Israel's 60th anniversary

WASHINGTON -- Israel turns 60 on Thursday (May 8). American's Jewish community looks at the Jewish homeland in a variety of ways, from celebration to caution, and through eyes both secular and religious.

Six prominent American Jews weigh in on Israel's milestone, and what the world's only Jewish state can expect in the 21st century. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Is Israel in a better situation today then when it was founded?

A: In many respects, we are in a much better place. Israel was established with 600,000 Jews, now there are well over 5 million. If Israel is a reality, it's a thriving reality, it's rooted in the soil. On the other hand, we thought there would be peace by now.

America and Israel have been strong allies for 60 years. That is rooted, primarily, in a moral case. Geopolitical realities are never irrelevant, but America is a religious country (and) it responds to moral arguments.

Israel is a struggling democracy. I am one of those people who remain confident that as long as the state of Israel remains committed to those values, the United States will remain a good and powerful ally.

-- Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America.

Q: How does Israel impact young Jews today differently from their parents?

A: It's a more complicated relationship. I think that's also true of American Jews' relationship with their own Jewish identity in general. It's less nationalistic, I guess, less "us vs. them." It's much more complicated, and much more fluid. It's not an all-consuming anchor that it once was, although it is for some people.

At the heart of the experience, there is a real love for Israel, but it's a mature love, it's not the love of a child or an infant worshipping its parents. Maybe that's an irony here -- that the younger generation might have a more mature love of Israel and a more mature relationship.

It's sort of like the way they would feel about America -- they would love some things and hate some others.

-- Joshua Neuman, editor and publisher of Heeb, a national magazine for young Jews.

Q: How would you describe Israel to someone who has never been there?

A: There are many different types of Israel, and that's the magical thing. There's a different Israel for the ultra-Orthodox of one kind, and for the ultra-Orthodox of another kind.

I think that's the excitement of the place -- the inherent variety. Each group has in its own imagination, a different version of Israel. Someone will say, "This is the landscape where Abraham walked," and his neighbors will say, "This is where Ishmael walked."

There is no one story. Everyone is cognizant of his or her own story, but they are aware that it is just one story of many. To think that Israeli society succeeds, with all its faults and mistakes, is miraculous.

-- S. Ilan Troen, professor of Israel Studies at Brandeis University

Q: Israel is a little smaller than New Jersey, yet is claimed as holy by three major religions. Isn't that asking for trouble?

A: Maybe that's what God wants us to work out. I think in some way that Jerusalem is a test case for humanity -- can we coexist with people of different religious faiths in one small space? I believe we can.

The test of our time, I believe, is whether we can share a sacred space. That's really what's up for grabs in Jerusalem. The way to make a place sacred is by the way you act and what you do, and the creating of a just society. A place becomes sacred through the actions. The land is only as sacred as the people upon it.

The Bible teaches that if the people of a land act cruelly to each other than the land will throw them out.

-- Rabbi Brian Walsh, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, North America

Q: Is Israel a holy land, a vital concept, or something else entirely?

A: Israel is a holy land in the sense that it holds the potential for tremendous acts of holiness -- beginning with cooperation and mutual understanding among several different peoples and faiths.

I will never forget once when an ultra-Orthodox Jew, an opponent of Jewish statehood because he believed only God's messiah could inaugurate a Jewish state, took me onto his balcony in Jerusalem. He looked out at the dozens of church spires, synagogues and minarets, and said, "Either we will all learn to live and worship God in peace or this place will be Armageddon."

-- Arnold Eisen, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary in New York

Q. Can there be peace in Israel?

A. Even when things are dark and gray and cloudy, we have to believe in peace. And we need to work towards peace, even with people who don't agree with us.

I work with a global initiative for cancer research in 10 countries. There is a communal language for illness. In the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, women are teaching each other to test themselves for breast cancer. It's the exact same problem that the more traditional Arab community faces. If you had this Haredi woman go to an Arab woman and talk ... they could have conversation that a secular person couldn't understand.

We have a shot at influencing people. I'm a dreamer, but it can be done.

-- Hadassah Lieberman, daughter of Holocaust survivors, advocate for women's health issues and wife of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.

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