We will celebrate Israel’s Independence Monday night and all day Tuesday this week in Israel as a national and religious holiday. For many of us, it is “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” (as stated in one of the versions of the prayer for the state of Israel recited every Shabbat in synagogues in Israel and throughout the world). This prayer has become the center of controversy in recent years. Radical right-wing Jews in extremists settlements have ceased saying this prayer ever since the disengagement from Gaza in August 2005. And some followers of Professor Yeshaiyahu Leibowitz, do not say the prayer because they do not think that nation-states are holy. And of course many ultra-orthodox Jews don’t say it because they are anti-Zionist and do not see the need for a state of the Jews! Nevertheless, most religious Jews in Israel –including Reform and Conservative Jews –say this prayer, or one similar to it, in gratitude for the miracle of returning home after 2000 years.
Israel Independence Day is preceded by Memorial Day, a very solemn day in our calendar during which thousands of people visit cemeteries all over the country to remember those who sacrificed their lives so that this independent Jewish state could be free and prosper. No restaurants are open on this day and movie theaters are closed. It is a time of national mourning and heshbon hanefesh, taking stock of who we are as a people and a nation and how far we have come in just 65 years, and at the same time recognizing the critical challenges that lie ahead.
Israel has changed greatly during the years since the state was founded in 1948. New waves of aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) have helped Israel grow from a population of 600,000 people to a population of over 8 million people today, 80% of whom are Jewish. With time, the idealism and socialism of the pioneering decades in the pre-state era and in the early years of the state, has dissipated greatly. And, many decades of wars and “intifadas” (the Palestinian term for “uprisings”)—including a great deal of terrorism, especially suicide bombers– have pushed the mainstream Jewish population to the right, with the feeling that all to many of our neighbors are still out to kill us via terrorism and wars that threaten to destroy the Jewish state (not to mention the possibility of a nuclear Iran which promises every day to wipe Israel off the map of the nations of the world).
Perhaps the greatest irony is despite our great military and technological power, we still live with a Holocaust consciousness (we just marked Yom Hashoah a few days ago) which reminds us that major elements in the world still seek our destruction. In this sense, we are not yet entirely free, even though we live in a land of freedom, in our own national home.
In the light of these developments, I often wonder how the framers of our Declaration of Independence were able to develop such a powerful vision of what they had in mind for the state of Israel, back in 1948, just 3 years after the end of World War II.
Israel’s founding document — our Declaration of Independence– is an inspirational statement of the ideals on which this state and society are based. I quote below just a few paragraphs to give the reader some idea of the vision of what kind of state we are supposed to have here in Israel, according to our founding generation:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture….
WE APPEAL – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions…
WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.
To me, it would be miraculous and existentially crucial if we could return to these basic values enshrined in our declaration of independence! Inspired by reading the Biblical prophets, our founders envisioned a society to be based on freedom, justice and peace for all citizens of this state.
On this our 65th anniversary of this historic document, I am mindful of how far we have strayed from these original ideals and how much needs to be done in the years ahead to return to try to make these ideals a reality in this country. As President Shimon Peres said in one of his speeches during the visit of President Obama to Israel recently, “we need to turn the Promised Land into a Land of Promise.”
Not only do we need to recommit ourselves to establishing a society which will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” but we also need to pursue peace seriously with our neighbors, not by merely giving lip service at ceremonial events with good speeches, but by concrete actions that will actually lead to a fair peace agreement and peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians in the land which we all share.