude for the indispensable role of the American Army against Nazi Germany:
"I would like, from this stage, to send my best wishes for the speedy recovery to General Eisenhower who led the allied forces to the eradication of the Nazi beast, the supreme commander, which brought the liberation of the Jews in the camps and removed the terrible threat over Jews for being Jewish around the globe. As an Israeli and a Jew, we will never forget the great role he played in the life of the Jewish people and in the life of the Jewish state."
Finally, I wish to refer to the Arab Israelis and the major shift that has occurred in their view of Israel and how Israelis look upon them. Allow me to use a personal testimony: I remember that when I was in elementary school my older brother invited as part of student exchange program an Arab boy from the village of Kalanswa to our home. We ate lunch together and exchanged remarks and thoughts. I also remember going to the shuk, the produce market of another neighboring Arab town of Natania, the town of Tul Karem, which is in fact across from the Green line. Many Natania residents would also often visit Arab dentists in Tul Karem.
It is needless to say that other trips we would make over the years, to buy grapes in HalHul, an Arab town near Hebron, are practically banned, as nowadays it is way too risky and dangerous for an Israeli Jew to make a visit to many if not all of the Arab town in Judea and Samaria. In the aftermath of the first uprising of the late 1980s, and later the second one in 2000, Arab nationalism is on the rise. Arab Israelis more and more see themselves as part of the Muslim Ummah, thus adopting the famous Pan Arabic identity, unified by a shared heritage, memory and origins. From my discussions with leading Jewish demographers I got the impression that the near future likelihood of Jews becoming the minority population in Eretz Yisrael west of the Jordan River was the primary impetus for Israeli politicians to implement the Disengagement Plan תוכנית ההתנתקות in 2005 and to also consider a future Convergence Planתוכנית ההתכנסות , thus withdrawing from most of the territories in Judea and Samaria from a fear of losing the Jewish majority in Israel.
In summation, today’s Israel, as recently noted by the current Speaker of the Knesset, who as you know it also for the first time a woman, is "an unprecedented success story." From all different aspects Israeli society has prospered financially, technologically, socially, educationally but also spiritually. As an anecdote: it was rare when I was growing up for a family even to own a car or to have a private phone line at home. Also, while at the beginning of the last century the Jewish Diaspora and not the Jews of Palestine dominated the world Jewish milieu, it is without any doubt that the 21st Century ushers in a major shift in the overall clout of Israel within world Jewry. My prediction is that the dominance of Israel as a leader and a banner of hope and emulation will only increase in time. And as recent trends show, such as project "Birth Right" –תגלית, once the window of Israel opens up to young Jewish students around the world, their connection with the Jewish State will surely solidify the centrality of Israel in the future as well.
Let us then wish Israel Mazal Tov at its celebration and greet our American military service men and women in their celebration of Armed Forces Day. May G-d Bless you all.