How Can I Explain Why Israel is Important to the Jewish People?
Q: My in-laws seem to only focus on the negatives about Israel. I want to steer our conversations away from all the negativity - but not avoiding all the issues of course. Israel is important to me; I've been there four times and feel a real connection. What suggestions or resources can you recommend for turning an Israel smearing into a positive conversation?
A: Thank you for your question! It is wonderful that you want to spark a positive conversation about Israel, especially at a time when there is so much negative misinformation. I have found that sharing the true facts about the country, ancient and modern, is most effective. There is so much of which to be proud!
You ask why Israel is important to the Jewish people. The Jewish connection and attachment to the Land of Israel is as old as the Jewish people, and our people’s love for the land of Israel is expressed every day, throughout our prayers and practices.
The Land of Israel is the Jewish national homeland: the history, faith, religion, culture, and identity of the Jewish people have always been tied to this land which bears our name, from its ancient name of Judea, to its modern name of Israel.
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Israel and Jerusalem hold the deepest, religious significance for Jews; this is the land of our ancestors, the heritage of our children.
The Jewish thumbprint and footprint are everywhere in the land of Israel, from the Golan Heights up north where Jews lived when the ancient Temple still stood in Jerusalem; to Shechem, the place where Joseph is buried, and where the Northern Kingdom of Israel established itself; to Hevron, the oldest Jewish community in the world, where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. Three times each year, on Passover, on Shavuot, and on Sukkot, the Jews made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Exciting new excavations in the City of David in Jerusalem have recently uncovered the very road by which the Israelites would ascend to the holy Temple.
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Jerusalem is our holy city, and every day, we turn toward Jerusalem when we pray.
At Jewish weddings, the couple breaks a glass, showing they place Jerusalem above their highest joy. The ancient sages taught that ten measures of beauty were given to the world; of these, Jerusalem has nine, and the rest of the world has only one.
There has been a continuous Jewish presence in Israel from ancient times to today. Over the millennia, many conquerors tried to consume Israel, but in all of these attempts, the land of Israel remained the country of our people, and Jerusalem has served as the capital of only one nation – that of our Jewish nation.
These facts, long-recognized, despite the misinformation that is currently being circulated, were codified in international law at the San Remo Conference of 1920, a meeting of the Allied Powers of WWI, to decide the future of the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. At this conference, a binding agreement was reached between these world powers "to reconstitute the ancient Jewish State within its historic borders." The desire to restore the Jewish people to their native land was ratified by a unanimous vote of The League of Nations, which then entrusted Great Britain with facilitating Jewish immigration and encouraging "close settlement by Jews on the Land." This mandate affirmed the Jews’ right to settle anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This right has never been superseded by any other legal document.
Since the founding of the modern State of Israel, Israel has built a thriving country that protects the rights of its citizens, protects freedom of religion and ensures that all religions have access to their religious sites - something that was not allowed when Israel was not governing Jerusalem. Israel protects a free press, minority rights, and women's rights in a part of the world where such rights and protections are alien.
Minorities participate in all areas of civic life, serving as professionals in all fields, as justices, and as diplomats. Ishmael Khaldi, Israel's first Bedouin diplomat, stated:
I am a proud Israeli…By any yardstick you choose - educational opportunity, economic development, women and gays' rights, freedom of speech and assembly, legislative representation - Israel's minorities fare far better than any other country in the Middle East.
During the 20th century, when the vast majority of the 850,000 Jews who were living in Arab countries and Iran had to flee for their lives – leaving behind billions of dollars in property in their hundred, or even, thousand-year-old communities - Israel provided a safe haven for approximately 600,000 of these Jewish refugees.
Israel continued to provide a homeland for persecuted Jews, such as Jews from the former Soviet Union, Europe, as well as, Jews from Ethiopia who were saved and brought to Israel through such missions as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. Israel continues to provide a welcoming country for Jews who are fleeing the often violent anti-Semitism that they encounter today around the world.
Israel is a vibrant country of tremendous innovation. Whether in the area of technology, environment, energy, or medicine, Israel works to share her contributions throughout the world. MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, has trained close to 270,000 course participants from approximately 132 countries, in the hope of sharing with developing countries Israel’s innovations and technology in beneficial ways.
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Israel is among the first responders worldwide when natural disasters or emergencies occur, as was seen at the time of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the earthquake in Turkey.
Who can forget Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan? He testified before the United Nations, that "the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare."
It is a Jewish ethic to safeguard and improve the human condition; Israel, as the Jewish state, lives by that guiding principle.
In addition to the specific facts and history, I encourage you to share your own experience of Israel. You said that Israel is important to you, and that you feel a real connection. Share your passion and convictions about Israel; that, coupled with the facts, should have the makings for a wonderful conversation.
Rabbi Jonina Pritzker is the Rabbi of Congregation Or Yisrael, a Conservative congregation in Newton. You are invited to explore all Israel-related events and trips our community has to offer at JewishBoston.com's Israel Connections page.