As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the modern State of Israel, more and more American Jews — especially younger Jews — wonder why Israel should matter to them. They think, “Israel is far away. The language is foreign. Their practice of Judaism is totally different than my own. It’s surrounded by enemies, and the government’s behavior sometimes offends me, yet it shapes how others see me. Why should I care?”
I want to offer a few reasons why Israel matters to me. Maybe some of them will resonate.
First, Israel matters because Jews live there. More Jews than anywhere else in the entire world, in fact. Just as I care about Jews living all over the world, I also care about Jews living in Israel. They are my brothers, sisters and cousins. Even if I don’t like all of their customs, beliefs or politics, they are still my people, my family.
Second, Israel is the hub for a resurgence of modern Jewish life. It offers compelling answers to the question “Why be Jewish?” that many of us ask. Israel is making Jewish life meaningful and relevant today by reinventing Jewish learning, culture, values, language (Hebrew), literature, music and film. Indeed, a whole new Jewish civilization is being reborn in Israel. The creative genius coming out of Israel is a miraculous rebirth of Judaism in our lifetime. And because Israel is a uniquely Jewish state, it is free to make Jewish decisions. No other country can say that.
Third, the existence of Israel has improved the lives of Jews in the diaspora. Before Israel existed, Jews in most places were persecuted or treated as second-class citizens. Even here in America, Jews of my grandparents’ generation couldn’t join country clubs, go to many colleges, work in certain jobs or own land in some areas. When Israel was founded, it gave American Jews the strength to stand up and demand equal status. Our strength still exists today, at least in part, due to Israel’s own strength.
Fourth, Israel is our insurance policy. It may not feel good to say, but it’s the one place that will take us in no matter what our circumstances. Israel has rescued Jews in Russia, Yemen, Ethiopia and even Entebbe. If Jews face a massive resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe or even here, Israel will always be the one place we can go.
Fifth, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, we have prayed to return to it. Over and over, we have fought to defend it. And most recently, we have made it bloom, turning deserts into orange groves and swamps into cities. We face Jerusalem three times a day when we pray. Every year at the Passover seder we recite, “Next year in Jerusalem.” And we have said, “If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” Israel is in our collective soul.
Finally, I have deep, personal ties to Israel. I’ve been there nearly 30 times. I have traveled the country from end to end. I have taken my family and my community to Israel. I have Israeli friends and now I have Israeli family because I met my wife, the daughter of Israelis, while studying abroad in Jerusalem 25 years ago.
The connection for me is more than philosophical, more than theological, more than theoretical. It’s personal. It’s flesh and blood. So perhaps that’s why Israel matters most to me.