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Can we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut with the threat of impending annexation?

On Tuesday night, Israel’s 72nd Independence Day will commence. These are not the easiest of times for those of us who love Israel and who believe that a love of Israel is a cornerstone of our contemporary American Jewish identity.

The past year has been hard to watch. Three elections cycles were waged over the question of whether a politician credibly accused of repeated acts of personal and political corruption should continue to govern, three cycles that surfaced a depth of racist ugliness against Arab citizens that shames all Israelis of good conscience; three election cycles that exposed yet again the painful fault lines between religious and secular Jews, and in which thousands of Israelis — patriots, veterans, dedicated public officials and indeed, simple citizens — were branded as “putrid” just because their aspirations for a secure Israel include the hope that a secure Israel overlaps with a just and fair solution to the plight of Palestinians under occupation.

The election cycles seem to be over for now, but with the political stalemate broken, the future looks even worse. And the impending annexation of parts of the West Bank slated for later this summer makes it hard to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today.

To those of us on the left, a political and territorial separation from the Palestinians, the other national group with whom Jews share the land, is the only way for Israel to retain its identity as a Jewish and democratic state for the remainder of our lifetimes and those of our children and beyond. Annexation presents the real risk of making that separation impossible to meaningfully achieve.

The full consequences of annexation are unknown, but it raises the very real fear that Israel is being driven towards a future in which preserving its democracy will come at the expense of its identity as the Jewish state or, perhaps worse, one in which it preserves its identity as a Jewish state at the expense of its commitment to democracy.

That fundamental truth, that Israel can exist as the democratic national home of the Jewish people only in the context of an eventual partition, has been recognized as true in the hearts of most Zionists ever since the 1929 Riots that killed more than a hundred Jews throughout Palestine. In those brutal summer days, Jews internalized the awareness that these acts of violence against Zionist settlers were not merely spasms of unthinking bloodshed but an expression by the Palestinian body politic of their unwillingness to see the national aspirations of Jews realized at the expense of their own desire to live as masters of their own political destiny.

In 1936, Palestinians again turned to violence in the hope that they could destroy the will of Zionists to settle in the Land of Israel and force the British into curtailing the rights of Jews to seek refuge, even from Hitler, on Palestine’s shores. They succeeded in the latter, but they failed in the former.

The specter of annexation and what it means for the future though does not diminish the need to celebrate today. Today is a celebration of the failure of that violence now nearly a century ago to dissuade Jews from building a national home whose birthday we mark today.

Today is the day to celebrate that we have gone from a people pursued unto near extinction in Europe, to having our own homeland.

Today is the day we celebrate that we have a state, which emerged from the tender shoots of Zionist settlement that were so fragile that they could have more easily disappeared than endured.

Today is the day we celebrate our transition from a people that needed the world’s mercies in order to survive to a people with the ability to provide relief to victims around the world from natural disaster.

Today is the day we celebrate that from being surrounded by enemies in 1948, Israel today enjoys peaceful relations with more Arab states than ever before in its history.

The dangers that Israel faces from the path it is on are no less than those it has faced before, but the pain of the present is harsher than the pain of the past because this time, we are the engineers of impending disaster. Still, today I celebrate that Israel enjoys such strength and enduring power that it can welcome the creation of two states for two people. We celebrate that Israel is strong enough to agree to a process that creates a separate Palestinian state while vouchsafing Israel’s ability to remain a democracy and retain its distinctive national identity.

T’chi Medinat Yisrael!

Ariel Ilan Roth is the Executive Director of the Israel Institute, Washington, DC. The views expressed in this piece are his own and not those of the Institute.

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