Racism. Blatant discrimination against women. The legitimization of ethnic cleansing. Undue influence over public policy wielded by a wealthy oligarchy. A Declaration of Independence that spoke of equality, amid a stark reality of inequality. A democracy at 60.
No, this is not a profile of Israel, as we approach her 60th birthday next week, but a snapshot of the situation in the United States of America circa 1836. The US at 60 was a nation in which human slavery was legal and practiced widely; in which women were denied the right to vote and, in many cases, to hold property. A nation in which Native Americans were being ethnically cleansed by the new Americans – settlers and homesteaders rapidly pushing westward. A country in which – as its own President, Andrew Jackson, complained – “the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes”.
This is certainly not to say that, over the last 172 years, America has healed all its ills. Nor am I suggesting in any way that Israel of 2008 should be excused its failings and excesses, since they pale in comparison to those of Jacksonian America. But a look at America at 60 is instructive, since it reminds us that young nations are works in progress, subject to change, growth – and, hopefully, even repair and improvement. Through hard-fought struggles waged by abolitionists, women’s rights leaders and others, slavery was made illegal in the US; women secured their right to vote.
There are still wrongs to right in the US, as there are in 60 year-old Israel. Luckily, there are people in both nations doing the hard, unheralded, sometimes thankless work of social change, of tikkun olam.
Israel at 60 – despite the shortcomings that still need to be addressed – is a cause for celebration. But I foresee with optimism an Israel at 120 that will be an even more profound source of pride. My Israel in 2068 will have reached an accommodation with all its neighbors, no longer vilified, no longer ruling over another people, and no longer confusing the short-term security benefits provided by roadblocks and territory with the long-term benefits of regional integration.
Israel at 120 will be a nation that lives up to the promises made in its Declaration of Independence: “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; […] freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”. The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel will be living the “full and equal citizenship” promised them in May 1948, while Israel’s Jews will be free to practice, interpret and develop their Judaism as they see fit – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and secular Jews no longer assigned second-class status (at best) by Israel’s dominant orthodox rabbinical clique.
In Israel at 2068, women will no longer be subject to rabbinic court authority when it comes to questions of their marital status, and only half of the Knesset’s 120 seats will be filled by men. Same-sex partnerships will have been legally recognized. The High Court of Justice, having fought off attempts to erode its authority, will remain the staunch defender of civil liberties and human rights.
One-hundred and twenty year-old Israel will have reversed the trend of socio-economic polarization it has witnessed since free-market liberalism became bon ton around its 30th birthday. Israel at 120 will have a dignified pension system for its seniors, and certainly would never tolerate a third of its children living under the poverty line.
Israel at 120 won’t be perfect, but it will be headed in the right direction.
I sometimes encounter politically progressive young Jews who, observing the many blemishes on Israel’s complexion, suggest that Israel is somehow irredeemable, that Zionism is an inherently “dirty” political program. In a way, they are not very different from the tens of thousands of American Jews who speak of Israel’s independence in “miraculous” terms. Ironically, both sides seem to agree that Israel is something other than the collective opus of the people who live there.
But Israel is neither divine creation nor satanic scheme. It is a society, a polity, a home that can become a better place if its citizens help make that happen. And while too many of Israel’s citizens subscribe to ideologies that put them at variance with the picture imagined above, just as many, if not more, still believe the country can, and must, find a better way.
So as we celebrate Israel’s accomplishments at 60, and there are more than a few, let’s also make a pledge to continue sharing their belief, and continue supporting an even brighter vision of Israel at 120. Lu Y’hi.