It’s the most perfect moment of Zionist kitsch, the closest thing young secular Israel has to a national tradition. That moment between the end of Memorial Day and the start of Independence Day when twelve torches are lit behind Theodor Herzl’s tomb to “the glory of the state of Israel.”
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It goes back to the first Independence Day in 1949, when representatives of the various Jewish communities and the Diaspora gathered in the new country were chosen to light the torches. To this day, families gather at home and watch the proceedings on television before going out to parties and open-air concerts.
“It’s one hour without any cynicism, in which we put aside all the shit and focus on the goods thing here,” says one member of the event’s production team. “No one’s saying everything is perfect, but even today people still like to have the one short display of consensus each year.” Every year a special committee chooses a theme for the event and the torch lighters are selected as a tribute to their connection to the theme; this year’s was Jerusalem.
The torch lighters are also there as a checklist for all the different Israeli communities: there’s the old-timer, the ultra-Orthodox woman, the new(ish) immigrant with a heavily accented Hebrew, a parent of a dead soldier or terror victim, someone with a visible handicap, blind or in wheelchair, a couple of celebrities, an Arab and a soldier. Each torch lighter, or pair, has a short message which follows a standard form: They introduce themselves and praise the parts of Israeli society they represent.
There’s always some grumbling about those selected to light the torches. How could there not be? This year the main beef was from veteran Jerusalemites over the fact that most of those chosen to glorify the city don’t even live in it and don’t experience the daily hardships of Israel’s impoverished and dysfunctional capital. The discord usually disappears by the night itself, but this year, the choice of one pair of torch lighters remained particularly jarring.
In a departure from the usual protocol, this year’s twelve torches, originally chosen to represent the biblical twelve tribes, included “the torch of the Jewish people.” Perhaps if billionaire Michael Steinhardt and Rabbi Marvin Hier had made an effort to say their piece in Hebrew, some of the Israelis arguing that it was wrong for non-Israelis to light a torch would have been placated. But there was something so foreign and unsettling about these two elderly American gentlemen at this most Israeli of events that it nearly ruined the evening for many.
The basic argument against the Steinhardt-Hier torch was that this is a ceremony for Israelis, about them and their lives. It’s not for those who don’t live here: For all they may have contributed to the Jewish State, they and their families don’t share in the risks, stresses and sacrifices. But while I sympathize with that argument, I don’t think it should cancel out the inclusion of Diaspora Jews. Only six percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in Israel in 1948 and the raison d’etre of its establishment wasn’t for them, but as a haven for any Jew from around the globe.
Whatever you may think of Zionism, current Israeli politics and the Law of Return-based immigration policy, with over 40 percent of the world’s Jews now residing in Israel, that remains Israel’s basic justification to exist. Whether or not the remaining sixty percent of Jews ever decide or need to emigrate to Israel, it is here for them as well. We should be having a discussion on whether that should still be the case, but until we have that discussion (and perhaps reach different conclusions), Diaspora Jews have a stake in Israel. A stake may not mean a vote or very much influence, but if once in a while they get a torch on Independence Day, it shouldn’t bother us that much.
The problem is not the torch, but the lighters. The choice of Steinhardt and Hier as the representatives of the Jewish people outside Israel highlights all that is wrong about its relationship with the Diaspora. A billionaire philanthropist and an Orthodox rabbi who gave a blessing at President Donald Trump’s inauguration certainly don’t represent the at least eight million Jews living in the Diaspora. If anything, they represent what Israel expects from Diaspora Jews: money and political influence. The symbolic gesture which was somehow designed to honor Jews across the world and their connection to Jerusalem could hardly have been more insulting.
This is how Israel measures the worth of non-Israeli Jews, by how much money they give to Zionist causes like Birthright-Taglit, which Steinhardt co-founded, and their proximity to the ear of foreign leaders. A non-Orthodox rabbi wouldn’t have been selected as a torch lighter, though the Reform and Conservative movements in the U.S. are much larger. A non-American Jew wouldn’t be considered as a representative of the Diaspora, because nowhere else are the Jews so powerful in politics. And of course a pioneering educator or writer or artist who helps in keeping Jewish life alive in the Diaspora is out of the question. They honored Steinhardt because the Birthright trip is built on the premise that a ten-day visit to Israel can be the foundation for a lasting connection to the Jewish people.
Certainly Israel should do what’s good for Israel. But Israel shouldn’t get to define what is good for Jews wherever they live. And a Jewish state with a gross domestic product rivaling many members of the European Union and a military and regional power which punches far above its weight should not base its relationship with the Diaspora on handouts and lobbying.
Ironically, Steinhardt may not have been the richest man on the podium. Prof. Amnon Shashua, founder of Mobileye as well as other high-tech companies, could well be wealthier following Intel’s purchase of his company for $15 billion.
Israel doesn’t need Jewish money anymore, but it keeps on coming. Israelis can’t wean themselves off this dependency and some of the canniest businesspeople in the world continue to give Israel untold millions it doesn’t need, because it somehow fills a void in their Jewish soul. Neither does Israel need Jewish lobbying on foreign governments. All it does is give Netanyahu and like-minded politicians a false feeling of immunity.
There’s something rather provincial in grumbling about the fact that Hier and Steinhardt made their little speech in English rather than questioning what they represent. They weren’t the only ones standing around Herzl’s grave whose mother tongue wasn’t Hebrew.
Prof. Ahmed Eid, head of general surgery at Hadassah Hospital, made his speech, which praised his medical teams and coexistence, in Hebrew. No one asked why he couldn’t use the language he speaks at home, which unlike English is an official language in Israel. He is of course a worthy torch lighter, but many in the Israeli-Arab community, those who insist on calling it the Palestinian-Israeli community, have long criticized the torch lighting ceremony for its “good Arab” tokenism. Perhaps it’s time Diaspora Jews began complaining that Israel is incapable of seeing them as anything other than donors and lobbyists.