Yom Ha’atzmaut and the Nakba: Jewish Religious Responses

“I Don’t Think I Can Celebrate this Holiday Anymore.”

As a Jewish kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, I remember Yom Ha’atzmaut as the one day every year in which our city’s Jewish community would turn out en masse in celebration. I have vivid memories of our marching through the sidewalks of West LA, waving our Israeli flags, ending with a picnic at Rancho Park. As in many US cities, Yom Ha’atzmaut was the  “go-to” day for expressing our Jewish communal pride.

In addition to this annual event, I also remember regularly celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious festival on the Jewish holiday calendar. Every year, usually on the closest Shabbat to May 15, our Reform Temple would acknowledge the occasion with special prayers and songs – including the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. In short, Yom Ha’atzmaut was not only an occasion to express our Jewish communal solidarity with the state of Israel – it was a day we invested with sacred meaning. When I became a rabbi many years later, I accepted it as common practice to acknowledge Yom Ha’atzmaut in this manner.

Over the years, however, as my own relationship to Israel and Zionism changed, I found the religious observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut increasingly problematic, even painful. In a 2009 blog post, I shared my struggle publicly:

I’ve decided not to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut today. I don’t think I can celebrate this holiday any more.

That doesn’t mean I’m not acknowledging the anniversary of Israel’s independence – only that I can no longer view this milestone as a day for unabashed celebration. I’ve come to believe that for me, Yom Ha’atzmaut is more appropriately observed as an occasion for reckoning and honest soul searching.As a Jew, as someone who has identified with Israel for his entire life, it is profoundly painful to me to admit the honest truth of this day: that Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with its dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the land. In the end, Yom Ha’atzmaut and what the Palestinian people refer to as the Nakba are two inseparable sides of the same coin. And I simply cannot separate these two realities any more.

By this point I had come to believe that Yom Ha’atzmaut was a paradigmatic of a deeper moral problem: that the creation of a Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that was in fact still ongoing. I could no longer regard it as something to celebrate, let alone invest with religious meaning.

“May Our Eyes See the Complete Redemption of Israel”

The creation of a Jewish religious holiday by government legislation is, needless to say, unprecedented in Jewish history. Its origins date back to the period immediately following Israel’s birth, when the Knesset officially established the 5th of the Jewish month of Iyar1 as its permanent date. At the time, Knesset members were unanimous that this holiday should have “traditional Jewish significance” and the new government subsequently created a committee to consult with Israel’s new Chief Rabbis in order to determine the precise nature of its religious observance.2 In a subsequent letter to their Rabbinate council, Israel’s Chief Rabbis Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel framed the day as a celebration of divine deliverance and redemption:

The fundamental turning point in God’s compassion on us, the declaration of our independence in the Land, which saved us and redeemed our souls, obligates us to uphold and keep this day of the fifth of Iyar, the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, for all generations, a day of joy of the beginning of the redemption for all of Israel.3

Over the next few months, Israeli religious authorities held extensive debates over how the new holiday should be acknowledged liturgically. Many of these questions focused on the recitation of Hallel – a series of Psalms of praise traditionally added to the morning worship service for festivals. The first formal Jewish liturgy developed specifically for Yom Ha’atzmaut was a new version of  Al Hanisim (“For the Miracles”), a traditional prayer recited on the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah praising God’s miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from their enemies. While it was not approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and did not gain universal acceptance upon its introduction, the practice of reciting Al Hanisim on Yom Ha’atzmaut has since grown in popularity and the prayer has appeared in many different forms throughout the decades.

The first Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut was written in 1949 by Biblical and Talmudic scholar Rabbi Ezra Zion Melamed and later published by the Kibbutz Hadati (the Religious Kibbutz Movement):

For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this season.

