April 9, 2024
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It’s 1841 All Over Again

In 1841, when America was 65 years old, John Tyler was the third President the United States had in five weeks. After William Harrison defeated President Van Buren and assumed office, the poor fellow lived only one month before succumbing to a vicious case of pneumonia. Imagine that—three Presidents in five weeks. Historians at the time no doubt gushed that such an occurrence would never again be witnessed in the annals of the United States of America.

And the Amistad case of 1841 was simply stunning. The Supreme Court had just completed its ruling in favor of the Africans who were illegally enslaved as they descended the glorious ship Amistad. They were freed, and experts were already calling the decision the most important ruling ever in the ongoing debate over slavery.

Of course, historians would be correct on news item number one, but incorrect on news item two, thanks to the renowned “Dred Scott Decision” only 16 years later, whereby the Supreme Court ruled against slaves seeking their freedom under certain unforeseen conditions.

Why am I writing about this year in particular? Because the year 2013 is the State of Israel’s 65th birthday, and the parallels, such as they are, are interesting.

To claim a true parallel between both countries would be foolish. To study the vast challenges facing each nation at this point in their histories and to declare one more difficult than the other would be unfair. But still, I can’t resist asking the question, after 65 years of existence, which country’s accomplishments have been more impressive?

Israel has been the subject of several books extolling is technological and medical contributions to society. Google is about to gobble up the traffic app, WAZE, for $1 billion. Israel has shown the world that a democracy can exist and thrive in the Middle East. Then again, were it not for the—gulp—United Nations, Israel may never have been formally recognized. Did we have Yad Hashem, the hand of God with us? Did not the United States?

America’s forefathers had no one before them to emulate. In 1841, much less 1776, medical and technological advances were unheard of, unimaginable dreams. “Savage” Indians were rampant, and one’s life expectancy was nowhere near what it is today.

Then again, America was still two decades away from a Civil War, and multiple decades away from World War I and World War II. God only knows what awaits the State of Israel.

It’s a question I find myself contemplating often. After 65 years, just how far has Israel come? Students, compare and contrast Israel of 2013 to America in 1841.

In the meantime there is one thing of which I am certain. An American writing about America and evaluating its place in the world is appropriate. When writing about Israel here in America, we are but a mere side-bar in the unfolding history of the Jewish State. It’s almost part of the Jewish religion to opine, discuss, disagree and argue about most every aspect of the Israeli life and culture, even when we don’t live there and have no first hand knowledge.

Yet if I want to write the headlines, if I want to shape Israel’s future, I can and should only do it from there. Whether it be the Women of the Wall or the HaBayit Hayehudi Party, Shas or Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, if I want to help shape what Israel will look like in 2185, on its 237th anniversary, the anniversary America will celebrate this year, then I need to do it from there.

As for what the future holds for Israel, none of us can possibly have any idea as to who is right and who is wrong, and how much gray area of history may be up for grabs. We know not the future, though our minds and hearts may lead us towards one direction or another.

Those here in America who are certain about what’s important for Israel’s future, those who insist that they know better than all the rest, are playing a dangerous game. The biggest difference between Israel and America after 65 years? We’re talking about Israel but we’re here. When we finally get there, I’ll at least have a say.

Robert Katz has been a Bergen County resident for 25 years and has been a Jewish communal professional since graduating Yeshiva Unversity in 1985. He can be reached for comments at: rkatz_jewishlinkbc.com

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