Despite divisions, the Jewish people have come home

When I think of Israel's 50th anniversary, I think of Thomas Wolfe. And Tom Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe, the author who died in 1938, is perhaps best remembered for his memorable phrase, "You can't go home again."

He was wrong. The Jewish people have come home again.

I think, too, of Tom Wolfe, the present-day writer whose books include "The Right Stuff" and who began a new style of writing that featured the heavy and frequent use of exclamation points. Each page of his early books, especially, is filled with exclamation point after exclamation point.

And that, I think, is exactly the style of writing that is called for when writing about the 50th anniversary of the independence of the state of Israel.

The state of Israel! Think of it! There is in our time, right now, a state of Israel! Independent and free, only a plane ticket away, a state of Israel! A Jewish state! And one that is celebrating its 50th birthday!

Jews the world over know that if, God forbid, the unthinkable happens, there will be, for sure, one door open, one country that won't turn back any ships, one country that won't have Jewish quotas, one country that will give as many papers as necessary to save as many Jews as possible and bring them home.

However, it is not only a mistake, but a tragic diminution, perhaps even a desecration, of the wondrous miracle that Israel is to see it only, or even primarily, as an insurance policy, a refuge, a safe haven, a last resort.

Israel is the place God gave to the Jews, all the Jews, as a homeland. It is the place where our forefathers walked, where the roots of our religion were planted, our history began. It is the touchstone we have always looked to, clung to, pined for.

The place our souls have never left and always lived, even when we lived in Babylon and Vilna and Madrid and Warsaw and Toronto and Paris and New York.

Israel is us, it is that which defines us.

When I think of Israel's 50th anniversary, I think of Joseph Vitkin and Chassiya Feinsod and Ben Shalom Levi and Charles Netter.

Vitkin, born in the Russian town of Mogilev, came to Palestine in 1897 at the age of 21. Once there, he published a pamphlet in Hebrew urging the Jewish youth of the world to join him.

Feinsod, born in the Polish city of Bialystok, reached Palestine in 1912 and established a system of kindergartens.

Levi, born in Yemen, arrived in Palestine in 1888 and founded a union to promote Jewish labor.

Netter, a French Jew, made his way to Palestine in 1870 and set up an agricultural school to train Jews in working the land.

Each of them, and thousands like them, endured unimaginable hardship — hunger, disease, isolation, fear. But they came.

It is because of those like them that today there is — yes, there is! — Israel.

A state celebrating its 50th birthday. And while it is true that every anniversary of the independent, sovereign Jewish state is special and precious, the 50th anniversary is extra special and very precious. Fifty is, after all, not just another number in Jewish tradition. It is a biblical number.

We count seven sabbatical years, the year that comes every seven years. And then we celebrate the 50th year as a year of jubilee. The Torah, in Leviticus, tells us, "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year."

If Israel is the Bible brought to life in our time, its 50th anniversary is a time of special reflection, special awe and special joy.

Of course, we are in the midst of a time of despair for Israel, of bitterness over the battle for religious pluralism, of concern over the breakdown of the peace process. It is a time of neither peace nor war, with both possible, with neither likely. All in all, it is a time that hasn't put Jews there or here in a very festive mood.

It shouldn't be so. If you have a problem at work or aren't feeling well or you're late paying your mortgage, does that cause you to ignore your own birthday? Of course not. Indeed, hard times can often amplify the need for celebration, for perspective, for an oasis to remember all that is good.

Sure, there are things going on that I and others don't like, decisions I don't agree with. But then, there are decisions of the U.S. government I don't like, decisions of my synagogue I don't like, decisions the manager of my favorite baseball team makes that I don't like. And yet, I still root for the team, still attend services, still am a loyal American — still am a lover of Israel.

Beyond all this, there is so much to be grateful for. Israel is more secure than it has ever been, has peace treaties with two of its neighbors, relations with most of the world. Pluralism may be fought over, but, thank God, there are all kinds of Jews to fight over it.

Look at what Israel has accomplished in 50 short years. It has taken a desert and made it bloom, taken a backward piece of land and turned it into a technological wonder, taken the scattered remnants of a decimated, disheartened people and created a vibrant, democratic society, and become a place of unparalleled Jewish learning and Jewish living.

That's a list we hear often, perhaps too often and too glibly, so we have become numb to the stunning achievements Israel represents, to the incredible accomplishment that it is.

When I think of Israel's 50th anniversary, I think of all the things Israel and Israelis do that drive me up a wall.

But then, since when have Jews gotten along, agreed about anything? Indeed, the Talmud is nothing so much as a compilation of disagreements. We've always seen things differently, always tried to convince the other, tried to harangue, tried to win.

It's never been a particularly neat or clean process, but it's always worked.

So why should Israel be different? We can really let our hair down, really go at it as we each put forth our views of how the Jewish state should be run, what the Jewish state should be. It's nice to have a state to fight about.

I am grateful to be living in the time when there is a state of Israel. Yes, there is a state of Israel. Think it. Feel it. Am Yisrael Chai. Something to celebrate. It's good to be back home!