Today concluded my first Independence Day as an Israeli. And the first one I’ve celebrated on my homeland’s soil. It was an independence day for me, a chance to declare my freedom from my own oppressors. To celebrate my progress. It was a day to rejoice.
Rejoice I did- I danced to Mizrachi music in the streets, I hung out with friends, I wore my Israeli flag as a cape, I got congratulated for becoming Israeli many, many times. There were goofy people dressed up as Israel’s founding mothers and fathers. There was fun. We deserve a day to just have fun and be proud of our accomplishments. In 70 years, we’ve managed to do more than some countries do in 200- and under the near constant threat of destruction. Just today, I was grocery shopping and read a newspaper article while in line. About Iran wanting to attack us from Syria. Welcome to life in Israel, where every day we’re alive is a victory.
At some points, I felt I should be happy but wasn’t quite as happy as I thought. Maybe it was when the tour guide at Independence Hall said: “we’re all Jews here, so feel free to interrupt.” I totally get the sense of humor and I had to wonder how the Filipina woman and her child behind me felt. Or perhaps a Druze man sitting in the back. I think growing up in the Diaspora made me more sensitive to including others- we have some work to do here. Because most of us are Jews- and not all of us are. And we all deserve a seat at the table.
It got me thinking. I really wanted this day to just be about celebrating Israel. All year long we talk politics and people around the world hammer us for problems both real and imagined. It can be hard to tell whether some foreigners are criticizing us out of a desire to make this a better place or because they single us out and want us to fail. Trust me- I’ve met both kinds of people.
So I wanted to just enjoy. And at some point, I realized nothing is 100% happy or sad in life. In the Passover Seder, we dip our fingers in our joyful wine 10 times- once for each plague. We put that wine or grape juice on our plates to symbolize our empathy for innocent Egyptians who suffered on our way to liberation. No Jewish holiday is black-and-white, we’re a people who knows how to meld the bitter and sweet to the extent that it can be hard to even untwine the two.
The most obvious elephant in the room on Yom Ha’atzmaut, our Independence Day, is the Palestinians. We are neighbors and the people right across the border have no independence day. The reasons are complex- and it would be incorrect and even prejudiced to suggest that all of the blame falls on one side of the fence. And it’s sad that while I’m celebrating today, some Palestinians are mourning what they see as a catastrophe. The creation of my state. While they still don’t have one.
I can empathize with why this day is hard for Palestinians (and Arab-Israelis/Arab citizens of Israel). For someone whose village was destroyed in 1948, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, this day must be rough. And the wound is still unhealed as our region has been in a near constant state of war for the past 70 years. With bloodshed all around, including 37 soldiers from my neighborhood alone.
I also wish my neighbors across the border would try to understand why we’re celebrating. I’ll tell you personally- I’m not celebrating the destruction of any village. I’m celebrating the fact that I feel free here as a Jew. Even in America, I’d feel scared or embarrassed to walk around with a big Israeli flag on my back. In America, I felt self-conscious as a Jew. Laughed at, picked on, discriminated against. I felt my Judaism belonged in synagogue or a community center, not on the streets. The idea of praying in public or being visibly Jewish was scary and anathema to what I felt we were supposed to do to be “respectable” and “cool”.
In Israel, we also have Jews who survived the Holocaust, with no family members, only to build new families here. Some of whom then lost their children to terrorism or war. We have Jews here from Egypt whose government stole their property, robbed them of citizenship, and kicked them out. Just for being Jews. And now they’ve managed to build themselves a new life and home here. The place that would offer them refuge, no questions asked. A miracle.
You can go through this story with just about any Jew here. This is the only place on the planet where I feel safe being a Jew. An out-of-the-closet Jew. For 2,000 years we’ve been at the mercy of whatever ruler we lived under. And all too often, turned into scapegoats like Roma/Gypsies or African-Americans- and suffered the violent consequences. Here, we are empowered to choose our own fate for the first time in millennia. And we’re not going to give it up. Our greatest threat is our greatest strategic advantage- we have no other place to go.
As Israelis like to say, living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple. And they’re right. When I saw a person dressed up as Ben Gurion today, I was laughing and also thinking back to when he derided Yiddish. When I celebrated by dancing to Mizrachi music in my neighborhood last night, one of the women said: “I want to go to America, it’s terrible here. Well, it’s not the Jews who are terrible…”. I empathize with her- there are a lot of reasons why a Mizrachi Jew might be prejudiced against refugees or Arabs, as I’ve written about. And I also hate it.
I am proud to be Israeli. I love my country and its people. I’m blessed to be a Jew and I think we have contributed so much to the world and this region.
I’m also sad that many of my Palestinian neighbors live in deep poverty, are ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and are subject to a largely unaccountable and undemocratic Israeli control over their lives.
And I’m sad that Arab-Israelis are basically caught between the two worlds because to a degree they identify with both.
I’m sad that refugees are discriminated against and might be deported. And I’m sad that their neighbors- my neighbors- have been utterly neglected by the government for 70 years, fomenting their anger.
I’m sad that as a Reform Jew I have no religious rights here. I have more rights in the States. I’m sad that as a gay person, I can’t adopt children. And I’m grateful to live in the only place in the Middle East where being gay is not only legal, it is accepted by a large part of the population. According to one poll, 40%+ of Israelis say we should accept homosexuality. The next closest Arab country is Lebanon at 18%. Palestinians come in at 3%. Those numbers also obscure a lot of gray space (including among Palestinians). My city, Tel Aviv, is one of the gayest places on the planet and has a city-funded LGBTQ center. Almost 80% of Israelis support gay marriage or civil unions.
In the end, living here is complex. I’ve learned to become a more empathetic and textured thinker by living here. If you want to come here and try to break things down into good and evil, right and wrong, black and white- you’re coming to the wrong place. Like the Bedouin man married to a Jew who converted to Islam and are raising their kids in a Jewish school. We are awesome and diverse and not easy to fit into a box. So put down your placards and get to know us before boycotting us or telling us we’re all fascists. While you sit on Native American land or, in the case of Europeans and some Arabs- on our Jewish property. Life is not so simple when you start to empathize with everyone.
And it makes it much richer. So on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, let’s declare our independence from black-and-white thinking. When you start to live in the gray space, you start to realize it’s not gray at all. It’s the many, many colors of the rainbow. Each with is unique shade. Sometimes too bright to stare at, and often too beautiful to gaze away.
In a note to my American friends struggling with a difficult time in history, join me in embracing the complexity. Get to know your Appalachian neighbors, gun owners, evangelicals- people you don’t agree with. Not to convince each other or approve of toxic behavior. Rather, simply to understand what might cause someone to think that way.
Embracing complexity can bring with it a lot of emotions- sadness, fear, joy, anger, hope. It is eye-opening and sometimes even overwhelming to see the full spectrum of humanity. The easy solutions don’t look so easy and sometimes, I feel as helpless as I do empowered. At that point, I invite you to learn from Israelis. Because what Israelis are astoundingly good at is just letting go. Give yourself a chance to celebrate- anything. Because all people- no matter the race, religion, or country- we all deserve time to celebrate.
Happy birthday Israel. May year 71 bring us, our friends, and our neighbors peace, prosperity, hope, and strength.
I love you Israel. When I criticize you, it’s because I want to make you better. I’m glad to be home in your arms.
Am Yisrael Chai.