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Israelis should be proud

EFRAT, Israel, May 6 (JTA) — As is the case for a mature adult, the first challenge for Israel as it turns 55 is to “know thyself” — to have a clear sense of who we are by knowing what we stand for, the values and ideals by which and for which we live and, if necessary, for which we are prepared to die. We must define the unique mission that establishes our place in the community of nations. Since we Jews are the People of the Book, who entered the stage of history neither by massive pyramids nor the threatening sword but rather by the force of moral principles such as “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not steal,” we must see to it that the ethical teachings of our national literature remain the basis of education for both our children and our adults. Knowing who you are means being aware of the past, the matrix that formed you, as well as having a vision for your future, the goal to which you are heading. After all, we are a people whose annual cycle of national celebrations begins with Passover, the festival of freedom, which forces us to re-experience our suffering as slaves in Egypt and therefore to love the stranger and aid the downtrodden. Our New Year is a serious time of personal introspection and reevaluation; our solemn Day of Awe teaches us the need for individual responsibility, forgiveness and acceptance of each other. Jewish history and festivals must inform the texture of our society. Hundreds of years before the Romans were exalting “arma virumque cano” — “of armaments and strength do I sing” — our ancient prophets were envisioning an age when “nation will not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war anymore.” And when there is a proud society that has a clear understanding of its fundamental values and overarching goals, each individual need not feel threatened by expressions of different political viewpoints or variations of religious observance. People can talk to each other without shouting at each other, sensitive voices can prevail over ringing cell phones, the culture of debate can supplant the turbulence of argument. If our time-honored and multifaceted Jewish culture can truly become the music of our Israeli civilization, we shall have created a shared medium of communication that can allow for wide differences of expression — religious as well as secular, Sephardi as well as Ashkenazi, land-intoxicated as well as technology-crazed, socialist as well as capitalist. We can begin to learn from each other, instead of always jostling against each other. At age 55, we also can afford to stop apologizing for our right to be, for the legitimacy of our existence. There are presently 21 Arab states in the Middle East. One Jewish state, with clearly defined and secure borders on land where Jews have lived in an unbroken chain for more than 4,000 years, certainly is what we deserve from the community of nations. The corollary of this recognition is our right to defend ourselves against those who would destroy us. When the Arab nations promote the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, that is legitimate — as long as it is a nonterrorist democracy committed to living next to us in peace. But when the Arab nations add their request for a “right of return” — which means the right of 3-4 million descendants of Palestinian refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to resettle in their ancestral homes inside Israel — that is tantamount to the destruction of the Jewish state, and dare not be countenanced. We have every right to demand of our neighbors, as well as of the world community, zero tolerance for terrorism, zero tolerance for suicide bombers and zero tolerance for anti-Semitic incitement. We must shout from the rooftops our basic abhorrence of “occupation,” our unalterable belief that every people has the right to be free. But, at the same time, if an enemy attacks us — forcing us to choose between being “occupiers” or “occupied” — we have no choice but to act as occupiers in self-defense. Even then, however, we must be as humane as possible toward the unfortunates on the other side who are captives of their malevolent and corrupt leaders. Finally, at age 55, we have the right to take pride in our accomplishments, to remember that despite the 21,500 members of the Israel Defense Forces killed in six wars, we have risen from the ashes of Auschwitz to forge a strong and proud nation. We have revived and revitalized our ancient Hebrew language and created a united people out of a rainbow of Jews from diverse ethnic communities and virtually every spectrum of the color line. We have established first-rate universities and centers of Torah learning. We have built state-of-the-art hospitals, developed the economy and grown from 600,000 Jews in 1948 to 5.5 million today. The greatest optimist in 1948 never, ever could have imagined what Israel and God have accomplished in these 55 years.(Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.)