The two Israels: Balancing Israel of War and Israel of Peace

There’s been a lot of talk in our community lately about this notion of “balance,” particularly around the question of whether Israel supporters should balance their support for Israel with empathy for the enemy.

This is an important subject — balancing the love for our own people with our concern for the world at large. In times of war, as we’ve seen, this search for balance can get quite emotional and tricky.

But while we’ve been focusing so loudly on this particular balancing act, there’s another balancing act that I don’t think we’ve heard enough about.

This one is more introspective and inner-directed, and deals not so much with our enemies as with Israel itself.

It’s the balancing act between the Israel of War and the Israel of Peace. 

Between the Israel that is forced to fight to defend itself and the Israel that wants to live in peace and enjoy life.

Both Israels were on display the other night in front of an overflow crowd at the annual Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel.

On the surface, you’d think the night would be all about the Israel of War.

(In fact, in my case, the “war” started even before I entered the hotel, as I was greeted on the street by anti-Israel demonstrators shouting charming questions like: “Are you going to the war-crimes dinner?”)

Most of the evening, naturally, was dedicated to the IDF. We saw videos of heroic exploits on the battlefield and heard live and moving speeches from those very heroes. (One of the speakers lost an arm in an enemy attack and re-enlisted for combat duty after a long period of rehabilitation.)

Perhaps the most moving speaker of the night was an Israeli mother who lost two sons in combat. It wasn’t only her unspeakable grief that held the crowd. It was her unbroken spirit.

She embodied the two Israels.

Her unbroken spirit and defiance embodied the Israel that must defend itself in order to survive.

Her overwhelming grief embodied an Israel that longs for a day when Israeli mothers won’t have to hear the knock of army officials coming to announce tragic news.

Both Israels seemed embedded in the soldiers, as well. They were warriors, but they were also grudging warriors.

From the humble way they spoke, from their obvious love of life, what came across was that they fought because they had to, not because they wanted to.

It was timely that the event coincided with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which also can be said to embody the two Israels.

As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, the Chanukah story began as a simple story of a military victory, with the stunning success of Judah Maccabee and his followers as they fought for their religious freedom.

But after the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, there were rabbis who thought the holiday should be abolished. Why celebrate a freedom that had been lost?

Because, as Sacks writes, “Freedom may have been lost but hope was not yet lost.”

That’s how the miracle of the oil lasting eight days became the central narrative of Chanukah.

This is a narrative that was born in war and was reborn in light. 

It’s hard not to see the connection with modern-day Israel, a country born in war that has tried desperately to be reborn in light. 

The Israel of War has always made a lot of noise, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Israel is a tiny nation surrounded by enemies with no mercy, and it has to fight like the Maccabees just to survive.

But it’s fascinating to see how, despite all the wars, the Israel of Peace — the one that loves to celebrate life and help the world, the one that embodies the hopeful light of Chanukah — still hangs in there, trying to make noise of its own.

It’s that very Israel we saw near the end of the FIDF dinner, when a female Israeli soldier, backed by Hollywood impresario David Foster, got up to sing an American pop song that brought the house down.

As she sang, I couldn’t help thinking that this same girl might be fighting in a war soon, or might already have fought in one. There on stage was the living contradiction represented by the Israels of War and Peace — a singing soldier.

Maybe, then, this is the balancing act that American supporters of Israel should spend more time reflecting on. It’s a balancing act that is done not in America but in Israel, by a people trying to balance the need to fight with the love to sing, and the pain of grief with the will to live.