In Mexico City last May, I completed a third round of teacher workshops about Israel for several dozen Jewish day school educators. This was my third trip there over the last decade where dedicated teachers again eagerly absorbed more Zionist content for their students. Our most dynamic session focused on an open-ended question, “Where has Zionism succeeded?” The question was prompted by the context of Israel about to turn 75 in May 2023.
The teachers’ answers were positive, complex, and nuanced. Yes, the Jewish state created Israeli sovereignty, but even with a Jewish majority, it did not generate full Jewish security. Yes, Israel did, to some degree, normalize Jewish physical conditions world – wide, but it did not eradicate anti-Semitism.
Yes, Israel’s existence did persuade some Jews to immigrate there, but Zionism/Israel did not fulfill the objective of ‘in-gathering’ all the Jews from exile. Yes, Israel has earned a measure of peace with some of its neighbors, but with others, it remains at detested levels of hostilities.
Yes, Israel grew from its limited socialist origins to build a dynamic and diversified capitalist economy, but the country stands unequal in how wealth is distributed or shared. Yes, Israel chose to be a majority Jewish state, but still has major societal ruptures in deciding which religious and gender rules apply. All the teachers agreed that Israel is a haven for Jewish living; it is a beacon for Jewish culture and a vital magnet for diaspora Jewry.
One Sunday morning while there, I spoke to 2,100 enthusiastic Evangelical Christians. Their understanding about Israel’s history was far less nuanced and more absolute. Two talks were delivered in English with simultaneous Spanish translation: one on the status of Arab-Israeli conflict and the other on the evolution of the modern State of Israel, or how Jews built the state.
After years of college teaching and presentations at all sorts of venues, I had never experienced total attentiveness to any talk I had ever given previously, and, throughout this presentation a large Israeli flag was waved constantly from the sanctuary’s balcony. When I left the stage, the pastor put his arm on my shoulder and said in his halting English, “Israel was not created because six million Jews died at the hands of Nazis. Jews succeeded because of their belief in maintaining faith; they needed to make modern Israel.”
As we roll toward Israel@75 and the new year, lets remember that Israel has its working attributes and contradictions; overall, it possesses deep uncontestable value. It remains unfinished. There is virtue, pride, and need for a place where Jews are a “free people in their own land.”
Ken Stein is professor emeritus at Emory University and president of the Center for Israel Education.