Thanksgiving is a holiday that unites a very divided and diverse America.
President Abraham Lincoln made a point of proclaiming a national Thanksgiving Day in the middle of the American Civil War on the final Thursday of November 1863.
At a time when the United States may be more polarized than any era since the Civil War, the holiday offers Americans a welcome break from political adversity and bickering. Americans of all backgrounds, religions and races celebrate the holiday, including even the most fervent Orthodox Jews who shun other American traditions and vegans who have found alternatives to the traditional turkey.
By contrast, in Israel, Thanksgiving is celebrated only by American immigrants. The overwhelming majority of Israelis who do not live near American population centers are not even aware the holiday exists.
That is a pity, because Israelis could really use Thanksgiving now, too.
They eat enough turkey. Israelis lead the world in per capita consumption of turkey, eating twice as much as Americans, according to statistics from Israel’s turkey industry, Agriculture Ministry and Foreign Ministry.
Jewish and Muslim Israelis already have plenty of holidays that are about food and family, though we do have a problematic shortage of days off from work that are not on Jewish holidays. Israel has made up for that recently by having days off for five elections in three and a half years.
But the real reason Israelis should celebrate Thanksgiving annually is that unlike Election Day, which divides us, Thanksgiving could unite us.
Israel is just as diverse a country as the United States. There is not one day on the calendar that all Israeli citizens of all backgrounds and religions wholeheartedly celebrate.
Families divided due to different levels of religious observance could come together from all over the country and eat foods grown in the Land of Israel and turkey, which the country produces more than 125,000 tons of annually.
After so many elections, this is the perfect time to institute Thanksgiving in Israel, in an effort to heal the State of Israel, as Lincoln did in his country. Parades could be held and sports could be watched, though Israeli sports may be more depressing than uplifting.
It could even be argued that Israel is a more natural place to observe such a holiday than America.
American children are taught about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, who came to the New World on the Mayflower ship and were assisted in acclimating to the new land by the Native Americans who greeted them and taught them how to farm and eat foods that could be grown there.
The event celebrated as the first Thanksgiving has become subject to historical debate in the US. Even if the Wampanoag and the Mayflower survivors ate a meal together, it was not their initial intention, and the colonists were just taking temporary advantage of the Wampanoag, who in turn used the Europeans to help defeat a rival tribe.
By contrast, the Jews who came to the Land of Israel were not seeking a New World. They were the indigenous people finally returning to the ancestral homeland they never stopped praying for during centuries of forced exile.
Mark Twain wrote in his book Innocents Abroad about how desolate Palestine was when he visited in 1867, before the indigenous Jewish pilgrims and pioneers returned and made the desert bloom.
The success of Israeli agricultural innovation in feeding the people here, as well as in the Third World, is certainly worth celebrating. Israel’s successful hi-tech economy can be revered, as well as its unprecedented success in water conservation that would have made the environmentally conscious Native Americans proud.
Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl wrote in his 1902 book Altneuland that the Jewish state could transport water great distances. His vision and the success of the pioneers who implemented it could be celebrated on Thanksgiving in Israel.
Former diplomat Yoram Ettinger pointed out this week that William Bradford, the leader of the Mayflower and the Governor of the Plymouth Colony, interacted with the Jewish community and enhanced his appreciation of the Five Books of Moses in Holland before initiating the voyage.
“Governor Bradford announced the celebration of Thanksgiving by citing Psalm 107, which constitutes the foundation of the Jewish concept of Thanksgiving, thanking God for ancient and modern time deliverance,” Ettinger wrote. “Bradford was also inspired by the Jewish holidays of Pentecost (Shavuot in Hebrew) and Tabernacles (Sukkot in Hebrew), which highlight the importance of gratitude, and commemorating Thanksgiving for the harvest.”
Proper gratitude for the Land of Israel can be shown by eating turkey, whose Hebrew name, as Ettinger wrote, means both “a chicken from India,” but also “a chicken of gratitude/Thanksgiving.”
Thanksgiving falls this year on Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new Jewish month, when Jews say the Hallel prayer and its signature line Hodu LaHashem Ki Tov, which can be translated as “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good,” or “have turkey for God because it’s good.”
The final reason for celebrating Thanksgiving in the Jewish State is to remind the world and the often hostile international media that we – the People of Israel – are here in the Land of Israel, we belong here and we will always be here, even if we get bad press.
Lincoln, the Pilgrims and most of the Wampanoag are long gone, mostly due to tragic events that became part of history.
We the People of Israel have overcome countless tragedies, and yet we endure, which is clearly an excellent reason for us to be thankful.
Am Israel Chai!
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