Why learning about Israel matters Tel Aviv Coastline. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

Whether you are Jewish or non-Jewish, knowing and familiarizing yourself with the history and future of Israel is about knowing your unique origins. It is about embracing a proud story. Jews shaped Zionism and Israel. They intervened in history to grasp and preserve the inalienable right of self-determination. They choose to believe in specific rules and practices, and if necessary, to die for one’s code of beliefs.  Jews made a contract with G-d to be moral, to observe commandments, to transmit their teachings to the next generation.  

Jewish identity was formed around adherence to the Torah, to values, and to community.  When Jews lived perennially as minorities after their expulsion from the Holy Land in 70AD, they existed on the margins of society; they learned that in order to survive they had to adapt their traditions to their surroundings, to manage their environments, to organize themselves for defense and security.  They had to balance the requirements of communal survival with the demands of more prevalent and powerful autocrats who disdained Jews for being Jewish.  Jews came to understand that as a minority and as a repeatedly persecuted one, they needed to plead their cases to the more powerful; in order to make it to the next Sabbath they had to work diligently to prove their worth. They innovated and sometimes made themselves indispensable.   Jews learned to lobby for their cause, to make and sustain relationships. At times, when acceptance was not possible, Jews had to choose to leave a place, leave Judaism or to change their public way of life. Jews and Jewish communities frequently were left with the question, ‘do we go or do we stay?’   

Emek Hefer (region that sits south of Hedera and North of Herzliya, Israel), Palestine, 1934. Photo: Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives

From the middle of the 19th century through the 1920s, millions of Jews considered assimilation, emigration, conversion or revision of their Jewish practice. Precariousness of life and livelihood demanded change. Only a very tiny minority of Jews considered trying to form a state of their own, recalibrating their connection to ancient Israel. Trying to be accepted as equals in Christian Europe proved pretty much unsuccessful.  Anti-Semitism roared through the 19th and 20th centuries; Zionism became a thought and reality where Jews might become secure and practice  freedom. Those concepts were encapsulated in the Hatikvah, (1877), the Jewish/Israeli national anthem, “to be a free people in our land”  (Lihiyot Am Hofshi Be’Artzenu). Zionism evolved as a Jewish national liberation movement, it enticed Jews to move from their European and Middle Eastern origins to the land of Israel. There they built a ‘new” Jewish setting.

(R-L) Zionist leaders Moshe Sharett, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion pictured in 1939. Photo Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives

Jewish commoners from all walks of life left their geographic origins to form a new collective under the umbrella of a state structure. Jews were already a people, a nation; they sought statehood. They built a place where they could they would not be brutalized perennially by kings, czars, dukes, autocrats. The study of Israel and Israelis is of value because it is a story, actually a series of stories of not wallowing in one’s misery, but of turning challenges into opportunities.  They are stories of linking people to a land,  fighting for freedom for themselves and sometimes from Jews throughout the world. Jews wanted to be citizens of a place or under their own flag.  Israeli history is the story of how Jews earned sovereignty, steadfastly crafting their own destiny. Studying Israel is learning about characteristics and qualities that we all should seek and cherish: perseverance, dedication, commitment and sacrifice for one another. Israel’s evolution from a group of disparate people of 24,000 in 1881 to a mass of 650,000 in 1948 was undertaken with zest, drive, and not without mistakes of omission and commission. How did those 650,000 become 8.1 million in 2021? 

Bottom row (L-R) Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Minister of Defense Ezer Weizman, Finance Miniser Simcha Ehrlich, and Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Yadin.  Top row (L-R) Opposition Leader Shimon Peres, MK Yigal Allon, and MK Abba Eban. Photo Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives

In establishing and sustaining a Jewish democracy, Israeli society is challenged as it balances civil liberties with national security, reconciles remaining a Jewish majority while it insures the civil and religious rights of its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. It tests itself daily by finding working balances between its embedded identity to Jewish practice while reconciling contemporary demands for equality of gender, sexual preference, and  racial equality. No apologies are needed for knowing and belonging to Israel’s story. Learning about modern Israel uniquely engages Christians with reinforcement of scripture in their identity to ancient Israel with its prophetic commandments as bedrock in belief.  Studying Israel is understanding and internalizing a core Jewish value of taking care of one’s own, of coming together in times of need and crises, and knowing how to  preserve national security against adversaries that prefer Israel’s moral demise and/or physical destruction.  Studying Israel is the study of a diverse people with a common heritage. It is understanding how they interact with their neighbors and neighborhood seeking acceptance as a state with rights of any other state fulfilling obligations prescribed by international law. 

Israeli soldiers. Photo: Courtesy of United with Israel. 

In 2021, Israel has a population, almost a quarter of whom are Arab, and a state GDP of well over $350 billion.  Seventy-two years after its establishment, Israel is unfinished. It has not achieved finality in determining its borders, the role of religion in state, or its relationships with some of its neighbors.  Israel’s story, with Jewish history as its core, remains complex as it reflects its unending dynamic. And consistently demonstrates for each generation how Jews in good times and bad, shaped their collective destiny as a people, nation, and state.