Israel turns 60

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THE State of Israel came into existence on 5 Iyar 5708 (corresponding to 14 May 1948) ending nearly 2000 years of Jewish homelessness. In Progressive Judaism the annual commemoration of this enormously significant change in Jewish status is held to be a religious holiday, a fact made clear through the inclusion of a festive service including Hallel in the 1975 Sha’arei Tefilah – Gates of Prayer and other siddurim – prayer books used throughout the movement’s branches.

The birth of the Jewish State was not understood to be the fulfilment of the messianic hopes of Jews through the ages. Rather it is the result of the political success of the Jewish national movement that has its roots in the Nationalitätsfrage – National Identity Question – posed in the late 19th Century during the reign of Emperor Franz Josef, King of Hungary and Emperor of the Holy Roman (Habsburg) Empire in East Central Europe.

Prior to Theodor Herzl’s 1896 publication of the small tract Der Judenstaat – The Jewish State – others had written of the necessity of a return to Jerusalem to reconstruct Jewish life and identity for modernity.

Herzl’s genius was to visualize and seek to implement a popular movement whose aim and focus were to be the settlement of Jews in a land of their own. The Zionist movement that developed insisted that the only feasible location would be in Ottoman-ruled areas of Jewish identity, especially west of the Jordan River and in ancient Judea.

While Herzl believed the main supporters would be the integrated Jews of Western Europe, broadest appeal was found among the Jews of the Russian Empire and Poland, as well as other eastern communities. There was little interest or contact with the long-existing communities in Islamic lands.

The confluence of events between the First Zionist Congress that was called to Basel, Switzerland in August 1897 and the agreement of the United Nations to the Partition of the British Mandate of Palestine on 29 November 1947, includes two World Wars, the destruction of European Jewry and a program of land acquisition, social experiment and political development that laid the foundations of a democratic, socialist-leaning Jewish government that expanded upon the Jewish Agency for Palestine’s work as a shadow government during the British Mandate under the leadership of David ben Gurion. He became the first Prime Minister of the new state.

Jews arriving from Europe were not a new phenomenon in the Holy Land. Over the generations, with the exception of short periods during which Jews were prohibited from living in the Holy Land, a Jewish population was a consistent presence. In the 19th Century groups such as Chovevei Tsiyon – Lovers of Zion, and colonies like the viticultural settlements of Zichron Ya’ akov and Rishon L’tsiyon – Remembrance of Jacob, First in Zion – were joined by urban settlers who created “west”Jerusalem outside the wall of the ancient city, Tel Aviv, and Haifa as major centers or settled kibbutzim – socialized farms – beginning with Degania Aleph (1908).

Modern water and sewerage, industry, road building and land reclamation-reforestation were taken up by the Keren Kayemet Le’umi – the Jewish National Fund. Private entrepreneurs laid the foundation for a modern economy. The bustle and growth of the 1920s and 1930s attracted settlers from neighbouring and less developed areas east of the Jordan and north of Mount Hermon.

The Islamic community under the leadership of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem consistently refused recognition to the burgeoning Jewish population. During the 1930s, successive plans for the Partition of Palestine – as the British League of Nations Mandate was known – were offered for acceptance. In every instance, the Arab delegation refused to accept such a plan.

While small groups, such as Brit Shalom – Covenant of Peace – led by Martin Buber and Ernst Akiba Simon sought to create a bi-national entity, the instability of Lebanon where power was shared after 1929 by Maronite Christian and Moslem factions is illustrative of the overall rejection of this idea. An impasse was reached that is marked by the issuance of the 1941 White Paper that severely limited further Jewish immigration.

The end of World War II and establishment of the United Nations in 1945 left the British as the unwilling stewards of the Protectorate – the successor name for League of Nations Mandates. Moved by the general anti-colonial tenor of the times, the British were anxious close out their responsibilities in Palestine, too. A growing restlessness in the Yishuv – Jewish Community in Palestine – and the increased activities of radicals such as the Stern Gang (including later Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin) led to the United Nations call for the Partition of Palestine on a status quo basis between Jews and Arabs. In a dramatic vote cast on 29 November 1947, the members of the United Nations General Assembly accepted the plan with the Soviet Union casting the deciding vote.

An arms embargo had been imposed on Palestine as the British prepared for their departure. Although there is some scholarly debate on the subject, it appears that 1) the British withdrew in such a way as to leave many of their strongholds in Arab hands; 2) The surrounding Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) formed a block in an effort to wipe out Jews from the lands they had bought and settled; 3) Arabs living in areas of Jewish strength took refuge out of the line of fire, and were housed in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip (under Egyptian control), and the “west bank” traditionally known as Judea and Samaria (under Jordanian control), while others fled to safety in Syria and Lebanon.

