An Israel with a positive vision

By Ruth Gavison

Address at the Israel Prize ceremony, Independence Day 5771, May 10, 2011

The Hon. President of Israel, distinguished guests, fellow Israel Prize laureates, ladies and gentlemen.

Human achievements are measured by universal standards but always carry a meaning of time and place. My colleagues and I come from diverse fields of research, art and action but we all work here, in Israel, as part of a national and cultural enterprise we share and of which we are proud. Tonight, on Israel’s holiday, we have all received the highest honor it can give us. Proud and excited, we thank the state that enables and recognizes our contribution, those who singled us out for the honor this year and everyone near and far who has given and continues to give context to our activity and meaning to our achievements.

A state and a society are also measured by the way they celebrate their holidays. The main event on the morning of Independence Day used to be a military parade. Nearly 50 years ago I participated in it as a young soldier. Military might is essential to defend our country and its residents and it is critical to maintain it. But it is not a goal in its own right. I am pleased that the international Bible quiz replaced the parade. The state too is important because it allows our existence, especially an existence with value and meaning. Its test is in the way it provides the fundamental needs and aspirations of the individuals and groups that live in it and the society created in it.

A society needs a joint vision and especially Israeli society: a society under incessant threat, which is required to send its sons and daughters to kill and be killed, and which still has to contend with deep divisions on fateful matters.

As a democratic society we respect differences of opinion and recognize a plurality of cultures. But in order to live together we also need a degree of partnership and social solidarity. Israel was founded as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and then as now that is its raison d’être. The revival of the Jewish people in its historic homeland, the revival of its language and the establishment of the state are the moving achievements of the Zionist movement. Jews and Arabs, right and left, veterans and newcomers, poor and rich, women and men, all with different beliefs and different opinions. All must realize the vision and benefit from its fruits.

Israel has such a vision. It is not new. It is embodied in the declaration of the founding of the state, which we are also celebrating today: a Jewish state open to the ingathering of exiles but which also maintains complete political and social equality for all of its inhabitants. A state where members of the Arab minority live as partners on the basis of representation and equality. A state whose identity is not a permit for discrimination nor a recipe for imposing religion. A state willing to fight for the realization of the Zionist aspiration for national revival, and the only place where Jews are a majority and their public culture is Jewish and Hebrew; and also a state that extends its hand in peace to its neighbors and is ready to work for the development and welfare of the entire region. A state that is not ashamed to declare its principles but nor does it insist on demanding a decision on issues of identity and worldview which benefit from discussion. A state where Judaism is not only a multifaceted religion and set of rules, but also a nation and culture and heritage. A state that has one citizenship, important to and shared by all, but which also provides opportunity and space to cultivate elements of unique identities.

Israel’s vision can be right, exciting and justified –no less today than 63 years ago. This vision is all “pro.” It has no “con.” We must adhere to it with all of it components. Israel can and must be both Jewish and democratic. Both the realization of the dream of Jewish independence and a home for all its citizens and groups. Both the embodiment of the spirit and the achievements of matter. The home of both scholars and warriors. Both the place of belief and the home of science and technology. Both education for initiative, responsibility and personal excellence and a generous public security net for anyone who needs it. The power of the vision of the state is in its wholeness.

A complex vision is something whose details and consequences are argued over. It is never achieved in whole. Its power is that we walk in its light, strive for its realization and are willing to fight and sacrifice for its advancement. We are bound by historic duty to settle the tensions between the elements of that vision by listening to the other with mutual respect. We are commanded to do so by both Jewish and democratic values. A deep commitment to universal values is always rooted in a unique and rich culture. And indeed, in the Jewish heritage’s vision of the end of days, the nations maintain their uniqueness but do not fight each other.”Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And the Torah says: “That which is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow.”

Israel and its civil society have tremendous achievements. It is important to be proud of them precisely at a time when many negate the very existence of Israel as a Jewish nation state. But Israel also faces tremendous challenges from within and without. Dramatic changes are occurring around us: in Israel, in the region and in the whole world. We must confront these challenges now. Honestly, creatively and courageously. This too is a historic duty incumbent upon us at this time.

For us, this year’s Israel Prize laureates, the award is not just an appreciation for our past actions but also encouragement to go on. We promise not to rest on our laurels. The citizens of Israel received this state and its vision from the founding generation and now the responsibility is on us and the next generations. We must act now to connect a glorious past to a better future. If only we succeed to protect our state and what it enables us and thereby become partners in its successful future.

And again, on behalf of all of the laureates, thank you.