When considering what might be Israel’s proudest moment of the past several decades, the Battle of Jenin seems an odd choice. During this battle, part of Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, the IDF flattened a whole neighborhood of the Palestinian city. More than 50 Palestinians were killed, and as many as half of them were civilians (the IDF puts the numbers at 53 and 5; Human Rights Watch at 52 and 22 to 25). Hundreds of homes were destroyed. The IDF lost 23 soldiers, including 13 in one ambush. The international media, bolstered by statements from various NGOs, began reporting that the IDF was perpetrating an indiscriminate massacre, with hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead, buried under the rubble of their demolished homes. Partly with the help of documentaries like the award-winning Jenin, Jenin, the battle is still remembered by much of the world as an atrocity perpetrated by the Jewish state.
And yet, I have never been prouder of the State of Israel than at that moment, and never so certain that it is where I want my children to grow up. In the following meditation, I will try to explain why.
Normalcy Or Prophecy
The story of the Jews’ return to its ancient homeland in modern times is one of a movement, Zionism, which incorporated different, often conflicting aspirations. On one hand, there was a desire to live in a state where Jews could live as masters of their own fate, not as a tolerated (at best) minority. This desire was heightened by the alienation of the Jews from the national movements that coalesced in Europe throughout the 1800s and early 1900s and reinforced by the articulation of national rights like self-determination. To resolve the increasingly acute homelessness of the Jewish people, it was necessary to create an asylum and refuge in the only place on earth that had ever been considered the Jewish homeland.
The end goal of this aspiration is normalization, a morally neutral term. A nation’s right to determine its own fate in its own land is not contingent on its adopting a particular form of government or being sufficiently benign, liberal, economically sound, or democratic. According to our sages, though, Jewish presence in Israel is not a right conferred unconditionally because the land is not like any other land. The Torah and the Prophets are replete with admonitions to do what is right and just in God’s eyes, lest the land vomit us out.
For many Jews, both within and outside of the Zionist movement, and of nearly every religious and political stripe, it was unthinkable that the aspiration to a Jewish state would be an aspiration for normalcy, for a state wherein Jewish policemen arrest Jewish criminals for robbing other Jews, to paraphrase David Ben-Gurion. Even among Jews who denied the existence of any covenant with God or the authority of the Torah, there remained an abiding sense that the Jewish people had a mission to lead the world to a better, more just, more moral future. These strains of Zionism envisioned the reconstruction, in the land of Israel, of a uniquely Jewish civilization that would serve as “a light unto the nations,” in the words of the prophet Isaiah, a role model for every human society.
These two notions, normalization and becoming an exemplar, have lived in tension since the beginning of the modern return to Zion, but in truth this tension is much older; it goes all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham and the concomitant promise of the land to his progeny.
In fact, God made two covenants with Abraham, and the differences between these two covenants reflect two very different ways of thinking about the relationship between the land and people of Israel. The first covenant, the Covenant between the Parts (Genesis 15:7-21), was unconditional and unilateral. It made no demands on Abraham. It consisted of God’s guarantee that, though Abraham’s progeny would suffer, be enslaved, and live as strangers in a strange land, God would eventually bring them back to the land God promised, even if they do not deserve it. This covenant is perpetual, but cyclical. It promises return, but does not guarantee that there will be no subsequent dispossession. We invoke this covenant at the Seder—it is because of this covenant that God redeemed the undeserving Israelites from Egyptian servitude, and it is this covenant “that has stood for our forefathers and for us—for it was not only one who rose up against us to destroy us; rather, in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us, but the Holy One saves us from them.”
The second covenant is the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17:1-14), and it is prefaced by God’s charge to Abraham that he “walk in My ways and be blameless.” This covenant, whose language echoes God’s earlier covenants with Adam and Noah, and whose terms would eventually be spelled out in the precepts of the Torah, is far more ambitious. The land and a multitude of descendants are promised to Abraham so that those descendants can build a Godly society in that land. Under this rubric, the land of Israel is the staging ground for a grand drama, the laboratory for the divine-human experiment that has framed all of human history.
