This piece is one of a series of pieces commissioned from leaders to speak to their feelings about Israel at 70. You will find the others here.
Seventy years, in Jewish tradition, represents a lifetime. As the psalmist wrote, “The span of our life is 70 years.” At 70, one reaches seivah, meaning old age, though the word is associated with wisdom. According to the Talmud, the carob tree, which appears in several rabbinic stories as a source of sustenance and even miracles, takes 70 years to bring forth fruit.
70 years is also the length of the first exile. As God promises in the book of Jeremiah, “When Babylon’s 70 years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you my promise of favor, to bring you back to this place.”
The 70th year, then, marks a moment of transition. Seventy may be the end of life, or the beginning of a new period of wisdom. After 70 years of despair, redemption may arrive.
So it’s fitting that as Israel turns seventy, the state finds itself at a crossroads.
It’s easy to find reasons to despair — just as the exiled community in Babylon must have felt despondent in the 69th year of the exile. This year marks 51 years of occupying another people, a situation that violates the human rights of Palestinians while also putting Israelis in danger, both physically and morally. The current government has shown no desire to make peace, and has even moved toward de facto annexation of the West Bank, without any provision for the rights of the Palestinian population.
Opinion | 70 Years Represents A Lifetime
Frighteningly, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have taken a page from the playbook of Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Trump and other authoritarian leaders in threatening to turn Israel into an illiberal democracy. This dangerous shift has included attacking the media as “fake news,” labeling human rights leaders as “traitors,” launching investigations of organizations that dare to oppose government policy, and funding extremist groups that incite against both Palestinians and Israeli human rights leaders.
At the same time, we have seen ordinary Israelis, along with their partners across the world, stand up for democracy. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to demand that the government not deport African asylum seekers. In response to attempts to silence groups like Breaking the Silence and New Israel Fund, thousands of Israelis have opened their wallets. And North American Jews are increasingly standing up to the Netanyahu government to insist that Israel fulfill its obligations to protect human rights, democracy, and religious liberty.
At its core, Zionism is about taking Jewish history into our own hands rather than waiting for others to make history for us. Israel’s current government’s defensive and defeatist posture surely stands as an affront to Zionism. But it also threatens to lead toward the fulfillment of that negative prophecy, that a lifetime may only last 70 years.
Still, at this turning point, another possibility still stands: that Israel’s 70th birthday will serve as the beginning of a period of wisdom, when Israelis and Jews around the world partner to insist that the country live up to its potential as a democracy guided by Jewish values and by a commitment to human rights.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah, which advances human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.