Happy Birthday Israel!

What the Country Means to American Jews on its Forty-Ninth Anniversary

Today the state of Israel turns 49 years old. Throughout the land of Israel there is singing and dancing. The country is one big party from the mountains of the north unto the desert of the south.

In American Jewish communities, today is also a day of celebration. Many Jews at Harvard gathered last night to commemorate Israel's birthday. But why? America is home to people of a variety of nationalities, yet it seems that very few celebrate the holidays specific to their nation of origin. At first glance, it seems like any sort of nationalist sentiment for any country other than America is wildly out of place here. Yet there is an extremely strong identification with Israel among many American Jews. This phenomenon is even more interesting considering that most of the people who celebrate Israeli Independence Day in this country have no roots that trace directly back to Israel. What prompts this solidarity with Israel that so many American Jews feel, to the point that they celebrate the independence of a nation other than their own?

Israel today is 49. This is not 49 years since the birth of a new political entity, as in the case of so many European nations. Nor is this simply 49 years since the United Nations gained a new voting member. These years are 49 years since a people was given the chance to be reborn. These are 49 years after 1,878 when there was nowhere for the Jews of the world to go. These are 49 years which came only three years after the fires of the crematoria were extinguished for good. These are 49 years of a constant struggle to retain independence and forty nine years of hardship.

The first Jewish settlers of what was then Palestine came with only the clothes on their backs and a shovel in their hands. They transformed the land from swamps into pastures and made the deserts bloom. Later settlers came from all over the world, to hardship and trouble, to the knowledge that their sons would be required to serve in the army first for three years and then in the reserves for the next 30. They came with knowledge that Israel faces a threat to its existence daily, that no decade has passed without a war, and that their sons, their soldiers, might well die in battle. It is said in Israel that there is not a family that has not suffered a death by war. I was there for only seven months and even I met a person who would later die fighting in Lebanon. They came knowing that all their enemies would be within a day's marching distance from their homes. They came knowing the odds against them.

Forty nine years is not a long time. The Crusader occupation of the Holy Land lasted for longer. The United States, in what is still known as the New World, is more than four times as old. Many of our parents and certainly our grandparents were alive when there was no such thing as Israel. But now it is taken for granted that Israel exists. We cannot imagine a world without it. And how do the Jews of America view Israel? The answer to this question is really not clear. For what relevance does a country at least 6000 miles away have to them? What does Israel provide for the American Jew now that most of us see Israel as here to stay?

Maybe Israel is important if only because it gives the American Jew somewhere to go if times get dangerous. After all, Israel has made its mission to accept Jews from anywhere in the world if they want to come, for whatever reason. But since anti-Semitism has never threatened the Jews' place in America, most Jews do not see the security that Israel provides as its most important feature. Our parents saw Israel as a nation of pioneers; a nation whose customs and traditions served as a renewal of Judaism, as a means for Jews to reestablish their culture and traditions in a homeland. But many people in Israel no longer choose to identify with tradition and an increasing number of Jews in America really feel the same way. To the further disadvantage of Zionism, the Zionism displayed by many American Jews seems wildly out of whack with the rest of America. For what other ethnic group divides its national allegiances between two countries, save recent immigrants? Why do Jews consider Zionism to be a positive ideology, when so many people in the world agree with the United Nations resolution that "Zionism is racism"?

The answer to these questions can be found with a little soul searching. The Jews of America see Israel as a triumph of the Jewish spirit. Israel demonstrates the ability of humanity to bounce back, even from the greatest tragedies, to struggle for years with the threat of annihilation, and to create a country that is strong and self providing. Israel is an example of the need for a people to have a home. It is almost impossible for Jews to truly call themselves at home in any country. This is true today as it was over the past 3,000 years. Jewish inter-marriage in this country is another attempt of Jews to establish for themselves a place to truly call home, to allow them to be fully integrated into American society. But which of these two solutions, intermarriage or Israel, allows for both a strengthening of Jewish culture as well as providing a home? Only Israel.

The Jewish religion is ancient. Its foundations have existed since the bronze age. The Jewish people, as well, have been around for over 3,000 years. But the Jewish nation has only existed for the past 49. The question should not be what the purpose of Israel is, but rather how we have existed for so long without it.

Happy birthday Israel, and many happy returns.

Ari Vander Walde, a first-year living in Matthews Hall, is a member of Harvard Students for Israel.