One of my all-time favorite quotes is found in the High Holy Day liturgy. It states, “merely to have survived is not an index of excellence.” In just a few short words, this statement reminds us that a life that is fully realized cannot be one that is lived day to day, but instead, must be filled with meaning and purpose.
That is why, while reading Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ new book The Promise of Israel, I was struck by the title of the second to last chapter, “Survival is Not a Purpose.” In five words, Rabbi Gordis summarized what has, all too often, been missing from the American Jewish Community’s discussion of Israel. For in recent years, when we have discussed the Jewish state, we have focused almost exclusively on three issues – security, the Palestinians and religious identity.
All of these issues are, of course, important.
Iran is a growing threat, the seriousness of which we do not fully appreciate.
The question of Palestinian sovereignty remains open more than 40 years after the 1967 war. It is a moral and demographic ticking bomb.
And we, progressive Jews, still do not have equal religious rights in the Jewish state. It is absurd.
In its own way, each of these issues addresses either the physical or the spiritual survival of the Jewish state. But while each is important, individually and collectively, it is not enough for us to focus on them alone. Why? Because “merely to have survived is not an index of excellence.” Because “survival is not a purpose.”
Focusing exclusively on these issues deflects our attention from the fact that, as Rabbi Gordis puts it, “Israel is a country with a purpose and a message.” For too long we have ignored that purpose. For too long we have overlooked that message. And in the process we have forgotten that Israel has something important to teach the world.
For Example, Israel Has Something to Teach the World About our On-going Commitment to One Another.
I was 11 when Israel boldly raided Entebbe Airport after a French plane was hijacked and landed there. I was 12 when the film dramatizing the raid came out. As I watched the movie, I was fascinated… and proud.
If you don’t recall the events, an Air France plane carrying 248 passengers was hijacked and taken to Uganda. Once there, 148 non-Jewish and non-Israeli passengers were released while more than 100 Jews and Israelis remained captive. The world looked on… and did nothing. As the situation grew increasingly dire for the hostages, Israel’s leadership realized that no one in the international community was going to help. If the hostages were to be saved, Israel would have to take matters into its own hands. It did. 100 Israeli commandos flew over 2500 miles and executed one of the boldest hostage rescues in history.
And while those events took place forty years ago, the philosophical commitments that led Israel to take action then remain.
Rabbi Gordis tells the story that some years ago his son asked him, “Abba, do you think Israel will ever negotiate with Hamas and Gilad Shalit will be freed?”
At first Rabbi Gordis wondered why his son would ask such a thing. After all, Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas, had been missing for years, and the Gordis family had often discussed his situation. He then remembered that the boy had recently received his draft notice and was preparing to enter the IDF- the Israel Defense Force. The boy had filled out the necessary paperwork and his blood had just been drawn so that if, God forbid, he were killed in an explosion, his DNA could be identified.
Suddenly, Rabbi Gordis realized his son was not asking about Shalit; his son was asking about himself. His son was asking,
“If I, like Shalit, am captured, will my country remember me? Will my country do everything possible to get me back?”
It is a complicated question to answer.
You see, on the one hand, there is the Jewish value of Pidyon Shvuyim – The Redemption of Captives. It reminds us of our responsibilities to each other and it requires us to do all we can to realize the release of those taken hostage.
But on the other hand, Judaism teaches that life is precious, and neither an individual nor a community should do anything that puts additional lives at risk. Giving in to the demands of terrorist kidnappers does just that because it increases the likelihood that they will kidnap again.
So in the case of Shalit, there were two mutually exclusive Jewish values with which the Jewish state needed to grapple.
It did. Vigorous debate erupted not only among politicians, but among all Israelis; they debated what action should be taken on Shalit’s behalf. Should the Jewish state release 1,000 terrorists with blood on their hands, to secure the return of a single soldier? Or was the risk of what those terrorists, now free, might do, too great to justify such an action? Some cited Pidyon Shvuim and stated that a nation founded on Jewish values was required to do everything possible to get the soldier back. While others referred to the case of a 13th century rabbi who was taken hostage but insisted his community take no action lest his release lead to further hostage taking.
And that is the point.
Competing Jewish values were debated… in a democratic state. You see, that’s the amazing thing about Israel. It is not a theocracy, and yet Jewish values play into the debate and ultimately the decisions that are made.
Shalit became a household name in Israel; the entire nation was consumed with his story. Tens of thousands of Israelis joined with Shalit’s parents as they marched to Jerusalem and demanded action on his behalf. Action was ultimately taken. And Shalit was freed.
Yes, Israel Has Something to Teach the World About Our Commitment to One Another.
Israel Also Has Something to Teach the World About the Treatment of Strangers.
When a terrorist approaches the Egyptian border with Israel, sensors trigger an alert; the IDF- Israel Defense Forces- quickly mobilize, go to that spot and… kill the terrorists. It is as simple as that. But not long ago, a group approached the very same border with markedly different results. The border-crossers were Sudanese refugees. They triggered the sensors and the military mobilized. But when the soldiers arrived and saw the refugees, they loaded them on their trucks, brought them to their base and gave them food and clothing.
You see, the Israeli soldiers knew to be compassionate to strangers. And the refugees, they knew the soldiers would be. One of them recalled…
“I looked at the soldiers, and on their shirts, I saw lettering that I did not recognize. I knew we were in Israel. And I knew we would be okay… I’d read the Bible so I knew that the Jews are good to strangers.” (Saving Israel, p. 113 and 115)
Now why would Israel take in refugees from a country that remains committed to its destruction? The answer is quite simple. While Israel is not a theocracy, it was established on a foundation of Jewish values. And central to those values is the understanding that Avadim hayyinu bamitzrayim – “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.”