You, O God, awakened the heart of our fathers to return to the mountain of Your inheritance, to settle there and to rebuild it from the ruins, and its land. And when an evil regime stood over us and shut the gates of our land to our brethren who were fleeing from the sword of a cruel enemy, and they sent them back in ships to the islands of the sea and to distant shores, You in Your might toppled his throne and freed the land from his hand. And when enemies rose against us and plotted to destroy us, You in your might sent upon them fear and panic, and they abandoned all their goods, and fled in confusion and haste beyond the borders of our land. 

And when seven nations rose up against us to conquer our land and to make us as bonded servants, You in Your mercies stood by the right hand of the Israel Defense Army and delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to expand the boundaries of our settlement, and to bring our brethren up from the concentration camps.

For all this we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head; and on this, our day of festivity and joy, we stretch our hands before You and beseech pray on behalf of our dispersed brethren and say: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy habitation, and may they dwell there in peace and calm and tranquility and security. Expand the borders of our land as You promised our forefathers, to give to their seed from the River Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt. Build your holy city Jerusalem, capital of Israel, and reestablish there your Temple as in the days of Solomon. And as we have merited to see the beginning of our redemption and the liberation of our souls, so may we live and may our eyes see the complete redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen! 4

Using unabashedly Biblical language, this new prayer rendered the Zionist colonization of Palestine as an “awakening” and “return” to the Jewish peoples’ “inheritance.” The British Mandatory authorities were referred to as “an evil regime.” The Zionist militias’ dispossession of Palestinians from their homes (still ongoing at the time of its writing in the spring of 1949), was ascribed to divine intervention, using imagery that evoked the conquest of the Biblical Canaanites. Similar framing was used to describe the Arab armies that joined the war in 1949; the term “seven nations” was a pointed reference to the Canaanite nations dispossessed from the land by the Biblical Israelites in the book of Joshua.5

The final stanza of the prayer contained a reference to kibbutz galuyot (the “ingathering of the exiles”), God’s promise to return the Israelites to their land following the Babylonian exile.6 The term was used here according to the tenets of religious Zionism, which viewed the establishment of a Jewish state in the land as a necessary precursor to the coming of the messiah.7 The prayer concludes by looking forward to a return to the widest Biblical borders of Israel (from the Euphrates to the Nile) and the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“To Serve God in the Joy of Victory”

In due time, American Jewish denominations would formally adopt the observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday as well. The Conservative movement included its own version of Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its 1961 Weekday Prayerbook8 and later in its 1985 prayer book Siddur Sim Shalom:

In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time when our people took root in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword. When enemies from within the land, together with seven neighboring nations, sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day.9

While considerably shorter than the original version, the Conservative movement Al Hanisim retains many of its central themes – particularly the Biblical concept of return and kibbutz galuyot. It also deletes the dated references to British Mandate authorities, firmly identifying Palestinians (“enemies from within the land”) and “seven neighboring nations” as the primary enemies of the Jewish people.

Given the Zionist narrative of Israel’s establishment, it’s not difficult to understand why Al Hanisim became a popular prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut. The traditional version for Purim recalls the account in the Book of Esther in which ancient Persia “rose up against them and sought to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all of the Jews, young and old…” On Hanukkah, the prayer extols how God “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure…” In a sense, the Al Hanisim for Yom Ha’atzmaut combines both of these narratives. Indeed, Israel’s “miraculous” victory over its Arab foes would become central to Zionist mythology following 1948 – and even more so after the Six Day War in 1967.

While the American Reform movement did not originally include prayers for Yom Ha’atzmaut in its Union Prayer Book (almost certainly due to that denomination’s historically anti-Zionist orientation), the Central Conference of American Rabbis eventually established Yom Ha’atzmaut as “a permanent annual festival in the religious calendar of Reform Judaism” in 1970. Five years later, the movement’s prayer book, “Gates of Prayer” included an extensive service for the holiday, including a partial Hallel.10 The most recent Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah (2007), contains a seven-candle lighting ceremony for Yom Ha’atzmaut, featuring a variety of prayers, poems and songs (including Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem). The service also references kibbutz galuyot with this passage from the Biblical book of Jeremiah 23:3, 8: “And Myself will gather the remnants of the flock from all the lands…And I will bring them back to their pasture. And they will dwell upon their own soil.” 11

