The anniversary of Israel's founding cannot be treated as just another day on the calendar. Put simply, the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel 60 years ago was the pivotal moment in modern Jewish history.
The existence of a State of Israel changed the life of every Jew on this planet. It didn't matter whether you were Zionist or not, or whether you were religious or not. Having a Jewish state enabled all Jews in the world to hold their heads up a little higher, and to live their lives with more pride and self-respect than before.
The people of Israel have spent the last 60 years struggling to absorb millions of Jewish refugees from all over the world, as well as to build a modern nation while being forced to defend themselves from an Arab and Muslim siege whose purpose was destruction.
American Jews have participated in the saga of Israel in various ways. We have raised money, and helped pay for immigrant absorption and the building of infrastructure. We have also used our political skills to help build a bipartisan consensus in favor of the alliance between the United States and Israel.
But the interaction between our two communities has not been one-sided. It is vital for Jews in the United States to understand that what they can get in return is no less precious.
As Israel's 60th birthday is noted this spring with the customary parties, concerts, parades and fairs, we would do well to consider that the point of all this hoopla is not so much for the sake of the Israelis, but for ourselves as well. The point of the party is not just the amazing accomplishments of the Israelis, but that its continuance is absolutely essential to all of the Jewish people wherever they live.
As much as the predictions of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, were fulfilled by the creation of the state, the insights of his contemporary, the writer Asher Ginsberg, better known by his pen name, Ahad Ha'am, are now just as important.
Above and beyond the political and security implications of Zionism, Ahad Ha'am believed that it would serve to build the spiritual center of the Jewish people. And that is exactly what has happened. Israel is the place where Jewish civilization and religion began. But it is now also the place where it continues to flower and grow in a way that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. It is our inspiration for our identity as Jews.
As the success of the Birthright Israel program of free trips for college-age Jewish youth has shown, the ultimate point of the travel and missions to Israel promoted by the community is not so much politics as it is to build Jews.
Though it has prospered, Israel still needs our support. As an American Jewry that is battling to hold on to its identity, we must recognize that the Jewish state is the cornerstone of Jewish identity and culture. The fact is Jews here struggle against the massive pressures of assimilation and ignorance means that we need the Israel more than ever.
Given the tumultuous and divisive nature of its own politics, coupled with that of American Jewry, it is no surprise that Israel's 60th has been the cause for a renewed debate about its imperfections, the need for peace and how we can best assist that struggle.
American Jews have an obligation to stand with the people of Israel and to speak out against those who seek to delegitimize its right to defend itself. Yet the greatest challenge for us is to give our own children a Jewish and Zionist education that will ensure our own future as a community.
So as we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut this week — and pray for Israel's future safety and success — let's remember that what we'll be praying for is something vital to our own well-being, too.