Responding to the many areas of vulnerability, Israel fought for the independence guaranteed by the 29 November 1947 UN Partition resolution. A valiant struggle against the odds led to the remarkable result of the June 1949 cease-fire that left all borders subject to negotiation, an on-going state of conflict with the neighboring states, and painfully for Israel and the Jewish world, Jerusalem divided and Jews blockaded from access to the sacred sites of the ancient walled city which were occupied by the Jordanians. Jews from long-established communities in Arab lands quickly made their way to the new state. Their numbers greatly increased the Jewish population in a short period.

In succeeding years, the Israelis met continued refusal to recognize their legitimacy as a state from the Arab world. The 1956 blockade of the Suez Canal, and the assertion by President Gamal Abdel Nasser that guns had been erected as Sharm-el-Sheikh effectively closing the sole Indian Ocean access of Israel from Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba, led to the three-day Sinai campaign that established the fame of General Moshe Dayan.

Although all territories conquered were returned to Egypt under pressure from the US, UK and USSR, the ascendancy of the IDF – Israel Defence Forces – was clear. Just over a decade later, a parallel stalemate led to Israel’s surprise attack in what is known as the Six Day War. Jerusalem was re-unified, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaze once again taken from Egyptian control, and in the north, the Golan Heights that Syria had used as a platform for regular shelling of settlements and farms were captured with lightening speed.

In a complicated way, this expansion has proven to be a mixed blessing for Israel. Since these were occupied territories – as many had been since 1948 – settlements and development within them is at best questionable. At the same time continued refusal of Palestinian elements to accept the 1947 Partition Plan or other successive offers led to repeated stalemates. The surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973 was a huge crisis; although the Israelis ultimately fended it off, the human price was enormous. Similarly, the late 1980s and the late 1990s saw rising tides of terror attacks that have proven painful.

It is to the credit of Israel as a parliamentary democracy that through all these decades there have been Arab members of Knesset – Israel’s 120 seat Parliament – and provision of an array of governmental services to all citizens of the State without regard to religious identification.

The problem of the non-citizen Palestinians was effectively transferred to their own control through the 1993 Oslo Accord, and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a governmental authority under the leadership of Yassir Arafat. The failure of the former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to effect necessary economic development or to suppress terrorism among its citizenry have led to increased security measures that often further inhibit the lives of Palestinians. It also led to a victory in the most recent round of elections for the insurgent Hamas, whose refusal to give up violence has led to their labeling as a terrorist group.

Today, for Israeli citizens, life is a bustle in a state with a rapidly developing economy that has brought innovation in many areas – agriculture, high technology and water conservation, to mention a few – and exports foodstuffs, flowers and ideas to many countries. A culture center of great fervor, recent years have seen Israeli victories in the Eurovision contest and other areas of cultural life. With a population exceeding 7 million, housing projects have done away with all temporary/refugee quarters for Jews who return by right under the Law of Return.

There are some anomalies that the Progressive Movement has sought to remove: through the work of IRAC – the Israel Religious Action Centre – strides have been made enabling the growth of T’nuat Hayahdut HaMitkademet – The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism – despite the refusal of Misrad Hadat – Ministry of Religion to recognize non-Orthodox Jewry, which is a holdover from the British Mandatory period and its establishment of a Chief Rabbinate. With synagogues, kindergartens and higher educational opportunities, growing numbers of Israelis are joining forces in expanding and consecrating Jewish religious pluralism in Israel.

There is much to celebrate at Israel’s 60th anniversary, which will be observed around the world – including South Africa – on 7 May 2008, the Hebrew date slightly altered so that celebrations do not conflict with the sanctity of the Sabbath. The holiday is preceded by an evening of rememberance, Yom Hazikaron l’chayalei Tsahal – Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers of the IDF – that will be marked at evening on 6 May 2008.

Whether we agree with the policies of the current Israeli government or find loyalty in disagreeing, most Jews today ally themselves with the State of Israel and its mission of offering a place of safety and a welcome to all Jews.

Early in the history of Progressive Judaism, some believed that political Zionism lacked necessity as Jews had become citizens of the nations in which they lived. During the 20th Century, this position was shifted by the tragedy of the Holocaust – as German Jews were instantaneously transformed into Zionists when the Nazis came to power. In the 21st Century, it is to be hoped and believed that we can at once be lovers of Zion and citizens of the nation that issues our passport.

Spiritually, the presence of Zion as central metaphor for Jewish life can not be turned aside. Whether we conceive of Messianism as a phenomenon of real time or metaphysical time, it is through prayer and religious observance that we can invoke the presence of the Shechinah – the immanent Divine Presence. Making common cause with Jews who call Israel their primary home, we share in a common destiny and fate as a Jewish nation and people, a body of faith and fate.

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