The Reconstructionist movement prayer book, Kol Haneshama includes a similar Yom Ha’atzmaut service12 that includes Hatikvah as well as the famous “valley of the dry bones” prophecy from Ezekiel 37:13-14. Here, Israel’s founding is juxtaposed with God’s promise to “resurrect” and restore the Israelites to the land of Israel following their exile in Babylonia: “Behold, I am opening your graves, and I shall raise you up from where you lie, my people, and shall bring you to the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am The Eternal One, I who open up your graves and raise you up, my people, from your place of burial!” 13

In addition to these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies, many prominent American Jewish scholars and leaders frame the day as a sanctification of sovereign state power. In his popular book “The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary,” Rabbi Michael Strassfeld suggests, “as our religious perspective on Israel deepens, Yom Ha’atzmaut will become more and more a reflection of a vision rather than the simple birthday party of a nation.” 14

For Strassfeld, that vision involves a dialectic between the “Torah of Sinai” and the “Torah of Jerusalem.” The former, he posits, reflects the revelation that “took place outside of the land of Israel at Sinai” that has become “familiar to us as the life of our people during the 2,000 years of the Diaspora.” The latter emphasizes “sovereignty and independence” and “finds its symbols in the place itself – the site of the ancient temple of sacrifices and the political capital of King David.” 15 As Strassfeld explains:

We need both, for with only Israel and its Torah, it would be easy to make an idolatry of nationalism. We would end up reveling in earth, blood, and power. But with only the Torah of Sinai, we could continue to revel in abstractness and powerlessness, constructing worlds, as the Talmud does, made of oxen that fall into pits and gore each other.16

In his book “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg goes even farther, suggesting that Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrates “a new Exodus” and represents “a call to power to end the tradition of suffering, to serve God in the joy of victory.” 17 Noting Israel’s early tradition of military parades on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Greenberg writes,

Diaspora Jews who still live with the ideals and illusions of powerlessness are often embarrassed by this phenomenon. Yet a military parade is a most appropriate symbol for an era whose central theme, set in motion by the Holocaust and the creation of the state, is the emergence of Jews from powerlessness.18

Among other things, these Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgies and commentaries attest to the deep influence of Religious Zionist ideology on American Jewish life. It is indeed troubling to consider: the prayers of every American Jewish denomination frame Israel’s military dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in the context of holy war and ascribe explicitly messianic meaning to Zionist colonization of the land.

Thus, to return to the questions I asked in my 2009 blog post, I ask again: how should we reckon with the knowledge that Jewish communities the world over offer prayers of joy and praise that essentially celebrate the Palestinian people’s collective tragedy? Might it be possible, to use Edward Said’s term, to view Zionism from “the standpoint of its victims?” If so, what might a Jewish ritual acknowledgement of this event actually look like? 

“Beyond Fear and Omnipotence, Beyond Innocence and Militarism”

American Jews – and young American Jews in particular – are starting to ask this very question. In 2013 New Voices, a journal published by the Jewish Student Press Service, published an article that featured Jewish student essays debating whether to “celebrate, commemorate or mourn” on Yom Ha’atzmaut. More recently, the relatively mainstream Jewish newspaper, the Forward featured a debate between two of its regular columnists entitled “Should American Jews celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut?” As one writer observed:

It seems to me that the elevation of Yom Ha’atzmaut to the level of a religious holiday…is an attempt not to provide American Jews with holidays that celebrate our identities as we are, but to construct our identities politically.

