Category Archives: Yom Ha’atzmaut

Yom Ha’atzmaut 2014: Is the Jewish State Truly Free?

The massive Palestinian protest rally in the clip above took place this past Tuesday, on the day Israelis celebrated as Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). What’s particularly notable about this rally is that it didn’t take place in the West Bank or Gaza, but rather in Israel proper. More precisely, it took place on the site of the village of Lubya in the lower Galilee, one of hundreds of Palestinian villages depopulated by Jewish militias in 1948 to make way for the founding of the State of Israel.

This protest was part of an annual event known as the “March of Return,” which has taken place inside Israel for the past 17 years. Organized by a coalition of Palestinian groups, the march annually promotes the conviction of Palestinian citizens of Israel that Israel’s independence is irrevocably bound up with the Palestinian collective tragedy known as the Nakba.

By all reports, this was the largest March of Return yet; an estimated 10,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel defied Israel’s anti-Nakba law, driving and hiking past angry Israeli-Jewish counter-demonstrators and police who confiscated their Palestinian national flags. Then they gathered together at Lubya to hear from a variety of Palestinian politicians and activists. Most notably, this year’s commemoration included explicit calls for a recognition of the Palestinian right of return.

Several years ago I wrote that I believed Yom Ha’atzmaut should much more appropriately be observed by Jews as a day of reckoning rather than a day of unmitigated celebration. Watching the clip above, I am all the more convinced of this than ever. Can a nation truly celebrate itself, as its national anthem would have it, as an “am chofshi be’artzeynu” (“a free people in our own land”) when it includes a minority such as this in its midst?

photo: Dan Cohen/Mondoweiss

photo: Dan Cohen/Mondoweiss

Meanwhile, here in Chicago, a prominent synagogue observed Yom Ha’atzmaut through public readings of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which an organizer referred to as a “sacred text:”

Most of the holidays are mentioned in the Bible or were created in ancient time and there is already a tradition…Every Jewish holiday, usually, you have a text. This is something special about the Jewish culture or religion.

As a religious Jew, I personally take great exception to the use of the term “sacred text” in reference to such a patently political document as Israel’s Declaration of Independence. For me, it is yet another sad example of how political advocacy for the State of Israel has become so firmly (and idolatrously) ingrained in the religious life of the American Jewish community.

The organizer of this event took pains to add:

It’s very important that we keep on making sure that people that are not Jewish will get equal rights and the same opportunities…The declaration gives us a very good vision, as a start of the discussion.

It’s a noble statement, but it belies the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not actually enjoy “equal rights” and “the same opportunities” as Jewish citizens of Israel. There are, in fact, more than 50 Israeli laws that structurally discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in virtually all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures. (Click here for an extensive list of these laws.)

This statement also belies the fact that the Israeli political establishment increasingly views Palestinian citizens of Israel as a “Fifth Column.” For his part, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who openly promotes the transfer of Israel’s Palestinian citizens across the Green Line, responded to Tuesday’s March of Return commemoration with the following statement:

To those Arabs that took part today in the “Nakba Day” procession and waved Palestinian flags, I suggest that next time they march directly to Ramallah and they stay there.

With such clear and increasing polarization on both sides, I submit that it is still too early for Jewish citizens of Israel to truly declare themselves to be an “am chofshi be’artzeynu.”


“Wrestling in the Daylight” in Seattle

Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course.  In the meantime here’s a taste:

A Reckoning for Yom Ha’atzmaut

I’ve written before that as a Jew, I no longer consider Yom Ha’atzmaut to be a day of unmitigated celebration – but rather be an occasion for honest reckoning and soul searching.  In particular, I believe we need to struggle with the very meaning of independence itself. In our profoundly interdependent world, what does the concept of “independence” ultimately mean?  Is independence a one-time occurrence or an ongoing process? And, perhaps most painfully, in what ways has Jewish independence come at a very real cost to the rights of another people?

To help us reckon with these kinds of questions, I encourage you to visit the new website, #Nakbasurvivor.  This is an amazing new project from the Institute for Middle East Understanding that invites Palestinians to tell their family’s story of the Nakba over Twitter and YouTube. It’s a brand new effort, but already the stories seem to be pouring in. (Click above for one such story.)

