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Israel @ 63

05/10/2011 04:30:52 PM


Rabbi George Gittleman

“My heart is in the east, while I am on the edge of the west” wrote the famous medieval poet, rabbi and philosopher, Yehudah Halevi. His words, his longing, his life, reflect the ancient and profound connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Israeli independence? That was beyond Yehuda Halevi’s wildest dreams! All he hoped for was “to see the ruined shrine” (the Temple in Jerusalem), to quench the longing of his heart which, though comfortable in Spain, could only feel at home in The Promised Land.

Yehudah Halevi did not get to realize his dream – he died en route – nor did the Jewish people for another eight centuries,  but amazingly, the dream lived on.  From the time of the Roman conquest in 70 A.C.E., until today, we pray facing east, towards Jerusalem, and, in our prayers recited 3 times daily, there are regular references to the land and the people, Israel. In addition, our holydays are infused with a connection to Israel like, for example, Passover, where at the end of the seder we say, “Next year in Jerusalem”. We’ve been saying that for almost 2,000 years. If we could not live there physically, we would keep the promise alive spiritually.

In 1948, that 2,000 year old dream became a reality; a home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel; having been victims to history, now the Jewish people were re-entering history and that re-entry was painful, to say the least.  As it turned out, the land of Israel was not empty; people lived there and they were not so keen on sharing the land with the Jewish, mostly European, immigrants. The Jewish nation builders brought with them first-world industry and agriculture as well the backbone and determination to “make the desert bloom”. Because of this, the economy grew as did the Arab and Jewish population.  Conflict was inevitable and, to make a long story short, in spite of many attempts by the Jewish pioneers to broker peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbors, as well as the U.N.’s offer of partition, the Arabs (they were not called Palestinians then) chose the path of war, and they lost. For the Israelis, it was the War of Independence. For what would latter become the Palestinians, it was the Naquba, the catastrophe; both sides suffered, much blood was shed, but when the hostilities subsided, the nascent state of Israel was born, and approximately 800,000 Palestinians had become refugees of the war.

Since 1948, Israel has managed to build, in spite of nearly 63 years of hostility with its neighbors, a vibrant, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse, economically robust, democratic country, while at the same time absorbing Jewish refugees from all over the world, including close to a million Jews who, after 1948, were expelled from the surrounding Arab countries.

Israel is far from perfect. The ongoing conflict with the Palestinians – the road blocks, check points and security barriers that make life so miserable for the Palestinians–also threatens to erode the soul of the Israelis that police them. Rocket attacks from Gaza (yes, they are still happening), the constant threat of terror and the possibility of nuclear annihilation from Iran, place a heavy burden on the Israeli psyche.  Yet, in spite of all these challenges, Israel manages to be a first world oasis in a third world desert, a democracy among dictatorships, a world leader in computer and medical technologies as well.

Israel is far from perfect, but even with all her warts, at 63, a very young age for a country, she has much to take pride in and celebrate.

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