06/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Maddening Israel I Love and Admire

The "morning after" often affords one a new perspective on the previous night's partner or the party at which one danced. Now that it's two days after Israel Independence Day, it seems like a good time to reflect on a country in which I lived and in which I always am at home. It's time to declare that even after the celebrations (and counter-demonstrations) have abated, Israel really is deserving of the love, admiration, and respect that I, and most Americans, feel for her.

Don't get me wrong, though: mine is a mature love, one that freely acknowledges the many failings and shortcomings in the object of my affection. For example, I am pained by a country that cannot move forward more aggressively in addressing the reality of ruling over more than a million non-citizen residents who want a country of their own. I am concerned about a country in which remarkable financial expansion has widened the gap between "haves" and "have-nots," leaving 25 percent of Israel's children in poverty. I am frustrated to the point of anger at the refusal of Israelis to reign in a state-sponsored rabbinate that rides roughshod over most of Israel's citizens. And that is just for starters.

No, I have no problem admitting that the object of my affection is far from perfect. But, as my father taught me long ago, we love people (and I would add communities, countries, and pretty much anything else), because of some things and despite other things. So I have no problem celebrating Israel and my love of her, not only one day a year, but as often as I can.

I love the fact that Israel generates more life-saving medical research than all of Europe combined. I love the fact that when tragedies happen around the world, whether in Haiti, Indonesia, Turkey, or anywhere else -- tragedies affecting anyone, not only Jews -- Israel stands second to none in providing human relief. I love that Israel is the freest and most democratic country in the Middle East. I love that never again can Jews be homeless and that we have the opportunity to create what we deem will be a truly good society. And I love that all of that is experienced by Israeli Jews as what being Jewish is all about.

I am moved by the notion that in 62 years, Israel has created a highly imperfect but truly admirable experiment in building human dignity and securing human rights. There is much to do, and the dream will not be, in fact cannot be, realized until all people of every nationality and faith share in that process whether as Israelis or as citizens of an independent Palestine. And I will neither sweep the challenges under the rug nor apologize for my love, especially in a world filled with too many people who do one or the other of those things. The pull to either ignore the failings or allow them to blind us to the successes animated a very interesting encounter I had on Israel Independence Day.

In a quite heated exchange among friends, the debate centered on the propriety of reciting Hallel, a selection of Psalms that are sung on Jewish religious festivals. One friend was concerned that, given the amount of human suffering that has come along with the establishment of Israel, such a recitation is inappropriate. Another commented that Israel has nothing for which to apologize and there was no merit to the first position. At this point, a wise friend chimed in with the following remarks, which I copy without named attribution, only because he asked to remain anonymous:

It's worth noting that the Torah reports no display of compassion at the moment of victory over Egypt, i.e., the crossing of the sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's army. Indeed, by reporting that God scolded the angels for singing -- but not the Jewish people -- the Midrash [rabbinic legends produced a thousand years after the Bible, which explain and embellish the biblical narrative] is implicitly teaching us that in the historical moment of salvation, it may be unrealistic to expect compassion from those who are saved. Many hundreds of years lie between that moment and the establishment of Hallel -- years in which victory over Egypt was not daily called into question, and thus years in which there was room for us as a nation to become cognizant of the human cost, on both sides, of our deliverance.

If there is still a State of Israel in three hundred years, we can debate whether we should cut back to half Hallel, or take one falafel ball out of our celebratory meal, to commemorate the enemy dead. But we are still living in the historical moment of salvation, and full-throated thanks is entirely appropriate. That being said, it's important not to dehumanize our enemies -- even today. That's why conduct like banging on Arab shopkeeper's doors on Yom Yerushalayim [the anniversary of Jew's return to the Old City of Jerusalem, a result of the Six Day War of 1967] is abhorrent. And personally it is the reason I say "v'simkhat olam lechol yoshveha" ["grant secure joy all human beings who live there"] in the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel -- because until all its inhabitants dwell in peace, that peace is not secure. Bottom line: we should say full Hallel with a bracha [a formal blessing at the beginning of the liturgy] today, but not lose sight today or any other day of the fact that the long term goal is not military prowess or victory as its own end, but peace.

I do not agree with everything my friend wrote. I am not willing to wait 300 years to mourn my enemies' losses, and I do not want peace simply so "we" will be more secure. I want peace because I believe with all my heart that all people are entitled to live in peace, security, and dignity. And I am perfectly happy to begin ritualizing those commitments right now, but not at the expense of the celebration of the Israel with which I remain very much in love. Of course, that is not a choice any of us need to make. In fact, one of the larger lessons of this is to learn how to critique that which we love and love that which we criticize. Doing so makes for better love and more ethical critique.