The True Israel Prize Is Unity

For 48 hours last week Israelis put partisanship on hold and frustrations on mute…

The Jerusalem Post

April 24, 2018

The True Israel Prize is Unity

F or 48 hours last week Israelis put partisanship on hold and frustrations on mute. Steering toward the center, we affirmed what unites us. Admittedly, just as emphasizing our exile bonded us with our homeland for 2,000 years, over-emphasizing our Remembrance Day and Independence Day harmony betrayed our fears of fragmenting. Still, healthy democracies need such celebrations; the farmer and the cowboy, leftist and rightist, religious and secular, must, occasionally, be friends.

On Tuesday night, wailing sirens started Remembrance Day, freezing the nation in shared anguish. Beyond the sirens, you feel the day’s seriousness in Emek Refaim’s silenced coffee-shop row. You feel the mourners’ sincerity at the local community center ceremony, as neighbors memorialize lost sons, brothers, friends – their pain contagious. You feel the sorrow the next morning at Efrata elementary school, as sixth graders playact exchanging the blue-and-white tallit for the olive-green fatigues of war – evoking 1973’s Yom Kippur War – and the 2009 Hanukka-time Gaza fight, 26 years later.

You feel our burden as one friend, a father of five, whispers “why must every play be about loss?” And you catch yourself thinking “the noose is tightening” – as we know more and more amazing kids serving in the army, risking everything for us.

Then, pop! – we switch from Remembrance Day’s bleakness to Independence Day’s giddiness. My inner Zionist loves reversing history: on May 14, 1948, our parents flipped from celebrating Israel’s independence to absorbing mortar fire as six Arab armies attacked. Now, we switch from lamenting loss to celebrating victories. Nevertheless, for many, that emotional roller coaster is too steep, too jarring.

The unity, fortunately, persists. We mourn all victims equally, while later singing, dancing and high-fiving as one.

My Independence Day culminated with a prized ticket to the Israel Prize ceremonies. If my 48-hour patriotism binge began local, this was national. If many of the impressions of solidarity in the former were unspoken, here the dedication to national unity was spelled out, and if marginal idealists like me wondered if our leaders got the message, here they articulated it.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett shined as master of ceremonies – and high priest of national unity. He had already wowed many by refuting criticisms for awarding left-wing novelist and activist David Grossman Israel’s highest civic honor. “I know we don’t hold the same political positions, but it makes no difference,” Bennett said, adding, “We’re one nation.”

Now, Bennett recalled once asking his father “are we Ashkenazi or Sephardi?” His father replied: “We’re Jews.” “Even if I could press a button and make us all agree, I wouldn’t press it,” Bennett added, explaining, “We are a people of ideas and of arguments: from the arguments come the ideas.” Still, seeking unity, he preached: “The Right has no monopoly on patriotism, the Left no monopoly on human rights.”

We all cheered the 16 individuals personifying Israel at its best – and Zionism’s six different streams: 

• Miriam Peretz, who lost two sons to war yet still venerates this sovereign Jewish state, along with David Levy, one of Israel’s first major Moroccan-born politicians, and one of three million Israeli refugees from antisemitism, represented Political Zionism.

• David Grossman, a patriotic dissident, a leftist critic championing social justice, who delights in writing modern prose using a 4,000-year-old language, represented the continuing Labor Zionist sensibility, as did Ron Ben-Yishai, who broke the Sabra-Shatila massacre story, and Yehuda Harel, the “father of Golan settlements.”

• The high-tech guru Gil Schweid and the business power couple Yehuda and Yehudit Bronicki benefited from the capitalist revolution that began when Revisionist Zionists led by Menachem Begin were elected.

• Elisha Qimron, whose scholarship helped resurrect the Dead Sea Scrolls, Alex Lubotzky, who convinced organizers of a prestigious mathematic conference to reschedule his lecture to respect Shabbat, and Yitzhak Schlesinger, who studies Talmudic expression and psycho- linguistics, represented Religious Zionism.

• Sergui Hart the game theorist and Shlomo Havlin the physicist, Nava Ben-Zvi, who chairs the Israel Center for Excellence in Education, and Edwin Seroussi who studies Israeli music, represented Cultural Zionism, proving that from Zion spring forth ideas, values, arts works and melodies, inspiring Jews – and the rest of the world.

• And Diaspora Zionism, realizing that the Zionist conversation began abroad and must continue there too, was embodied by Natan Sharansky, whose emotional hug with his fellow-prisoner-of-Zion-turned-Israeli- statesman Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, moved many to tears.

Accepting for all the winners, Miriam Peretz recalled her parents’ Hebrew “code words” – Jerusalem, Torah, shalom (peace) and toda (thank you). She toasted “the springs of love” for Israel, for one another, she discovered, despite her pain, preferring “the thorns of my land to all the flowers outside.”

Finally, President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset speaker Edelstein, Supreme Court chief Esther Hayut, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and Bennett bopped along to the oldies but goodies of a mass sing-along, looking like kids in Zionist summer camp, not Israel’s tough, often squabbling leaders.

While both Bennett’s and Peretz’s we-are-one speeches would fit nicely in a Hebrew edition of The Zionist Ideas – were a publisher to emerge (hint, hint) – the Zionist icon Sharansky summed up the two days magnificently, succinctly: “Today, you’re awarding me the Israel Prize,” he said, but since 1986, “Israel’s been my prize.”

Natalie Portman and other ship-abandoners take note. Appreciating Israel as our prize doesn’t mean agreeing with everything, or everyone. It means appreciating Israel’s accomplishments, defending Israel’s existence, while campaigning now to perfect it.

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Gil Troy  is the author of  The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s . His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. Professor Gil Troy is Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University.

Follow on Twitter  @GilTroy .

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