The Meaning of Yom Ha’azmaut for Jewish Organizations Around the World

yom haatzmaut

For some Jewish organizations, one of the most difficult happy occasions to celebrate is Yom Ha’azmaut, Israel Independence Day. Of course for “Zionist organizations,” meaning those organizations that promote Israel and support for the Jewish state, this is a non-issue. These Israel advocacy organizations and educational institutions develop programs for their constituencies, their students, and the general community that seek to strengthen support and involvement with Israel and to celebrate the miracle of the establishment and continued growth of a Jewish state in today’s world.

Similarly, the religious movements, excluding the anti-Zionist Charedi (Ultra-Orthodox) groups, work to support and strengthen Israel to varying degrees. For the most part, the more right leaning (observant of Jewish law), the more committed the community is to support the Jewish State through philanthropic enterprises, frequent visits to Israel, working on behalf of Israeli nonprofit institutions, advocating for Israel within the political system, participating in demonstrations to support Israel, and fighting against anti-Zionist campaigns in the international arena and in their local countries.

In addition, most Jewish Community Centers recognize the central role that Israel plays within Jewish life. They sponsor educational programs and celebrations that feature Israeli performing artists or focus on the creativity of Israeli writers, material artists, and others. The JCCs’ culture is congruent with the celebration of the State.

However, for many organizations on the continuum stretching from the local Jewish federations and umbrella Jewish communal organizations to social welfare to social action, Yom Ha’azmaut places them in a position of great ambivalence.

Jewish nonprofits that have global concerns for civil liberties and strive to uphold the value of self-determination for oppressed or disenfranchised groups are often in a quandary when it comes to enthusiastically articulating support for Israel. Many such groups have expressed disappointment in Israel’s commitment to guaranteeing the rights of non-Jewish minorities within the state and its unwillingness to move more quickly in reaching a compromise that will lead to peace with the Palestinians. Presently, Israel and Israel’s supporters are struggling to understand and deal with J Street and Jewish Voices for Peace, as examples of the more recent organizational expression of frustration with the formal political structure and policies of the State of Israel.

Some of these Jewish organizations have been founded to advocate for alternative perspectives on the Jewish state. They have engaged openly with Israeli society through, Israeli politicians, and policy makers, as well as with the media and their own government. They do not necessarily celebrate the founding of the State or join in with activities sponsored and implemented by the more establishment organizations.
Yet Israel’s open democratic society, which promotes open debates on all issues, challenges, conflicts, and policies, must not only be heralded but also joyously celebrated. The Middle East is often referred to as a “bad neighborhood,” and the values of the countries surrounding Israel are diametrically opposed to those of the Jewish state.

In spite of differences expressed between Israel and the critical voices within the Jewish community, the celebration of Israel’s independence is a basic component for Jewish unity around the world. Joining in the various celebratory activities – whether they take the form of conferences, debates, musical concerts, parties, or other community-wide events – is understood to be a statement of solidarity, ensuring that these groups’ place within the Jewish family will be recognized. When such organizations develop pragmatic responses to Yom Ha’azmaut, they communicate a message to constituencies, clients, members, donors, as well as staff members. The entire community rejoices with a thriving Jewish democratic state, even if there are flaws in the Israeli system. The criticisms that they may level against Israeli policies and practices will then be seen as coming from inside, rather than as attacks from the outside.

Miracles have to be acclaimed, and when they are less than perfect, then it means we are in a partnership with the Almighty and have to complete the Tikun Olam (completing the creation of the world). Many of us living in Israel do not hesitate to criticize its inadequate provision of health, social, and educational services and the way that the governmental response sometimes either ignores human needs or only responds to them partially. Our task is to complete the establishment and perfection of the Third Commonwealth of the Jewish people. Israel is our opportunity to meet this challenge, and it can only be done with the unity of all the voices of the Jewish people (and their representative organizations).

Let us hope that this Yom Ha’azmaut will be our opportunity to speak with one voice in acknowledging the creation, establishment, and continued thriving of the State of Israel while acknowledging all of the different opinions that are represented by our organizations, agencies, and institutions in Israel and Jewish communities around the world.

Chag Ha’azmaut Sameach!

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.