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Israel at 70: A time for gratitude and concern
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Israel at 70: A time for gratitude and concern

Our sages tell us that 70 is the age of wisdom, but in the life of a nation, 70 is still infancy. As Israel marks the completion this week of its seventh decade of statehood, it can take pride in its remarkable — some would say miraculous — accomplishments, starting with the fact of its very existence, forged in bloodshed in a war for survival against armies from surrounding Arab states. In some ways that war has never ended, with widespread Arab refusal to recognize the right of Jews to create a state in the region. But Israel has persevered, and now has more than 8 million citizens, making up 43 percent of the world’s Jewish population. 

More than numbers, it has succeeded in becoming the haven for Jews it was created to be, taking in those facing anti-Semitism in foreign lands from Yemen to the former Soviet Union. It has become a military power in order to provide security for its citizens living in a dangerous neighborhood. It has managed to be both a Jewish and democratic state, though facing criticism at times from various fronts about that precarious balance. And it has become a leader in technology, medicine, and innovative start-ups in a variety of areas that combine savvy and chutzpah. More than the sum of its parts, Israel is the living embodiment of the Jewish spirit.

And yet, Israel today faces ongoing threats of extinction from hostile enemies and troubling alienation from growing numbers of diaspora Jews disturbed by policies perceived as nativist. Iran’s leaders have vowed to destroy the Jewish state, and though its nuclear ambitions have been curtailed, for now, it is for the first time engaged in direct military confrontation with Israel — played out in Syria. And threats of deeper conflict are ratcheting up. For years Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked mightily, and for the most part successfully, in keeping Israel out of the carnage in Syria. But the conflict has gone from a civil war to a world war, with combatants from the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, and other nations involved. And Iran seems intent on staking its claim on Syrian land from which to more directly confront Israel — a situation that Israel rightly insists it cannot and will not abide. 

Over the decades Israel has achieved peace with Egypt and Jordan, and those pacts have withstood the test of Israeli wars with the terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Moreover, the threat of Iran has fostered improved, if unofficial, relationships for Israel with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. But for all of Israel’s efforts to reach a compromise agreement with the Palestinians, that prospect seems distant today. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which controls Gaza, remain more combatants than allies, and the PA is refusing to come to the table, insisting that the U.S. is too pro-Israel to be an honest broker. Israel is an economic powerhouse but is still a pariah at the United Nations.

Increasingly troubling, and closer to home, is the sense of distancing among young American Jews whose progressive values clash with a right-wing government in Jerusalem. And when prominent, solidly pro-Israel leaders like Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.)publicly criticize the Netanyahu government for its policies — on lack of progress on the peace front, giving in to the ultra-Orthodox parties, or deporting African migrants — those are warning signals that must not be dismissed. 

A prominent Jewish think tank, concerned about what Lauder describes as “the growing disaffection of the Jewish diaspora,” has proposed a new framework for Israel-diaspora relations that would have Jerusalem “take diaspora Jews into account when formulating Israeli policies that have ramifications for world Jewry,” no doubt referring to the bitter rift over prayer space at the Western Wall. And diaspora leaders are advised to use “appropriate caution” in weighing in on Israeli politics. The report by the Jewish People Policy Institute notes the widening gap between world Jewry and Israel, and promotes an emphasis on shared interests and the creation of joint projects. 

For all of the Israel-diaspora clashes, often based on a lack of understanding of each other’s cultures, this is a moment to recognize and appreciate just how fortunate we are. We live at a moment in time when, after so many centuries, the Jewish people have a state of their own, and when American Jews have more freedom than any diaspora community in history. Israel’s very existence has strengthened Jews everywhere. To ensure a strong Jewish future, Jerusalem and diaspora Jewry must renew their efforts to deepen their relationship in the next 70 years and help promote peace between us, and with the world at large.

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