Like so many others before and since, my first direct experience with the State of Israel involved landing on Israeli soil at Ben Gurion Airport amid a thunder of applause. I'm not sure why the applause caught me by surprise, but it was a wonder-filled occurrence that seemed perfect for the moment. Each passenger on board seemed separately grateful to have arrived in this special place. Whether they were coming home literally or spiritually, each felt a kinship with this "old-new land" and each seemed to welcome this public expression of shared joy.
The newly arrived passengers filed out of the cabin one-by-one and two-by-two: the ultra orthodox with pe'ot, tallit, and head coverings; the students with walkmen and backpacks; the tourists with cameras and guidebooks; and the returning Israelis with shopping bags stuffed to overflowing with hard-to-find goodies for family and friends. Our diversity was as exciting as the land to which we came. As we reached the tarmac, some fell on their knees and kissed the ground. The thick layer of asphalt didn't matter--it was still holy ground. Others greeted waiting relatives with loud shouts, generous hugs, and large wet kisses. Still others marched smartly through customs, got their passports stamped, and turned to meet Israel on their own private terms.
As with most first-time visitors, the wonder of Israel was my constant companion. The past and the present met in ways that were at once imperfect and sublime. I could not resist simultaneous images of David and Jonathan, of Zionist pioneers taming and defending the land, and of contemporary Israelis in all their variety and vitality. It now seems natural to me that the immediacy of history has transformed every Israeli into a historian (though not necessarily a good one!). The assassination of Rabin, the '48 War for Independence, and the Revolt of the Maccabees--all are equally important. Each has a direct impact on the events of both present and future. The ancient past and the ancient language of Israel are as clear and relevant as today's headlines.
The very air of Israel was and is filled with excitement. People and landscapes merge to reflect the past and the future with a magic and energy that seem almost impossible to imagine anywhere else. Israel is not just a place, it's a frame of mind. One might even say that Israel is a worldview--albeit one with as many facets as there are individuals caught in its web. And the worldview of Israel is still Zionist at its core. If there is a point of agreement between the friends and foes of Israel, between secular and religious Israelis, between Jews and Arabs, or between Zionist and anti-Zionist activists, it is that Zionism has provided the undergirding of strength and unity upon which the modern State of Israel was established and has been preserved.
After more than 60 years as a nation-state, it is important to ask about how Israel will move forward into her next 60 years--and into her next 120 years. Are her leaders determined to fortify the Zionist dream by encouraging Israel's continued diversity? Or would they destroy it by imposing a theocratic interpretation that would determine who is and is not a Jew? who may and may not become or remain an Israeli? Will they build on the past to strengthen the future? Or would they return to some singular aspect of the past to recreate the future in that image? In no other land is the past more important to the present and the future than it is in Israel.
Thus Israel is yet again at a key crossroad. Modern Zionists cannot afford to be apathetic about the direction taken by Israel and her government. The result will determine whether the Israeli jewel will continue its multifaceted sparkle, or whether it will be reduced to the dull sheen of a monochromatic Middle Eastern theocracy--Jewish rather than Muslim in its content. The future of Israel deserves to continue reflecting the diversity of her past and present, to continue reflecting the tolerance and common-sense approach toward ethnic and religious minorities that characterized most of the founders of modern Zionism. Anything less would diminish Israel's standing as a modern democracy and her fundamental character. What a sad fate that would be for the Zionist dream that has thus far accomplished so much with so little.