We are living in unprecedented times here in Israel, and we are witnessing history being made. Before moving to Israel, I devoted decades of my life as a professional in the American Jewish community, served on the boards of local and national Jewish organizations, and was an activist in my community. My wife and I moved to Israel in 2021 and chose to realize the historic dream of our ancestors to live as citizens in the Jewish Homeland.
Israel is the Jewish State, but it is also the State of the Jews — a nation for which untold generations of Jews have yearned. We conclude our Passover seders with the affirmation: “Next year in Jerusalem” and we face toward our ancient capital city when we pray. Our prayer books are infused with references to Zion, to Jerusalem, and to the Land of Israel.
Israelis have much to celebrate as we are about to mark 75 years of independence. We are the Start-Up Nation, we have a thriving economy, we have made peace with many former enemies, we have a strong military and intelligence community that keeps us safe, and we provide aid and relief to victims of natural disasters in far-off lands. As was the dream of Israel’s founders, Israel has gathered Jews from across the globe, both as a haven for those seeking refuge, or like me, as a place to live out my commitment to Zionism. We have realized the dream embodied in our national anthem, Hatikvah: “l’hiyot am chofshi b’artzaynu — to live as a free people in our own land.”
Yet we Israelis also face enormous challenges. We are a nation divided along racial, religious, ideological, ethnic, economic, political and cultural lines. We are a nation that has yearned for peace with our Palestinian neighbors, but we have tragically not yet found the means or willpower to live together peacefully, side by side, with them, nor have we ensured their human dignity and national aspirations. We have leaders who are self-serving and corrupt, and who care more about their political careers than what is best for the nation. Americans can surely relate to many of our challenges.
While we are blessed with a thriving civil society, we recently stood on the edge of a precipice of a constitutional crisis, not unlike what could have happened in the USA on Jan. 6, had the insurrectionist prevailed. Unfortunately, the current pause in the fierce protests that have erupted in response to the Netanyahu coalition’s plans for judicial reform is just that: a few weeks of calm as we celebrate Passover, our day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers who gave their lives to protect us, and to celebrate 75 years of independence.
In 1948, David Ben-Gurion and the other co-signers of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed a remarkable document permeating with Jewish values. In part it reads: “…[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
Those words are inextricably rooted in our Jewish values and teachings. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — justice, justice shall you pursue” is but one of countless Jewish teachings that guide us as a people. There was never any doubt in the minds of Israel’s founders that this nation would flourish as a democracy, a hallmark of which is a system of immutable checks and balances.
I am immensely proud of the enormous array of Israelis — young and old, rich and poor, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, native-born Israelis and immigrants, high-tech and low-tech workers — who protested this government’s actions over many weeks and months, even on Saturday nights, before the start of the work week. It is deeply heartening and reaffirming to witness this remarkable expression of Israelis who love their nation and who understand that democracy requires an independent judiciary, a system of meaningful checks and balances, and the reigning-in of those who seek to subvert these values.
As the State of the Jews — which represents our Jewish values — Jews from around the world have a right and a duty to raise their voices in protest. The crossing of these red lines must empower Jews worldwide when any Israeli government seeks to erode our fundamental Jewish values and darken the vision of Israel as a Light Unto the Nations rooted in democracy, justice, and freedom for all its inhabitants. ■
Ralph Grunewald served in senior professional positions with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Jewish Committee, Hillel International, The Israel Project, and the Jewish Federation of Howard County, and is founding chair of the Jewish Electorate Institute.