Every year around this time, when Israel’s independence day rolls around, we’re confronted — a good many of us — with an uncomfortable sense that loving and celebrating the Jewish state has gotten just a bit harder than last year.
Not that there isn’t a lot about Israel to love and celebrate: sunrise atop Masada, Friday evening at the Western Wall, the sensual bustle of Tel Aviv. Drip irrigation. The capture of Eichmann. The kibbutz. The rescue of Ethiopian and Russian Jews.
Most of all, we can love and celebrate the Jewish state simply because it’s there. Not so long ago, it wasn’t. It’s not too hard to imagine what that absence was like, even if you weren’t around to experience it first-hand: the precarious feeling of belonging to a homeless people, the horror of watching night descend on your cousins in Europe, and then, suddenly, the miraculous birth of a new era of Jewish independence. Having a place on the map with your name on it.
We’re still living, historically speaking, at the dawn of that new era. It’s been just 66 years since Israel gained sovereignty. We’re still not quite used to it. There are still a few kinks to be worked out. It would be astonishing if there weren’t.
Granted, some of the flaws are more than just growing pains. There have been bad decisions and grave injustices. Israel has come repeatedly to what seemed like the brink of disaster, in 1967, in 1973 and periodically during the last decade and a half of Palestinian intifada. At times it’s seemed as if the whole thing is a makeshift experiment, that the miracle was an illusion, that the world — and perhaps the Jews themselves — weren’t ready for the revival of Jewish nationhood.
There is, too, the dark truth that many of us are just coming to understand, and others of us dismiss outright: that the rebirth of the Jewish nation brought with it the undoing of another people, resulting in decades of hurt, bloodshed and hatred. For years most of us didn’t see it, or wouldn’t. In part we were blinded by the other side’s violent hostility. Partly, too, we rejected it because we feared acknowledging a darkness at the heart of Zionism would impugn its very legitimacy.
Lately it’s impossible to ignore. The Palestinian narrative has entered the culture. It’s permeated public discourse, flooded the media, blanketed the college campuses. Many of us don’t know how to reconcile it with what we’ve understood to be the Israeli miracle. Was it no miracle after all?
The plain fact is that the rebirth of Israel was a miracle. The return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, the revival of Hebrew and the creation of a modern state with a booming economy and a vibrant if imperfect democracy is one of the most remarkable events in modern history. It revived the broken spirit of a global community that had just suffered one of the worst catastrophes in human history and might otherwise have simply faded into nothingness. It happened to us, the scattered, bruised, skeptical Jewish communities of the world, in living memory.