As Jews, we know as well as people that memory is profoundly sacred – and that it is our duty to transmit our memories to the next generation so that we might be transformed by the lessons they teach us. As I watched these videos, I felt a myriad of emotions: a sense of honor that these sacred stories were being preserved and transmitted, a sense of pain that my own people’s independence came at the cost of another’s, and a sense of responsibility to acknowledge this memory – and to speak out against the injustices that still continue to this day.

When it comes to memory of the Nakba, there is no justice. This past year, the Knesset has passed legislation that makes it illegal for any Israeli communities that hold events commemorating the Nakba on Yom Ha’atzmaut. In other words, Israel has essentially criminalized the memory of 20% of its citizens.

Today, on the first Yom Ha’atzmaut since this law was passed, Nakba demonstrations have taken place across East Jerusalem and the West Bank. There have been widespread clashes with the IDF and numerous Palestinian casualties have been reported.  (In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras el-Amud, a 17 year old was shot in the stomach with live ammunition – as of this writing, he has no pulse and the doctors are now fighting for his life.)

There will be no independence for anyone – Israeli or Palestinian – until there is justice. And there will be no justice until we truly honor memory, no matter how painful.

Happy Independence Day?

Ynet Photo: Avihu Shapira

Saw this in Ynet this morning, from an article covering Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations in Israel. Caption: “Tens of thousands visited IDF bases.”

My first thought: the famous picture of the Palestinian baby in a bomb vest that got some major play in the Jewish press some years back.

My second thought: those Jews who claim Palestinians harbor a “culture of death” should take a good long look at this picture.

My third thought: this recent picture of an Israeli preschool – another image that stopped me in my tracks.

I really don’t know what else to think…

Why I Didn’t Celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut


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.

I wonder: if we Jews are ready to honestly face down this “dual reality” how can we possibly view this day as a day of unmitigated celebration? But we do – and not only in Israel. Indeed, there is no greater civil Jewish holiday in the American Jewish community than Yom Ha’atzmaut. It has become the day we pull out all the stops – the go-to day upon which Jewish Federations throughout the country hold their major communal Jewish parades, celebrations and gatherings.

I wonder: how must it feel to be a Palestinian watching the Jewish community celebrate this day year after year on the anniversary that is the living embodiment of their collective tragedy?

I can’t yet say what specific form my new observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut will take. I only know that it can’t be divorced from the Palestinian reality – or from the Palestinian people themselves. Many of us in the co-existence community speak of “dual narratives” – and how critical it is for each side to be open to hearing the other’s “story.” I think this pedagogy is important as far as it goes, but I now believe that it’s not nearly enough. It’s not enough for us to be open to the narrative of the Nakba and all it represents for Palestinians. In the end, we must also be willing to own our role in this narrative. Until we do this, it seems to me, the very concept of coexistence will be nothing but a hollow cliche.

Toward a new understanding of Yom Ha’atzmaut, I commend to you this article by Amaya Galili which was published today in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot. Galili is affiliated with Zochrot – the courageous Israeli org that works tirelessly to raise their fellow citizens’ awareness about the Nakba.

An excerpt:

The Israeli collective memory emphasizes the Jewish-national history of the country, and mostly denies its Palestinian past. We, as a society and as individuals, are unwilling to accept responsibility for the injustice done to the Palestinians, which allows us to continue living here. But who decided that’s the only way we can live here? The society we’re creating is saturated with violence and racism. Is this the society in which we want to live? What good does it do to avoid responsibility? What does that prevent us from doing?

Learning about the nakba gives me back a central part of my being, one that has been erased from Israeli identity, from our surroundings, from Israeli education and memory. Learning about the nakba allows me to live here with open eyes, and develop a different set of future relationships in the country, a future of mutual recognition and reconciliation between all those connected to this place.

