Last week the 22 nations of the Arab League voted against recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
“What’s the big deal?” a reporter from Japan asked me the day after. “Why should Israel have to be declared a Jewish state? Why should anybody care?”
Instead of dealing with the political ramifications, let me address the issue of diversity – biodiversity.
If Israel instead of being a nation were regarded as a rare species, the world would be clamoring for us to thrive. Because we are so unique, a very small percentage of the world population, our endangered status would earn us some sort of protected designation.
For example, there are about 350 million people in the 22 Arab states, ninety percent of them Muslim. Israel is a small fraction of that number with 8 million people in total; the number of Jews stands at about 6 million. Yet instead of honoring us as a unique people in the Middle East, there are too many who prefer that we would be extinct.
Start with Israel’s unique character.
It is the only Jewish country in the world: the only country that follows a Jewish calendar, that keeps the Jewish holidays, that recognizes the Jewish Sabbath. Israel is the only country where people speak the language the Bible was written in, where children learn the aleph beit in nursery school. This little sliver of country, smaller than the size of New Jersey, is the only country in the world where Jews are a majority, the only country in the world where there are more synagogues than churches or mosques. It is the only country governed by the Jewish people, the only country where Jewish schoolchildren study Jewish history and culture in pubic school. It is the only country where the walls of the legislature have pictures of Jewish heroes. It is the only country that creates Jewish history.
My children know the Hebrew months better than the Gregorian calendar. They know the names of the plants and trees that grow here. They know that Chanukah is not the major holiday in this country but that Passover supersedes it. They know that our new year comes in the fall, not in January. They know that when the almond trees bloom, the holiday of Tu B’Shvat is soon to arrive. They know the intimate connection between the land and the culture.
Israel is the only country in the world that observes the Jewish shmita, the resting of the land on the seventh year. It is the only country where in synagogue, those with a priestly heritage bless the people each Sabbath. It is the only country that has the Kotel [Western Wall], the remains of the ancient Jewish temple.
Israel is the only country on earth that is the Jewish homeland, a haven for the Jewish people. There is no other.
Moreover, the Bible refers over and over to Jerusalem and Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Rashi, the commentator on the Bible who lived over 1000 years ago, in the first commentary on the Bible asks why if the Torah is a book of Jewish law, do we begin with the creation of the world. He says that there will be a time when the nations of the world will claim that the Jews stole the land of Israel. God tells the story of creation to establish that the land of Israel is a divine promise to the Jewish people.
We did not steal this country. For centuries, the Jewish people have lived here and longed to return to the country of Israel. Each Passover, we have said next year in Jerusalem. There is no other country whose liturgy focuses exclusively on Jerusalem and Israel, no country whose prayers are always directed toward Jerusalem. In fact, Muslims pray toward Mecca, toward Saudi Arabia.
And we will not let the Arab League steal our identity from us. Identity is a mark of meaning, of significance. It is the deepest part of a person, their heart, and determines their relationships in this world, with themselves and others. Identity is what gives a person a sense of self respect and integrity and mission. Similarly a nation’s identity determines its sense of integrity, its purpose in the world. The unique Jewish identity that blossoms only in the Jewish state should be praised and honored, because it may be that our mission can only be carried out when we as well as others respect our identity. Then we can fulfill our divine purpose: to be a blessing to the world.