Israel is about to turn 60 and the silence, outside of the Jewish community, is deafening. To date I have seen virtually no mention of the milestone in anything but Jewish publications.
Israel’s monumental achievement, the fact that this tiny country with its neighbors hell-bent on eliminating it has somehow managed to survive, does not seem to be much of a story outside the Jewish world. Some would say this is appropriate. Israel is, after all, a Jewish state. Why should anyone else care?
But on another level the fact that no one seems to be celebrating along with the Jews speaks volumes of our failure. Israel, it seems, has lost its ability to inspire all but Jews and evangelical Christians. These two groups see Israel’s creation and survival as possessing world-historical meaning. But to the rest of the world Israel is a country that is in the headlines because of bombs and battles. So the world is saying, no offense to you Jews, but what does your anniversary have to do with us?
But wait a second. The anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was commemorated recently not just by African-Americans and not just in the United States but around the world – including in Israel. And this is because the movement that King led, while focused primarily on the plight of blacks in the South, was seen as a global cry for freedom and justice.
The civil rights movement portended an end to racism and irrational prejudice in every corner of the globe. Thus, it has significance for people everywhere. But was Zionism at one time not viewed in the same light? Was it not also a movement by an oppressed people, persecuted in every land in which they resided, to find a home where they could live in peace and freedom? Has it now become a movement that speaks to none but Jews alone?
I believe we Jews have unwittingly contributed to the insular and exclusivist mindset that has made Israel a Jewish-only project. And sixty years into the project, we must start thinking differently.
Two great mistakes have been made by the global Jewish community with regards to Israel. The first was to portray Israel as a modern entity with negligible historical roots. The second was to portray Israel as a Jewish-only entity with little relevance to the rest of the world.
Mistake number one is captured by a conversation I had with a businessman who told me a few months back that he was concerned that Israel’s emphasis on its 60th birthday might feed Arab propaganda that Israel is a modern entity – created by European-Jewish colonialists – that has usurped Arab land. Instead of calling this Israel’s 60th birthday party, he argued, why not have a different motto, something along the lines of “Three Thousand Plus Sixty,” that captures the uninterrupted nature of the Jewish people’s attachment to its ancestral homeland?
He had a point.
Every few years I travel to South Africa for book tours. Black South Africans, while receptive to Jews, can be ambivalent about Israel. To them Israelis seem like white people who colonized the darker-skinned inhabitants of a land not their own. The parallel to apartheid South Africa creates immediate sympathy for the Palestinian side.
I respond by telling my African hosts that the parallel between the two stories is really the reverse. Like black Africans in their land, the Jews were the original people who inhabited ancient Israel. Then the Romans came, colonized the land, decimated the Jewish population, and exiled the Jews to Europe and other parts of the Empire. But the Jews never lost a connection to their ancestral home, prayed every day to return, and a sizable Jewish minority remained even after the exile. Then, two thousand years later, when the opportunity and resources presented themselves, we began to reconstitute ourselves as a sovereign entity.
The second mistake, making Israel something of only Jewish concern, is captured in the most successful and visionary Jewish program of our time, Birthright Israel. Birthright is nothing short of a miracle, and one of the reasons I so revere my friend Michael Steinhardt and his counterpart Charles Bronfman is because of their foresight in seeing just how inspirational the modern Jewish state could be to disaffected Jewish youth.
But why stop there? Israel has the power to inspire non-Jewish youth as well.
The Jews are history’s most influential people, having given the modern world its three foundations: God (universal brotherhood), the Ten Commandments (law), and the Messiah (progress aimed at perfecting the world). Those ideas were all born in the very soil of Israel, the world epicenter of faith and spiritual transcendence.
But that’s not how the modern world sees it. India and Tibet have become the place of pilgrimage for Westerners seeking enlightenment. Just look at the level of sympathy the world rightly has for Tibet’s struggle against China versus the seeming lack of sympathy for Israel’s struggle against terrorism. That’s because the world feels it has a stake in Tibet’s welfare.
The Dalai Lama has successfully portrayed his homeland as a place from which light shines to the entire earth and not just Buddhists. Should we not portray Israel in the same authentic light?
I believe that of all the presents we can give Israel as it turns “Three Thousand Plus Sixty,” none would be more helpful than to inaugurate a Birthright for non-Jewish youth program that would seek to bring 50,000 non-Jewish students from around the world to Israel every year. Campuses are the venues where Israel is most attacked in the West today. Why not expose non-Jewish students to how stirring Israel is and give them a stake in its future?
I’m supposed to be leading a press and media Birthright Trip to Israel for Mayanot this summer. Many of my non-Jewish colleagues in the media have practically begged me to attend. Birthright alumni from all over the globe will tell you the same. Their non-Jewish friends are envious of the transformative trip to Israel that right now is the preserve of Jewish youth alone.
As for the cost, churches all over the U.S. would contribute, as would non-Jewish philanthropists and foundations sympathetic to Israel. And it would be the best PR Israel ever had.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts a daily radio show in the United States and has just published “The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him.” Visit his website, www.shmuley.com.