Israel at 75: Still in my heart


Back in the summer of 2014, I began my column for what was then called The Jewish Voice with the following words: “I confess that I am a liberal Zionist.  I am proudly pro-Israel.  Like almost all Israelis and American Jews, I am also pro-peace.  Though I know that many of my fellow Jews disagree with me, I believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interest of the State of Israel, the world Jewish community, and the community of the world at large.”

This year, as Jewish communities everywhere prepare to celebrate Israel’s 75th birthday on April 26, on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, I affirm my words of nine years ago.

I maintain my long-held position even as Israel’s President Isaac Herzog has recently declared that the nation is facing its gravest crisis since its founding on May 14, 1948: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to emasculate the nation’s Supreme Court, despite his extremely narrow electoral victory (by 30,000 votes out of 4.7 million votes cast), his forming the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history, and his bringing convicted felons into his Cabinet.

Such actions by Netanyahu’s government are widely perceived as an attempt to vitiate or even destroy Israel’s democracy. In addition, the increased violence in the West Bank, resulting in both Jewish settler and Palestinian deaths and injuries, and the February 27 settler act of revenge against the Palestinian town of Huwara, which Herzog called a “pogrom,” have in combination led to ever-larger and more frequent citizen demonstrations against the right-wing government.

My colleague Rabbi Ronald Kronish, who made aliyah with his family in 1976 and has lived in Jerusalem ever since, wrote in a recent blog at the Times of Israel titled, “Imaginary letter to Bibi [Netanyahu] from a concerned citizen”: “Last night (March 11-12) about half a million people demonstrated against your government policies all over Israel in the largest demonstration of civil society in Israeli history.”

What is to become of all this civil and political chaos?  To echo the biblical Amos, “I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet.”

If you are looking for competent political prognostication, please turn to the columns of Brett Stevens and Thomas Friedman, and perhaps to the relatively recent guest column in

The New York Times by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City. What I might add is that we all remind ourselves that Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” means hope!

My personal relationship with Israel is based far more upon what is in my heart than what is in my head; what I feel more than what I think.  My feelings toward Israel sometimes run silent, but they always run deep.

As I sit at my writing table, trying to sort out my emotional connection with Israel, my 14-year-old granddaughter Charlotte is becoming the first of my five grandchildren to visit Eretz Yisrael, where she is spending two weeks, along with about three dozen of her eighth-grade classmates from the Rashi School, in Dedham, Massachusetts.

On one morning, Charlotte arose at 3:30 a.m., Israel time, so she and her peers could climb up the Roman ramp to the top of Masada to see the sun rise over the Jordanian hills on the eastern edge of the Dead Sea, and then to engage in tefilah, Jewish prayer.

After exploring Masada, Charlotte and her classmates carefully hiked down the steep Snake Path and cooled off by floating in the super-salty water of the Dead Sea.   From there, they got back on their tour bus and headed north to Haifa, where they would spend a few days with eighth-graders at their Leo Baeck sister school, learning together and enjoying a Shabbat of home hospitality with the same Leo Baeck students who traveled to the Rashi School in Massachusetts this past December.

Charlotte’s father is my son David, who spent the first semester of his junior year of high school at the Reform Movement’s Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem.  I still have transforming memories of standing by his side at the Hass Promenade, facing north to view the panorama of the Old City and the new Jerusalem radiating gold in the setting sun of erev Shabbat. I picked up a Jerusalem stone that filled my hand and placed it in the very bottom of my backpack, a memento of that ineffable experience, a stone about which the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai comments:  “Jerusalem stone is the only stone which feels pain; there is in it a web of nerves.”

The very next evening, on Nov. 4, 1995, that Jerusalem stone wept; Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated at a rally in Tel Aviv.

Today, this stone sits in a prominent place in my home office. I look at it every day.  I have notified those who need to know that I want that piece of Jerusalem to be placed in my casket on the day I am lowered into my grave.

So, despite all the vexation and negation, the anxiety and uncertainty that plagues Israel during these days of sorrow and pain, I take comfort in knowing that a portion of my DNA flows though my granddaughter Charlotte as she experiences Israel for the first time, but surely not for the only time; she is a living affirmation that am Yisrael chai, Israel lives!

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at