Last year, we celebrated the miracle of Israel, the stranger-than-fiction story of a people redeemed, despite being thrown off their land so many millenniums ago, despite wandering in so many countries for centuries, despite being so hated for so long by so many people that six million Jews could be murdered in six years.
I still toast the miracle of Israel every day. But this Yom ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, let’s toast Israel’s normalcy. This year, let’s still have ice cream for breakfast to mark this special day – and make it memorable for the next generation – but let’s delight in Israel as a country like all others.
It’s an important move not only because in our crazy world, with our traumatic history, living normally is the real miracle. But it’s also important that we don’t fall into the trap of emphasizing Israel’s specialness as a justification for its existence.
In an age of delegitimization, we often try to delegitimize the delegitimizers by showing how productive a global citizen is. While I am proud of Startup Nation and Pharma Nation and, most important of all, Liberal-Democratic Nation, Israel isn’t on probation, with its legitimacy contingent on its good behaviour. I want Israel to be a Values Nation, an exemplary democracy, an Am segula – a cherished nation – for our sake, not for anybody else’s.
Moreover, Israel’s legitimacy hinges not because it stands out but because it fits in. The Jews are a people with rights to a particular homeland. As with Canada, the United States and others with native populations, that doesn’t preclude others having rights to our homeland too – history is messy. But we shouldn’t forget that in our case – as the great human rights activist Irwin Cotler often notes – the Jews are the natives. We are, he says, “the original aboriginal people,” the truly indigenous people, celebrating our ties to the same land for 3,500 years – and reading from the same holy book, speaking the same language, cultivating the same culture. We’re not the outsiders, we’re the returnees.
In his classic debate in 1961 at McGill University with the anti-Semitic British historian Arnold Toynbee, the Israeli diplomat Ya’akov Herzog took a similar tack. Toynbee accused the Jewish state of replicating the sins of its tormenters, treating the Palestinians as the Nazis had treated them. Using the historian’s favourite text- context – Herzog quoted his “favourite” historian – Toynbee himself, saying: “Now, professor, in volume four, page 128F, of your Study of History you say, ‘In the history of man’s attempt at civilization hitherto, there has never been any society whose progress and civilization has gone so far that in times of revolution or war, its members could be relied upon not to commit atrocities.’” Toynbee admitted that even the noble Americans and Brits had sometimes overstepped in fighting the evil Nazis.
In short, Herzog made the war-is-hell argument. He acknowledged, as we should, that Israel lives in the real world. Israel sometimes makes tough decisions. Israel sometimes makes mistakes.
Moreover, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is difficult, complex, multi-dimensional. But using words like “Nazi” and “genocide” and “racist” and “apartheid” and “colonialist” and “imperialist” are all not only inaccurate but delegitimizing. And because of the zeal with which they are used against Israel, the only Jewish state, it’s hard not to feel that there is anti-Semitism behind such demonization.
Ultimately, however, the key takeaway from Herzog, from world history, and from the last 71 years is this: Israel’s existence is based on its being a country like all other countries, representing the aspirations of a people like all other people. But Israel’s destiny, Israel’s soul, and our even greater pride, will be determined not be being like all others but by always striving to be more moral, more just, more democratic, not to justify our rights – but because it is right.