As well, some liberal quarters of the American Jewish community now make a point of acknowledging the Nakba in relation to Yom Ha’atzmaut. The Reconstructionist volume, “Guide to Jewish Practice: Shabbat and Holidays,” for instance, includes the following commentary:

The creation of Israel came with a real cost of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being displaced from their homes. Yom Ha’atzmaut may be a joyous day for us, but the Nakba reminds us that this joy, as on Passover, has its limits.19

Similarly, in 2015, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, led a session for American rabbis entitled, “Yom Ha’atzmaut: Between Redemption and Nakba.” In his session he noted that the increasing awareness of the Nakba means that Israelis and Jewish Zionists can no longer “control the narrative” of Israel’s establishment, adding tellingly: “If we have to ‘sell’ and get people excited about the redemption narrative, we have to make room for the fact that ‘something happened.’”

In the end, however, these mild interventions fail to address the heart of the conceptual/ethical issue at hand, as they ultimately seek to strengthen and uphold the Jewish redemption narrative. Is it possible to commemorate this occasion with a fundamentally different Jewish narrative? One that stands down this redemptive view of militarism and state power?

In my own search for answers to this question, the work of several Jewish scholars has become particularly important to me. One such figure is Marc Ellis who has written extensively about the theological dynamics of Jewish empowerment in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel:

In the formation, sustenance and expansion of Israel, Judaism and Jewish identity has likewise been actively employed, indeed has been militarized and, yes, infected with atrocity. Because once religion and identity become accomplices to atrocity it must disguise that atrocity and twist it to conform to an innocence and redemption that is now visited, as a form of oppression, on the Other, in this case the Palestinian people.

For Ellis, the onset of Jewish state power has resulted in an era of “Constantinian Judaism,” comparable to the elevation of Christianity to the religion of empire in the 4th century. In the current age, Ellis suggests, “dissenting Jews must learn how to practice their Judaism in the shadow of Constantinian Judaism.” 20 He refers to these dissenting Jews as “Jews of Conscience” who, he writes, “are fighting a high stakes battle against the final Jewish assimilation to unjust power which, in their view, articulated in overt Jewish language or not, signals the end of Jewish history.”

Likewise, Sara Roy, whose work has detailed the devastating effect of Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza on Palestinians, has written, in an essay entitled “A Jewish Plea:”

I have come to accept that Jewish power and sovereignty and Jewish ethics and spiritual integrity are, in the absence of reform, incompatible, unable to coexist or be reconciled. For if speaking out against the wanton murder of children is considered an act of disloyalty and betrayal rather than a legitimate act of dissent, and where dissent is so ineffective and reviled, a choice is ultimately forced upon us between Zionism and Judaism.

Roy then asks, powerfully:

As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and abjection, empowered and also humane, something that still eludes us? How do we move beyond fear and omnipotence, beyond innocence and militarism, to envision something different, even if uncertain?

“A Full Accounting of the Wrongdoing that was Committed in Our Name.”

In response to challenges such as these, we are now witnessing the tentative emergence of new alternative approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut/Nakba Day as an occasion for reckoning and remembrance rather than joy and celebration. One such example is the “Joint Nakba Remembrance Ceremony,” an annual gathering sponsored by the Israeli organization Combatants for Peace and co-sponsored by a variety of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. According to organizers, this ceremony seeks

to bring attention to the Nakba and acknowledge the great pain it brings, through the understanding of the Nakba’s importance in the Palestinian collective memory and in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ceremony’s message is that we must face our past with honesty, integrity, and empathy in order to bring a future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides.

My own synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, has been exploring ways to develop a Jewish observance of Nakba Day with a service of combining prayer, readings, poetry and survivor testimonies. Here, for instance, is my “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day,” which I wrote to be a centerpiece of our ritual:

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:

show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,

guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,

Amen.

In this prayer, I use the Hebrew word “teshuvah” according to two of its meanings: both “return” and “repentance.” The first half of the prayer acknowledges the historical reality of the Nakba. The phrase “gather them from the four corners of the earth” is an explicit reference to kibbutz galuyot – “the ingathering of the exiled,” applying it here to the Palestinian right of return. The second half of the prayer uses the word teshuvah/repentance in the context of the collective Jewish responsibility to confess Jewish complicity in the depopulation, destruction and replacement of Palestine, looking forward to a future of “reparation and reconciliation.”

