By Rabbi Amy
An Israeli professor of mine used to say, “You know the biggest difference between the histories of America and Israel? Americans fought a war and then won their independence. Israelis won their independence and then had to fight a war.”
It was an oversimplification, but those words have always stuck with me as I’ve tried to explain the meaning and importance of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. We know that for many of us, regardless of our faith, a discussion of the modern State of Israel, its founding, and in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be both emotional and controversial. The war in 1948-49 is looked at by most Israelis as one of independence, a defensive war of the fledgling state against the invasion of armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Yet Palestinian Arabs and their allies call it the Nakba (catastrophe) — the destruction of Palestinian society and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their homes.
The history is complex, and clearly there were, and continue to be, tremendous losses on all sides. Yet now, 70 years after Israel signed its own Declaration of Independence, it is hard to not see the many ways in which Israel has had a powerfully positive impact on the world. Israelis have truly made the desert bloom, creating a country that is a hub of innovation, a democratic stronghold in the Middle East, and so much more. Yet we never forget that this freedom was won in which many lives were lost. For that reason, Yom Ha’atzmaut is always preceded by Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. We never forget that the existence of the State of Israel was won at a terrible price.
Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a religious holiday, or one with clear traditions or customs. In America, it is a time when many Jews try to show solidarity with Israel, finding ways to remember that we have a concrete connection with the land. For me, it’s a time when I try to engage in dialogue and learning about Israel. I consider myself a Zionist, yet I believe that it is vitally important to truly listen to those who are concerned about and angry at Israel’s policies, to help people sift through the facts and fully understand things like BDS, the status of Jerusalem, or any of the deeply complicated topics that divide people on Israel. As members of the Jewish community, we are not obligated to join one side or another of the debate, yet engaging in open and honest dialogue may be what it takes to help Israel celebrate another 70 years.
Yom Ha'atzmaut 2018 will begin in the evening on Wednesday, April 18 and ends in the evening on Thursday, April 19.
Want to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut with the St. Louis community on Saturday, April 22? Click here for more info.
For more information about this and other Jewish holidays, click here.