This essay is adapted from a sermon given on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, September 19, 2001.

Throughout Jewish history, the shofar has called our scattered survivors home to the Land of Israel. Every day, for millennia we have prayed: "sound a great shofar for freedom, and gather our exiles from the four corners of the earth." Whether we interpret those words literally or not, the shofar describes a vision of a Jewish home. Today, the shofar calls us all home to our place in the world; it draws our attention to our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel.

This year's disastrous events have reinforced Israel's centrality to our sense of self. Over the years, American Jews' identification with Israel has eroded. Ignorance of Jewish history and the events leading to Israel's creation; the rise of Jewish fundamentalism; disaffection from Israeli policies; and the general fading of idealized conceptions of Israel--all these have distanced many American Jews from Israel. Even those of us strongly attached to Israel often have taken it for granted, neglecting the vision which created it and overlooking the sacrifice which has sustained it.

This has been a year of squandered opportunities, not negotiations; a year of mourning, not of celebrating.

But the world has a nasty habit of reminding us just how unbelievable Jewish survival really is. The anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred spewed at the UN Conference on Racism reminds us that even now, in the 21st century, much of the world still denies that we are a people with a right to a homeland. It reminds us that those who deny Jewish political legitimacy usually also deny the legitimacy of Jewish identity itself. It reminds us that much of the world still has a frightening, irrational tendency to lay the blame for its problems at our Jewish feet. That reality makes Israel's existence look more miraculous and more critical every day.

Over five decades after Israel's birth, we have yet to fulfill the promise of pre-state Zionism, which imagined that statehood would lead to the world accepting Jewishness as a "normal" and legitimate identity. Early Zionists conceived a safe haven for Jews, a secure refuge from oppression. They struggled to create a vibrant center of Jewish culture, a society in which Judaism, liberated from the diaspora's constraints, could be freshly applied to every aspect of life. They envisioned Israel as a vehicle for unleashing the Jewish people's creative spirit.

Despite the early Zionists' utopian dreams, despite the idealized characterizations on which many of us grew up, Israel is flawed--like every country. As in the creation of most nation-states, its birth inevitably involved displacing other people. It's splintered by ethnic and religious schisms, and is far from embracing religious pluralism. It's often paralyzed by an unwieldy political system, and struggles with environmental concerns. It still lacks a written constitution enshrining its citizens' civil liberties. Despite being the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is far from realizing its promise of equal rights. Israel is not immune from legitimate criticism.

But each of us individually, and every country in the world, can thank God that perfection isn't a prerequisite to being a blessing. The fact of Israel testifies to the legitimacy of Jewish identity and the survival of Jewish values. The fact of Israel testifies to all the peoples of the world (including, ironically, the Palestinian people) the power of hope in the face of despair. The fact of Israel has enabled us to be, for the first time in thousands of years, "am chofshi b'artzeinu," a free people in our land. The fact of Israel testifies that nothing in this world is impossible.

Despite living in a near-constant state of war, amid hostile neighbors, besieged by terrorism, Israel has forged and protected democratic institutions and freedoms unknown in its neighborhood. In Israel, Jewish identity and culture are normative and Hebrew is again a living language. Persecuted Jews have a haven, and Jewish cultures from around the globe have a common soil in which to take root. Judaism and the Jewish people have a base from which to engage the world's cultures and faiths, an encounter benefiting both our people and the world. We and the world are blessed by Israel's existence.

As Rabbi Michael Melchior, the head of Israel's delegation to the conference in Durban, said, the obscene attempts to delegitimate Israel by tarring it with the brush of racism constitute only the latest episode in a long history of efforts to delegitimate Jewish identity, to make us disappear. None other than Martin Luther King Jr. recognized anti-Zionism as a camouflage for anti-Semitism, when he wrote:

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