This week marks my first Yom Ha’atzmaut as a citizen of the State of Israel. On Aug. 27, just before the start of the Jewish year, I waved goodbye to Pittsburgh and joined my best friend and husband of two weeks in making the leap. We made aliyah and began our journey, both in marriage and in Israel. Israel’s Independence Day falls eight-and-a-half months into this journey and marks the first time that my husband and I can celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as Israelis.
This day is one that I’ve yearned for over the course of many years. Countless Passover Seders have been filled with my overly enthusiastic rendition of “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Ben Gurion Airport security has witnessed my many tear-filled goodbyes as I’ve reached the end of Israel trips, and Yom Ha’atzmauts have been an annual opportunity for me to sport blue-and-white ribbons in my hair and my homemade T-shirt that reads, “I should be in Israel.”
This year, those moments have finally culminated in the fulfilling of my aspiration to make aliyah, and it’s time to celebrate Israel’s independence as a real Israeli. Well now, after years of anticipation, it’s finally time to ask myself: What does Yom Ha’atzmaut mean to me as a citizen of the State of Israel?
In the Diaspora, Israel is often taught to be some sort of mythical heaven on Earth. The land flowing with milk and honey is also the land of picturesque beaches, open-air markets that put American farmers’ markets to shame, and of course, world-class hummus. We are taught to associate Israel with the “Med, Red, and Dead” seas, camel rides and Jerusalem as the infamous City of Gold. Did I mention that you may be eligible for a free 10-day trip?
In all seriousness, this “heaven on Earth” version of Israel really does have its merits. Our merely 66-year-old country boasts the highest ratio of college degrees to population in the world. Israel is credited with creating the technology that has brought us cell phones, instant messaging and medical cameras that can be swallowed in the form of a pill. The Jewish state was home to the creation of drip irrigation, which is now used to help countries worldwide conserve water. Not to mention that anyone who has been to Israel around Chanukah knows that the doughnut selection at this time of year is nothing short of divine.
As I approach my first Independence Day as an Israeli, though, it’s not the camel rides and doughnuts that I’m celebrating. This year, I am politely discarding my rose-colored glasses in favor of celebrating Israel for the state she truly is, at her best and at her worst, at her most inspiring and at her most frustrating.
The same country that boasts the most high-tech companies per capita is also a country in which people’s identity cards look like they were put together with a glue stick and laminated by an elementary school teacher. The country in which people are so trusting and treat each other like family is also the country in which getting through the line to check out at the grocery store is disturbingly reminiscent of “The Hunger Games.” Cell-phone companies are notorious for cheating their customers, making a decent living seems almost impossible, and to buy a home, you’re expected to put 30 per cent or even 40 per cent down.
To celebrate Israel’s independence as an Israeli citizen is to celebrate Israel’s journey since its creation. It is to seriously and honestly evaluate where in that journey she has succeeded and where she still has room to grow. Yom Ha’atzmaut, to me, is no longer as simple as waving a flag and eating a cake with blue-and-white frosting. It is about moving beyond the idealized picture of Israel that so many people promote on its Independence Day in exchange for a deep and truthful analysis of what our young state is doing right and what we need to work on to improve.
On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced the culmination of the hope of 2,000 years by declaring the State of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. A state did not magically appear on that day, springing out of the ground from nothing. What David Ben-Gurion was announcing was a decision on behalf of the Jewish people to take advantage of the incredible opportunity to return to autonomous rule in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. “The creation of the state” was in reality an invitation to create it.
As an Israeli citizen, I now have a front-row seat to both our successes and our failures. Sometimes Israel surpasses my wildest expectations, and sometimes she leaves me more frustrated than I’ve ever been in my life. On this Yom Ha’atzmaut, I see Israel for what she truly is. What I see is a state that I deeply love and am proud to celebrate as a full-fledged citizen.