An ancient rabbinic dictum, more ancient even than the author A.B. Yehoshua, implies that the practice of Judaism outside of the land of Israel is exactly that—practice. Only in the land of Israel is observance “for real.” The implication that the duty to observe the precepts is merely preparatory has troubled Jewish thinkers throughout the ages.
It seems clear, though, that the meaning of this dictum relates directly to the core mission of the Torah and the Jewish people. Outside of Israel, Jews can create wonderful lives and communities, and they can contribute to society, but it is not our society, our civilization. It is only in our land that we can even attempt to realize the idea of a Jewish civilization. Moreover, it is only by facing and overcoming challenges on the national scale that we can truly become a light unto the nations, and not merely the individuals and communities that comprise those nations. It must be said that this is no supremacist doctrine; it is a mission, a belief that a particular people has been charged with a universal mission.
The land has thus been twice promised. The first promise guarantees that our relationship with the land will never be severed, even after millennia of exile, and that even, or perhaps especially, in our darkest hour, the Almighty will keep His promise and bring us home. However, the moment the first promise is fulfilled, the possibility of a new exile becomes real, and the clock starts ticking. Our ability to remain in the land hinges on our worthiness of it, on whether we are building a civilization founded on the principles of justice and righteousness, compassion and mercy, truth and peace.
The events of 1948 were a fulfillment of the first promise, and this is what we celebrate on Yom Ha-atzma’ut. But the moment of Israel’s independence also marked the beginning of a new challenge, the challenge of the second covenant. The question that we must ask even as we rejoice is whether this new Jewish civilization is becoming more just, more compassionate, more peaceful; whether it is indeed serving as a moral beacon to humanity.
This challenge is particularly acute for American immigrants to Israel. Unlike most immigrants to Israel, we were not seeking a place of refuge; we are citizens of a nation where Jews were full and equal citizens from Day One. Rather, we were pulled by the call of the second covenant, the challenge of building a nation that will stand as an exemplar for other nations, of becoming a nation like no other.
A Moral Decision
Which brings us back to Jenin.
In its 70 years of existence, Israel has not managed to eliminate war and make peace—not in its own territory, and certainly not throughout the world. One can even argue that it has engaged in needless and preventable wars and has missed opportunities for peace.
But at Jenin, Israel made a decision, at the institutional level, not to bomb Jenin from the air but to fight at street level—a decision that placed IDF soldiers at greater risk but spared Palestinian civilians. This unprecedented display of compassion has raised the bar for the conduct of other militaries. Twenty-three IDF soldiers died so that Palestinian civilians could live, though, perversely, all that is remembered of Israel’s sacrifice is a massacre that never happened.
The State of Israel exists, first and foremost, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, not because the Jewish people is particularly deserving or fit for it, but by the grace of God toward a people that suffered unspeakable and interminable cruelty. But just as God, in His grace, took the land from the Emorites and gave it to the Israelites, He has taken it from Israel and given it to other nations, which were more worthy in His eyes (Jeremiah 27:5-6). So on Yom Ha-atzma’ut, as we celebrate the fulfillment of Zionism’s first and most basic aspiration, we must maintain focus on its second, higher aspiration.
The people of Israel will not prove itself worthy of its land by listing more companies on NASDAQ or with an increased number of start-ups, scale-ups, or exits. As important as they are, these are not what we hoped and prayed and dreamed about for 2,000 years. Rather, we must ask whether our civilization fights on behalf of the widow and the orphan, gives succor to the poor, treats the alien, the migrant, and the non-naturalized resident fairly. We must ask whether our civilization is teaching the world how to best harness the power of the sun and how to extract the most value out of every drop of water; whether our civilization is healing the world, teaching it how to wield military might responsibly, and how to shape extraordinary diversity into a functioning democracy.
The answers may not always be to our liking, and it may take centuries to shape our civilization into something that is. But I have seen enough to convince me that I want to participate, and I want my descendants to participate, in this monumental project.
“Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her, by righteousness.”