Accepting responsibility for the nakba and its ongoing consequences obligates me to ask hard questions about the establishment of Israeli society, particularly about how we live today. I want to accept responsibility, to correct this reality, to change it. Not say, “There’s no choice. This is how we’ve survived for 61 years, and that’s how we’ll keep surviving.” It’s not enough for me just to “survive.” I want to live in a society that is aware of its past, and uses it to build a future that can include all the inhabitants of the country and all its refugees.

Click here to read the article in the original Hebrew. Click below to read the entire English version. (Heartfelt thanks to my friend Mark Braverman for sending it along.)

Continue reading

My Peoria Op-Ed

Here’s the opening of an editorial I wrote that appears in today’s Peoria Star-Journal:

President Bush recently traveled to Israel to celebrate that country’s 60th anniversary, a visit attested to by the many pictures of him smiling and shaking hands with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Yet I cannot help but feel that this isn’t a time for celebrations – and certainly not for smiling.

The photo-ops belie the appalling situation facing Israel and the Palestinians: Israel’s internationally approved blockade of Gaza continues to deepen a humanitarian crisis in which hundreds of thousands of people cannot meet their daily food needs, while Hamas continues its rocket attacks into Israel’s south, creating a nightmare of fear and uncertainty.

My op-ed was published in this particular paper in support of a letter to President Bush written by Peoria Congressman Ray LaHood (a Republican and Lebanese-American) and Democratic Congressman David Price. The letter, which was signed by fifty additional congressmen, expresses “deep concern” over the ongoing crisis in southern Israel and Gaza – and the fear that prolonging the status quo would “derail progress toward achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in 2008.”

My conclusion:

I can only hope that Bush sees the wisdom of the LaHood-Price letter and is inspired to take real steps toward bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to a process of sincere negotiation. The U.S. must create the kind of atmosphere that allows the leaders of both peoples to make hard decisions and painful compromises, with security arrangements and enforcement mechanisms, incentives for reconciliation and disincentives for foot-dragging.

The American Jewish community, and indeed all Americans who wish Israel well, must make it their business to call on their elected officials to actively support such an effort.

In so doing, they will not only be doing what’s best for Israel and the Palestinians, they will also be representing the mainstream opinion of Israeli and American Jews alike. About 64 percent of Israelis want their government to negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas, and 87 percent of American Jews support a two-state solution to the conflict.

If we want the sacrifices of the past to have true meaning, if we want what’s best for Israel, we will redouble our efforts to achieve durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is the best way to truly celebrate the accomplishments of the last 60 years.

Mark the 60th – Plant Justice

During this past week, Israel and Jews around the world celebrated its 60th birthday while Palestinians commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nakhba (the “catastrophe).”  A complicated anniversary to say the least: for Israelis Yom Ha’atzmaut marks the moment of their liberation; for Palestinians, it represents the commencement of their exile from their land. How on earth can we reconcile such a profoundly contradictory milestone?

A verse from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, might be instructive:

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly — Leviticus 27:20

As we generally tend to regard the olive as a symbol of peace and tranquility, it is rather jarring to read that only “beaten olives” were considered fit for lighting the lamps in the Tent of Meeting. Rashi points out that this Hebrew term, “shemen zayit zach katit” refers to olive oil that was obtained from the first pressing, which yields the purest form of the oil and is free of external ingredients. (Even today, the term “first cold press” designates the purest form of extra-virgin olive oil).

Perhaps we can take our cue from Rashi’s insight that from oppression can come purity. Perhaps the best way to rise above the cognitive dissonance of Yom Ha’atzmaut/Al Nakhba  is to support and celebrate the instances in which both peoples are rising above the intractability of the conflict to promote coexistence in their land.

In this regard, I commend to you “Planting Justice: Two Trees Initiative,” a new campaign sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights – North America that will support the re-planting of olive trees in the West Bank as well as in impoverished Jewish neighborhoods in Israel. I’d like to suggest that efforts such as these offer us all a more fitting way to commemorate this painfully complex anniversary – by helping to pursue the dream of justice for Jew and Arab alike and to the nurture the possibility of peace and reconciliation.

(I’m thrilled to say I am currently joining the national board of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America – an organization whose work I have long admired. I hope you will consider adding RHR-NA to your list of organizations eminently worthy of your support).