Al Gore, Billy Crystal, Donna Karan, Elaine Page, Ian McEwan, James Taylor, Olivia Newton John, Ozzy Osbourne, Samuel L. Jackson, and Trevor Brooking.
This varied list of celebrities share one thing in common, and they share it with the State of Israel: all of them were born in 1948.
It is strange to compare the age of a country with that of a person; most countries are far too old.
None of the people in this list appear particularly old. The men in the group have not yet even reached the age for retirement. And Israel shares her year of birth with them.
I always find it amazing to think that when my grandparents were born Israel as a State did not exist. They were born at a time when maps included no Jewish State, when there was just a British Mandate in Palestine, when a State of Israel remained an unlikely dream.
Sometimes we forget how young a country Israel really is. In a land steeped in history we forget that that this State has existed for just over sixty years. We forget that it was only on the 29th November 1947, that Jews across the world gathered around their radios to listen to the results of the UN Partition Plan for Palestine.
And in 62 short years, while surrounded by enemies, facing unparalleled threats; Israel has established herself as a shining beacon for the Middle East and the entire world. I could fill several sermons listing Israel’s successes and achievements. In the fields of medicine, computing, the environment and science, Israel is a world leader. In 62 years Israel has established herself as a country of museums, universities, technology, publishing, and industry. And she has done this while facing continuous real and existential threats from the countries that surround her.
This week we will mark Israel 62nd birthday. But the calendar does not allow us to leap straight into celebration. Before we can rejoice, we must remember. This Sunday evening Yom HaZikaron will begin; the Day of Remembrance for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. People will light Yahrzeit candles in memory of friends and family who have died. In Israel the cemeteries will be full as people visit loved ones. And at 11:00am on Monday there will be two minutes of silence as the country is united in memory and grief.
During the two years in which I lived in Israel Yom HaZikaron was one of those peak experiences. I remember watching as the entire country came to a halt. A siren sounded, and all of a sudden the hustle and bustle of daily life stopped; people got out of their cars, and stood, heads bowed in silence. For two minutes there was complete and utter silence; for two minutes the people were united in memory, prayer and grief.
One of the amazing things about Israel is the way in which life continues despite tragedy, trial and tribulation. And on the evening of Yom HaZikaron the mood is transformed. After a day of solemnity, spent remembering the fallen, the country transitions from sadness to joy, from loss to celebration, and from the past into the future. The Day of Independence – Yom HaAtzmaut sweeps across Israel, as the country is united in celebration of Israel’s birth. There is an intensity to the celebration, as though the people are still uncertain about Israel’s existence, they are still unsure as to whether it has all been a dream.
As Jews living in Britain we share a complicated connection with Israel. I would hope that we all feel a bond with the Jewish State in our ancestral homeland. I hope that we share in both the sadness of Yom HaZikaron and the celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, but it can sometimes be difficult.
We may sometimes be uneasy with the policies which the Government of Israel pursue. We may feel alienated when we see the way in which Reform Jews are treated. And we may feel demoralised as the British press attack, condemn and challenge the Jewish State.
When I think of our relationship with Israel, I think that the model of friendship may be the best way in which we can characterise it. As friends, we share in the sorrow and sadness of Yom HaZikaron, and we join in the celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut. But there is a responsibility which comes with real friendship. A friend is a person who challenges us to be the best that we can be, who picks us up when we have fallen, who is there for us through the good times and the bad.
As a true friend to Israel we have to be prepared to challenge her to be the best she can be. We must stand up to her when she seeks to further erode the rights of Reform Jews in the Jewish homeland, cautioning her about the message it sends. We must be willing to shine a light on her actions so that she can see how they are perceived in the cold light of day. Recently when US Vice-President Joe Biden was in Israel, he was embarrassed as an announcement was made about the continued building of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. Thomas Friedman, an American journalist and friend of Israel, wrote in the New York Times, there should be a ‘message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk.’ There is a critical responsibility to friendship.
And simultaneously we have to be there to help pick Israel up when she has fallen. We have to be there to support her as she continues to strive for peace with her neighbours. We must be the loudest voices shouting about Ahmadinejad and others who threaten to wipe her off the map. We know that what may sound like rhetoric can quickly become reality. And as friends we must be her first line of defence in British public opinion and in the wider European community.
But most importantly a friendship means being there in good times and in bad. It was easy to be Israel’s friend when she was the underdog surrounded by hostile neighbours, it was easy when Begin made peace with Egypt and Rabin made peace with Jordan. Today it may be a little more difficult. But as friends we must remain firmly by her side when times are hard, when she is challenged, and when she is faltering. We are friends not just for the good times; we are friends for all times.
It is easy to forget that Israel is just 62 years old. In comparison with most other countries she is still a child, still feeling her way in a world which is all too often cold and hostile.
I think back, once again, to my grandparents’ generation. Go back to the late 1930s or early 1940s, and imagine if we could tell the Jews of that period that in 2010 there will be a Jewish State in the land of Israel celebrating her 62nd birthday. Imagine if we could tell them about Israel.
Share with them how this State has provided a haven for persecuted Jews from Europe, from Arab countries and from across the Globe. Tell them about how the Israel Defenece Force has protected Jews and Israelis, and brought relief to countless others around the world. And tell them about the ways in which Jewish culture, identity, language and pride has been reborn in this new State.
Imagine what that generation would say if they could see just a fraction of Israel’s successes and achievements?
We are the lucky ones. We are the ones who live at a time when there is a Jewish State in the Land of Israel. Our reality is something which our people prayed and yearned for over almost two thousand years.
Israel is still only 62 years old and she has already achieved so much. This week we will join her in mourning on Yom HaZikaron, and celebration on Yom HaAtzmaut. As friends we celebrate her achievements, take pride in her successes, and look forward to a future full of endless possibilities for this very special country.