It should be noted that as as Jewish community in the diaspora, our service differs in crucial ways from the Israeli-Palestinian Nakba Remembrance Ceremony noted above. For Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living in a Jewish nation-state, the vision of a “future of reconciliation, liberty and peace for both sides” has a very specific political meaning. For Jews who seek liberation in a diasporic context, this goal must necessarily exist within the vision of a greater transformation.

In the end, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. From a Jewish diasporist perspective, the aspiration for a just future in Israel/Palestine cannot help but be bound up with the prophetic vision of justice and liberation for marginalized and colonized communities everywhere.

In the words of scholar Susannah Heschel:

The diasporic position … is the condition for the prophetic: standing at the boundaries between society and the reins of governance, the prophet demands justice from the governing, while giving voice to the unheard who suffer at the hands of the regime.

My own personal struggle with the legacy of Yom Ha’atzmaut has led me to explorations I could never have imagined when I wrote that blog post in 2009. While these new Jewish approaches to Yom Ha’atzmaut are obviously in a nascent stage, we may reasonably expect them to develop and evolve, particularly as demographic studies of the American Jewish community indicate an increasing detachment of American Jewish connection to the state of Israel. As the Forward article cited above notes: “When you interview young American Jews who disaffiliate, the politics of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations come up as a major reason why.”

As the American Jewish community continues to transform, we can only hope we will witness the further transformation of this festival as well: from a day celebrating political nationalism and colonial dispossession to a Jewish observance rooted in solidarity, memory and repentance.

 Footnotes:

1 This day corresponded to May 15, 1948 – the date the state of Israel was declared one year earlier. As Yom Ha’atzmaut is determined according to the lunar Jewish calendar, it falls on different days during the months of April or May.

2  Katz, Shmuel, “Establishing a Holiday: The Chief Rabbinate and Yom HaAtzma’ut,” in The Koren Mahzor for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2016  p. 188.

3 IBID, p. 190.

4 Seder Tefillot le-Yom ha-Atzmaut, 2nd edition, Tel Aviv: Hotza’at Ha-kibbutz ha-Dati, 1969, p. 101, (translation mine).

5 There were actually five – not seven – Arab nations involved in the 1948-49 war. The number seven seems to be used here to directly equate them with the seven Biblical Canaanite nations.

6  See Deuteronomy 30:1-5, Isaiah 11:11-12, Jeremiah 29:14 and Ezekiel 20:41-42. Kibbutz galuyot would later come to be understood in messianic terms – see for instance, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1-2.

7 This precept is also cited in the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel,” written in 1948 by Israel’s Chief Rabbis, which described the establishment of the state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”

8 Weekday Prayer Book, New York: Rabbinical Assembly, 1961, pp.64-65.

9 Siddur Sim Shalom, Harlow, Jules, ed., New York: Rabbinical Assembly/United Synagogue of America, 1985, p. 183.

10 Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, Stern, Chaim, ed., New York: CCAR Press, 1975, pp. 590-611.

11 Mishkan T’filah: Services for Shabbat, Frishman, Elyse D., ed., New York: CCAR Press,  2007, p. 542.

12 Kol Haneshamah: Limot Hol, Teutsch, David, ed., Pennsylvania: The Reconstructionist Press. 1996, pp. 456-471.

13  IBID, p. 460.

14  Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, New York: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 66.

15  IBID, p. 65.

16  IBID

17  Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, New York: Summit Books, p. 387.

18  IBID 396.

19  A Guide to Jewish Practice Volume 2: Shabbat and Holidays, Pennsylvania: RRC Press, 2014, p. 693.

20 Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Theology of Liberation, 3rd expanded edition, Waco:Baylor University Press, 2004, p. 206.