The State of the State

Flag This post was originally published by the Israel at Sixty blog.

Last year I wrote a think piece presenting what my platform would be if I were running for Prime Minister of Israel.  You can read it here.  Since I have the hubris to think as if I were running for Prime Minister, the logical next step is to think as if I WERE Prime Minister. We recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel.  If I were the Prime Minister, what kind of “State of the Union” speech would I have given?  Sixty years after our founding, what successes do we celebrate, what challenges do we face?

The State of Israel at Sixty

We are gathered to celebrate a most remarkable accomplishment: sixty years since the founding of the State of Israel.

Sixty years ago, an impartial observer would have said that the chances of the Jewish state celebrating a 60th anniversary were pretty slim. Facing Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, the Arab Legion, and volunteers from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, were 23,000 troops, many of whom were Holocaust survivors with no military experience. We reluctantly agreed to a partition plan that would have left us with a very small country; the Palestinians rejected it. We declared our independence on the 14th of May, 1948, the fifth of Iyar on the Hebrew calendar; the next day our enemies attacked.

We succeeded in holding them off, and we held them off again every time they attacked – in 1956, in 1967, in 1973, twice in Lebanon and twice during Intifadas. We may feel fatigued by the constant tension we experience from our neighbors, but the truth is our security situation has vastly improved over the past 60 years. We now have the most powerful military force in the Middle East. Sixty years ago we had no air force; today our pilots are considered the best in the world flying some of the most advanced planes on the planet. Sixty years ago our navy, if you want to call it that, was mostly a few merchant vessels transporting immigrants and weapons. Today we have technologically advanced patrol boats and submarines.

In the intervals between wars, we did not sit around and mope – we were very busy building a nation. For sixty years we have welcomed Jews from all over the world. From 600,000 Jews in 1948 we have grown to five and a half million, a nearly ten-fold increase. We have welcomed Jews fleeing the horrors of the Shoah, we have welcomed Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, we have welcomed Jews facing harsh economic conditions. And now we are welcoming more and more Jews who come not fleeing anti-Semitism, or hoping for a better material situation, but we are welcoming more and more Jews who want to join us in building a better country. Jews who could live very comfortably in America or Europe are coming to be a part of the dream of the building a Jewish state. We are truly experiencing kibbutz galuyot, the in-gathering of the exiles. The gathering together of the exiles forecast by our prophet Isaiah – “gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” – is surely underway, with nearly half of the world’s Jews now living in Israel.

And what a state we are building! In sixty years we have come from being a highly impoverished, backwards nation dependent on agriculture, to the 33rd richest country in the world on a per capita basis – wealthier than countries like New Zealand and Portugal, and despite all their oil, Saudi Arabia. Instead of being reliant on oranges and handouts, we now have an economy that is a high-tech powerhouse second only to Silicon Valley. Our high-tech sector was given a tremendous boost by the influx of highly skilled technical people coming from the Former Soviet Union. The Jews in the FSU faced a great deal of official persecution and hardship – while they weren’t expelled, they certainly weren’t all that welcome either. I am reminded of how the sultan in Turkey responded when Ferdinand kicked the Jews out of Spain – “your loss is my gain.” 

For all of our accomplishments, however, we are also keenly aware that our work is not finished. Yes, we have a powerful army – yet our army has been unable to stop Kassam rockets from falling on Sderot. The spectre of Iran with nuclear weapons is a frightening and destabilizing ogre. We withdrew from Gaza, hoping to give the Palestinians a place where they could start building a nation, and instead they use it to launch attacks against us. The ongoing occupation of the West Bank – an occupation we would like to end if the Palestinians could assure our security – saps our strength, our resources, and our vitality. 

In the Torah’s parsha Bechukotai (and in other places) God promises us peace. In Leviticus 26:5, God promises that we will have great material prosperity – and in the following verse He promises that we will have peace, and no one will make us be afraid when we lay down at night. Our great sage Rashi observes the juxtaposition of the promise of material plenty followed by the promise of peace, and comments:  הרי מאכל הרי משתה, אם אין שלום אין כלום, the second verse about peace is teaching us to consider that “behold, here is food, and here is drink, but without peace you have nothing.”

We must redouble our efforts to secure a lasting peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Lebanese. It was true 3000 years ago and it’s true today – without peace, you have nothing.

Our efforts at nation building have also brought challenges. Our economy has developed, but not everyone shares in the rewards. Our high-tech sector is a bright star, with salaries rivaling those paid in the US. Yet at the same time, Israel has the highest rate of child poverty of any country in the West – one third of our children are poor. Teachers are underpaid, and we are not investing sufficiently in the education our high-tech industry requires. Over half of our eighth grade students fail international standardized math exams.

Our tradition cherishes learning, above almost anything else, because we understand that learning comes before action. The story is told in the Talmud of how a group of students were debating which is greater, study or action. The consensus was leaning toward action, when Rabbi Akiba argued that study is greater, because it leads to action. Education is one area where as a Jewish state we are failing to put our Jewish values into action.

Another such area is the environment . Many countries go through a period of being very hard on the environment as they develop economically. It is time for us to move out from behind that excuse. We are no longer a third world country. We need to protect the home we live in. The midrash teaches us that when God created Adam, He took him and made him turn to all the trees of the garden, and said to him, “See my creations, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. I created everything for you. Take care not to mess it up and destroy my world, for if you ruin it there is nobody to restore it after you.” 

As we reflect on the last sixty years, and look forward to the next sixty years, it is clear that this is a time of transition. Even though we continue to draw immigrants, the numbers have dwindled to low levels. We must adjust to the fact that the era of mass aliyah is over. Pretty much all the Jews living in bad places who want to come to Israel are here. The vast majority of Jews living outside Israel live in the United States. The US is a place that is very hospitable to the Jews. We will never convince more than a relative handful to leave behind their materially comfortable life in America to move to Israel.

As such, for the most part, we are going to have to build our nation with the people we have. We need to shift our focus from building a state to building a society. We have a state, and we have all the trappings of a state. We now need to build a society that will truly be a light to the nations, a society that lives at peace with her neighbors, a society that has minimized if not eradicated poverty, a society that provides a first rate education for all, a society that protects the environment both for ourselves and for future generations, a society that is free from discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexual identity, or country of origin.

I firmly believe that we will succeed in creating such a society. That we will create a world where our children live in peace and prosperity. But it will not happen automatically. It will not happen as a result of wishful thinking. It will happen only when we as a society are willing to make the necessary investments and sacrifices, and when our political leaders demonstrate the will and the ability to advance the agenda of the majority of the citizens over the agenda of small extreme groups.

The Midrash teaches that all beginnings are difficult. The first sixty years of the state of Israel have been difficult, but is just the beginning. We have the tremendous zchut, the great merit, to be living in a time when the Jews have a country to call home. We have a responsibility to our ancestors who dreamed, longed, and worked for this day; and we have a responsibility to our children and our children’s children, and their children, not to blow it. Am Yisrael Chai!


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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