A few days ago, I joined one of our JCCs visiting in Israel on a tour of the Hall of Independence in Tel Aviv, a place I consider a modern-day shrine. This is the holy place of where the State of Israel was declared by David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, on May 14, 1948.
There, on a sunny Friday afternoon, as the about-to-be-born nation was preparing for Shabbat, thousands of Israelis filled the streets of Tel Aviv, tuned to hear the sacred words – “We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel.“
A Jewish State — words we were longing to hear for centuries, words whose meaning we have struggled to define ever since.
The period between Purim and Pesach is reflective of our Jewish identity. It is the time between the festivity of overcoming Haman and his sinister plan to destroy the Jewish people, and our miraculous redemption from Egypt and its aftermath, when we became a people, a nation. It is our everlasting story, one that repeats itself through history, one of persecution, false accusations and threat of extermination. It is a story where we overcome threats and move towards becoming stronger, more determined.
The redemption from slavery was not enough to form a self-identified nation. We needed 40 years of wandering in the desert, shedding the remains of serfdom and subordination to enter as a people into the Promised Land, for the first time living under our own sovereignty.
Jewish sovereignty. We struggled with the term then, and ever since. What does a Jewish State mean? What does Jewish identity look like when Jews from more than 100 different countries, varied backgrounds and traditions, gather in one tiny land to form a homeland for all Jews?
And what about this Jewish State’s residents and citizens who are not Jewish? How do they fit in, what is our obligation to them and what kind of loyalty can the State expect in return?
Ben Gurion, our modern-day prophet, announced on that Friday the 14th of May that: “The State of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed or sex”.
Ben Gurion actually paraphrased from the Bible, where our shared memory from the 400 years of slavery in Egypt taught us: “You shall not turn over a slave who seeks refuge with you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose, within one of your gates. You must not mistreat him”–Deuteronomy 23:16-17.
How can we filter recent events in Israel through these two landmark quotes?
The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, recently voted to extend restrictions on illegal migrants and asylum seekers and move forward with the plan to carry on a mass deportation to Rwanda and Uganda.
More than 35,000 African migrants reside in Israel as of today, almost all from Eritrea and Sudan. Among them are 5,000 children who were born in Israel. Many live in the poorer neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, and some blame them for rising crime rates in the city.
These migrants flee conflict and persecution and seek refugee status. Tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers have fled African countries to find shelter in Israel, which unlike other countries, has allowed them to enter and has offered medical, financial and social aid and other basic support with some limitations.
Can the state do more? Of course, but the question is on what account? Is our obligation to rescue and provide a safe haven to all those seeking it, ignoring possible, substantial consequences? To what degree must we follow our moral obligation? Are there boundaries to moral obligations? Will the Jewish identity of the Jewish state be threatened by the great numbers of foreign refugees, or on the contrary—isn’t it the exact meaning of Jewish identity? To be “a light onto the nations” and therefore we must follow our Jewish values and welcome these miserable refuges and offer them safety and security?
And during these same weeks when the streets are filled with thousands of Israelis demonstrating against the planned deportation, thousands of haredi (strictly observant) Israelis fill the streets, calling to withdraw the bill to enlist them to the Israeli army.
What better cause is there than to join the Israeli army, fight for our existence and protect our borders? Is there no more honorable, noble cause than to defend the Jewish State, the source of our pride? When thousands of lone soldiers from across the Jewish world leave their families to join the Israeli army to express Jewish solidarity in this most deep and meaningful way, how can Israeli Jews living in Israel protest against their civil obligation—in my eyes, this privilege to join the army.
However, isn’t a Jewish State, the homeland of all Jews? Doesn’t it have to acknowledge and accept all beliefs and opinions? Can’t we express democracy and pluralistic values even when they make us uncomfortable?
These are crucial questions—ones we struggle with. They are questions that will shape our collective identity, questions that must be asked, but perhaps never answered.
Our Jewish State, since the days Joshua led us through the walls of Jericho, is our greatest source of pride—a pride that was never granted on a silver plate, but one that has always been worth the price and longing for.
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center