Today Israelis are celebrating the 74th anniversary of their country’s founding, and many Jews around the world are celebrating with them in tandem. The independence and sovereignty of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel—the fulfillment of political Zionism—is something that binds many Jews together even if they are not Israeli, which is why Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) has a deep resonance beyond Israel’s borders. Across the U.S., children in Jewish schools are dressed today in blue and white and Yom Ha’atzmaut programs and celebrations are an annual feature of programming at synagogues and Jewish institutions. Many North American Jews treat Yom Ha’atzmaut as akin to a universal Jewish holiday rather than a particular Israeli one and have adopted it as their own.
Yet even in celebrating Israel’s independence as an inseparable feature of Jewish life outside of Israel, Yom Ha’atzmaut remains particular to Israel. Israel’s founding and the reestablishment of a Jewish state is indeed a Jewish event, but its commemoration is a reflection of an Israeli political victory—followed by an Israeli military victory—that is appropriately understood as a statement of Israeli nationalism and Israeli political liberation. Israel’s existence impacts Jews the world over no matter where they live, but the proximate and direct impact is on Israelis. As much as American Jews have internalized Yom Ha’atzmaut as part of our own Jewish life and universalized it within the context of Jewish life and identity, it is and should be an Israeli holiday first and foremost.
While non-Israeli Jews should continue to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in its current manifestation, I would suggest that it is also an opportunity to reflect on the larger importance of Jewish independence and Jewish liberation beyond the confines of a Jewish state. After all, the reason that Israeli independence and Zionism are such big parts of North American Jewish life is because they are the political manifestation of Jewish liberation. But Jewish liberation and self-determination extend past Israel as the Jewish state, even as I would argue that Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is a necessary component of that liberation and self-determination. Jewish independence and liberation are also about our right to define ourselves, our right to live free of antisemitism, and our right to express our Jewishness as we see fit.
In the past couple of weeks alone, there are disturbing signs that these aspects of Jewish independence and liberation—ones that we have taken for granted—are under erosion. Much has been made of the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson endorsing BDS and rejecting its past stance opposing it, but the BDS endorsement itself is not what should worry American Jews. While the editors of the daily newspaper at the most famous and arguably most prestigious university in the country are not without impact and influence, a bunch of college kids endorsing BDS under an unattributed collective byline is not going to threaten Israel’s status or standing, and I am firmly of the view that endorsing BDS should be treated from a free speech perspective no differently than condemning BDS. What should worry us is that the same editorial unambiguously asserted that nothing about the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee’s Wall of Resistance—including the first panel that read “Zionism is racism, settler colonialism, white supremacy, apartheid”—was deserving of the “delegitimizing label” of antisemitism.
Note that the Wall of Resistance did not accuse Israel, the Israeli government, or Israeli policies and actions of white supremacy, but rather labeled the idea of Jewish self-determination as white supremacy. This was not opposition to the manifestation of Zionism as it has been carried out by Israel, and not opposition to Israel itself, but opposition to the notion of Jewish nationalism. Still very much free speech, but according to the authority of the Crimson in assessing the Wall of Resistance messages, “nothing about them” can be construed as antisemitism. Jews are entitled to “life, peace, and security,” as the editorial states, but are apparently not entitled to determine that labeling as white supremacy and apartheid the movement for Jewish liberation in the form of a Jewish state, a Jewish homeland, or political self-determination—all of which reflect different conceptions of Zionism— is antisemitic. The debate over whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism, no matter what guise it takes, has been settled! Jewish liberation only goes so far.
This retrograde attitude about the potential boundaries of antisemitism and who gets to define it is sadly not confined to the rarified Cambridge air. This came two days before Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made his now infamous comment that “wise Jewish people say that the biggest antisemites are the Jews themselves” while adding the noxious conspiracy theory that Hitler himself had Jewish roots. Leaving aside the odious nature of blaming Jews for the antisemitism directed against them and declaring that the most potent historical personification of antisemitic evil was actually Jewish, this is another example of creating a very limited framework of what Jewish liberation and independence should look like. In Lavrov’s conception, Jews are fine until they start to object to antisemitism directed their way—such as, say, when a certain foreign minister insists that the Jewish president of Ukraine is actually a Nazi reigning over a Nazi successor regime—after which point they should be blamed for whatever comes their way. In a different way than the Crimson but adhering to the same general theme, some forms of Jewish expression are legitimate while others are not, and it is up to everyone but Jews themselves to decide which is which. Perish the thought that Jews should be allowed to determine how their Judaism manifests itself, and certainly not when it involves anything that could be deemed political.
For Israelis, Yom Ha’atzmaut is about their political independence. For Jews around the world, we should take Yom Ha’atzmaut as an opportunity to celebrate Israeli political independence too, but also to celebrate and insist upon our continued Jewish independence and Jewish liberation. Most of us are Zionists and some of us are not, and Jews ourselves vigorously debate whether anti-Zionism is inherently or automatically antisemitic, but we get to decide whether Zionism is a legitimate or necessary component of Judaism rather than having someone else tell us. Most of us in the U.S. have not been subjected to tangible demonstrations of antisemitism—though too many of us have—but we get to put the blame for that antisemitism where it belongs rather than have someone gaslight the world into thinking that it is Jews who are responsible for the antisemitism from which they suffer. And none of us are Nazis, not only because “Jewish Nazi” is perhaps the most moronic oxymoron that exists in any language, but because Nazis are a relic of a very particular time and place in history. Let’s commemorate this Israeli holiday and put our own spin on it by reminding everyone that we take Jewish independence and liberation seriously, whether that independence and liberation come in the form of a Jewish state or come in the form of our power and freedom to arbitrate our own Jewishness and our own Jewish commitments. Happy Yom Ha’atzmaut!