August 20, 2019

July 4, 1976: A Historic Day of Independence

It’s the one “Fourth of July” I will never forget. July 4, 1976. It was 37 years ago, and the United States was celebrating it’s bicentennial. Like all good Los Angelenos, we were in Palm Springs for the long weekend. But while the bicentennial festivities dominated the scene, events in Uganda that day would ultimately capture our attention…and our hearts. While America celebrated 200 years of freedom and independence, a tiny nation in the Middle East reminded the entire world – including Americans – what freedom and independence are all about. 

I will never forget seeing my father run from our hotel room to the pool (where most of us were), announcing to us in excitement “Israel liberated the hostages!! They sent commandos to liberate the hostages!!” I will also never forget how someone we had just met that weekend – a non-Jew – jumped into the pool, opened a beer and shouted with joy “Let’s drink to Israel!” I will never forget the feeling of celebration that erupted around the pool, and how everyone – Jew and non-Jew alike – celebrated Israel’s remarkable achievement. We had only American flags to wave, but it felt like we were at a pro-Israel rally. The Jews in the crowd felt that this was one of the greatest moments of Jewish pride ever, and especially as American Jews, we were proud that Israeli/Jewish soldiers carried out this heroic act of freedom and independence on – of all days – the 4th of July.

37 years later, I find myself in Israel on this 4th of July, reflecting on that historic moment. There are many thoughts that come to mind, but one particular verse from this week’s Torah Portion pops out at me: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6). It is mind-boggling, disturbing, and completely against the ethic and spirit of being a Jew, that while we bless the memory of the Entebbe operation’s commander Jonathan Netanyahu (the lone commando to have lost his life during the mission), and while we celebrate the courage of the commandos – religious and secular together — who risked their lives to redeem Jewish captives and save Jewish lives, a debate still rages on in Israel about whether certain segments of Israeli society should be exempt from serving in the IDF because they are “more religious” than others.

Who can stand at Jonathan Netanyahu’s grave, or stare in the eyes of the IDF commandos who carried out this mitzvah of bringing their brothers and sisters home in safety, and say that there are Israeli men who – in the name of God and the Torah – should not serve in the IDF, for they are “more religious than you.” Who and what is a “religious Jew”? How absurd it is that we even engage in this debate! How ridiculous that we even give credence to such a perversion of what it means to be a “Torah-abiding” Jew. How far we have strayed from the spirit of King David, the true role model who combined military prowess as an Israelite warrior and religious devotion to God as the author of the Book of Psalms. How far we have strayed from Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La-Zeh – “All Jews are responsible one for the other.” I am tired of hearing the argument that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boys are displaying their “responsibility towards the Jewish people” by sitting and studying Torah all day. Enough with this silly argument, unprecedented and unheard of in Jewish history. Their Torah study has not only added nothing to the Jewish people or Israeli society, but, tragically, has given Torah a bad name, and has created a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. The very Torah that they profess to follow so closely screams out at us – and at them – this week: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?”

In 1948, when men, women and children alike were fighting Israel’s War of Independence, a group of yeshiva students approached the elderly Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Uziel. They asked for a halakhic exemption from fighting in the war, claiming that Torah study was their contribution to the defense of Israel. He castigated them, telling them he wished he had the strength to “pick up a rifle and participate in the mitzvah of defending Jerusalem.” To prove his point, he joined the Civil Guard in Jerusalem, and when he stood guard at checkpoints, he proudly wore the Civil Guard’s armband on his rabbinical robe.

On this 4th of July, 2013 – 37 years after Jonathan Netanyahu z”l and his troops taught the world what freedom and independence are all about – I pray that Israeli society will soon see a day when all of its citizens – religious and secular alike – will partake in the mitzvah (not the “burden,” as some call it) of defending our one and only Jewish state. When I proudly graduated IDF basic training at a ceremony at the Kotel in 1984, emblazoned in fire above us were words that read: “Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.”

Thank you to Jonathan Netanyahu, and to all of the heroes of the Entebbe mission. 37 years ago, on the Fourth of July, you taught us what it means to be worthy of our freedom.