We may be angry at Israel, but thank God we can be

Yesterday was Israel's 50th birthday according to the Hebrew calendar. It has come at a time when many American Jews are increasingly upset with the state of religious affairs in Israel. Many are also angry over the policies of the current Israeli government regarding peace in the Middle East.

It is hard to walk into a Jewish community gathering today without hearing harsh criticism of Israel or its government. This piece is not intended to criticize the critics or the government. Rather, it is to celebrate the fact that there is a Jewish state.

Thank God we can be angry at Israel. We are among the handful of diaspora Jews who have ever been accorded that opportunity. Maimonides could not argue with the Jewish state, nor Rashi, the Baal Shem Tov or the Vilna Gaon, just to name a few giants of our people's history.

The reason is simple. Until 50 years ago, 1,878 years had passed between the end of the last Jewish state and the beginning of a new nation. That was 1,878 years of statelessness and powerlessness.

From the summer of 70 C.E., when the Romans dealt their final blow to the Jewish nation, until May 14, 1948, there was no Jewish state to stir the range of emotions we have felt since Jewish nationalism gave birth to a modern nation-state in our lifetime.

Centuries of Jewish powerlessness, expulsions, pogroms, ghettos and ultimately genocide threatened our people with displacement, death and destruction. The re-empowerment of the Jewish people in the second half of the 20th century has halted that pattern in its tracks.

Because there is a state of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union live safely in freedom rather than remaining entrapped in a cycle of persecution. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews are learning to live in a modern Western society in complete freedom. Hundreds of Jews and Christians from Bosnia have escaped the terror that befell their native land. And Jews from Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and dozens of other countries now live in freedom.

Each time I've had the privilege of visiting Israel, I marvel at the Jewish history etched into the faces of the men, women and children who walk down its streets.

Consider the odds that Israel has had to face: hostile neighbors, lack of natural resources, a commitment to absorb all Jews who come regardless of whether they are a burden to the state, a newly revived language and radically divergent cultural experiences. Is there any other example in history in which a country facing these kinds of difficulties has succeeded in developing within the short span of 50 years a thriving economy, a strong democracy and a vibrant cultural society? Is there any other country that has come close?

American Jews have reason to feel an enormous sense of pride regarding our contributions to Israel — financial and political — which have helped build the young nation. We live in perhaps the strongest diaspora Jewish community in history and have played a constructive role in influencing the American government to use its power to help oppressed world Jewry, including the release of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews.

But the use of that power would have been moot if Israel had not been there in the first place — and had not inspired the movement that led to the opening of the Soviet gates — or if Israel had not been prepared to rescue an entire Ethiopian Jewish population within 36 hours.

While American political leaders have, in recent decades, been responsive to the humanitarian concerns of the American Jewish community, political leaders still must weigh our requests and pleas along with those of other, sometimes competing, views.

In Israel, the starting point has never been to debate what responsibility Israel has for Jews suffering persecution in other nations. Rather, it has been to decide how to rescue them.

Today there are few persecuted Jewish communities left for Israel to help rescue. The threat of imminent war that Israel faced for most of its first 50 years has been greatly reduced through peace treaties and time, although the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could raise the risk once again. The poor economy of an undeveloped country has been largely replaced by thriving biotech, high-tech and scientific industries. Democracy thrives in Israel, sometimes almost too much. And Jewish culture and literature continue to enjoy a remarkable renaissance.

With many of the central challenges confronting Israel under relative control, much greater attention is inevitably being paid to the kind of society Israel has built. This includes debate over the use and misuse of power — both with respect to treatment of Palestinians and with respect to the role of religious political parties in Israeli society. Also, there is mounting concern about growing polarization in Israeli society along religious, ethnic or ideological lines. These issues have clearly had an impact on American Jews' affinity with Israel.

Israel is now entering the second half-century of its re-establishment. As the first Jews in 1,878 years to have a state of our own, we have a duty to maintain a perspective on just how privileged we are. We can and will return to intense debates about Israeli policy. But for now, let us enthusiastically celebrate the miracle that is Israel. And let us shout loud enough to be heard by the people of Israel, "Unqualified congratulations on your magnificent first 50 years."