Time and again our people have been oppressed.
Time and again we have been refugees.
Time and again we have called out for help.
And time and again none has come.
It is for this reason that Israel feels the responsibility to help others when they are in need. It is for this reason that Israel has taken in refugees from Yemen, Russia, Ethiopia, and countless other countries, as well.
The year was 1977. An Israeli cargo ship traveling to the Far East happened upon a boat filled with Vietnamese refugees. The boat was leaking and the refugees had run out of water. They were near death. The Israeli ship wasn’t the first ship to see them. A number of others had as well, but every other ship had passed the refugees by. The Israeli ship was likely their last hope, and if it did not offer assistance, the refugees would soon be dead. Not only did the Israeli vessel stop, but it brought the refugees on board and took them to Israel. Once there, none other than Prime Minister Menachem Begin granted them asylum and then, some time later, citizenship. It was his very first act as the head of state.
A month later, when asked about this, Begin explained:
It was a natural act for us. We remembered, we have never forgotten, the boat with 900 Jews [of the St. Louis], having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused…Therefore it was natural that my first act as Prime Minister was to give these people a haven in the land of Israel.
(Gordis, page 92).
It is the same story over and over again.
That is why an Israeli medical team was first on the ground to help when an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. In fact, when disaster strikes pretty much anywhere in the world, Israel is one of the first countries to offer assistance – even to countries sworn to destroy the Jewish state!
In 1998 Israel was in Kenya helping to search for survivors after the US Embassy was bombed.
In 1999 Israel was on the ground bringing relief to refugees in Kosovo.
In 2001 Israel helped earthquake victims in El Salvador AND India AND Peru
And in 2003 Israel helped Sri Lankan flood victims
Yes, Israel was founded by people whose tradition teaches “do not stand by as your neighbor bleeds.” And Israel acts on it.
It is a lesson the world could learn from the Jewish State.
Now all of this may sound like some version of Israeli Exceptionalism. It is… but it isn’t. But the attitudes in Israel stand in stark contrast to what we see here at home.
If you listened to either the Republican or the Democratic National Convention, you heard speaker after speaker talk about why America has been and will continue to be the greatest nation on the planet. The idea of American exceptionalism now permeates the political landscape, and yet the statistics don’t back up this claim.
In the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO program “The Newsroom,” when asked why America is the greatest country in the world, the lead character shoots back, saying:
It’s not the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and exports… so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world… I don’t know what [in the world] you’re talking about.
And while there is a bit of creative license taken here (we are actually worse than seventh in literacy but significantly better than 178th in infant mortality), the point is clear.
Oh, and when it comes to happiness, America ranks number 14, coming in behind #10 Sweden, #9 Canada, #7 Finland, and #6 Israel.
I love the United States and I feel privileged to live here. But it is clear to me that American exceptionalism is based on a fantasy. Worse yet, the growing influence of the Religious Right is now mixing American exceptionalism with theology. The result is that a politician who says our country is anything but the best country on the planet and who does not profess a deep and profound belief in and love for God is all but guaranteed defeat in the next election.
The situation is far different in Israel where, outside Jewish fundamentalist circles, exceptionalism doesn’t really exist, and political discussion remains largely secular.
When I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference last spring, he said:
The Jewish people are different [now than we were in 1944]. Today we have a state of our own. And the purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future.
That’s not exceptionalism… that’s a purpose.
That’s not exceptionalism… that’s a mission.
Netanyahu drove this point home in that speech last spring when he said,
This week, we will read how one woman changed Jewish history. In synagogues throughout the world, the Jewish people will celebrate the festival of Purim. We will read how some 2,500 years ago, a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people. And we will read how that plot was foiled by one courageous woman – Esther.
Esther did not save her people because they were the best, or because they were special, or because they were perfect. No, Esther saved her people because they were… her people.
The same holds true today.
Israeli politicians know that Israel isn’t perfect, and they say so. Loudly. In fact, the first people to criticize Israel are usually Israelis. They see the issues, they argue the issues, and they are constantly working toward becoming the country they want to be. But they don’t live with the fantasy that they have already arrived.
That does not, however, detract from all Israel has accomplished in just over 60 years. Yes, a country founded on Jewish values just 60 years ago…
– has the highest ratio of university degrees to population in the world and produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation.
– has the largest number of startup companies in proportion to its population and it is ranked #2 in the world for venture capital funds. Right behind the US.
– has the highest average living standards in the Middle East. And an economy that is $100 billion larger than all of its immediate neighbors combined.
– is the country that elected a woman Prime Minister in 1969.
And Israel was the only country in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees. Not bad for a 60-year-old nation built in a desert.
Is Israel perfect? No. And Israelis know it. But it still has a sense of purpose, and there remains a great deal to be learned from the example it sets.
As we begin Yom Kippur, we pause, we reflect and we are reminded to look past the unattainable goal of perfection.
As we begin Yom Kippur, we reaffirm our connection and commitment to one another and to our community, despite those imperfections.
Tonight, especially, let us remember that Israel remains a safe haven for the Jewish people.
Tonight let us remember that Israel still gives voice to Jewish values.
Tonight let us remember that Israel still needs us as much as we need it.
Tonight let us remember that Israel has something to teach the world.
Yes, Israel is flawed, but her national anthem remains Hatikvah, The Hope. And it is my hope that, this year, we will all renew our individual and collective commitment to the Jewish State.