May 14, 1948, changed Jewish identity not only in Israel, but also in the Jewish Diaspora.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, my parents woke me up to hug me. Smiling from ear to ear, with tears running down their faces, they wanted to share this miraculous moment in time with their “big girl,” who was not quite four years old. They explained with great pride that there was now a Jewish state called Israel. For the first time in 2000 years, Jews now had a homeland, a “safe haven” in a time of need. A place where they would always be welcome when persecution in the lands they had lived in for centuries became overwhelming.
At the time, I was rather bewildered, but I understood that, for Jews, it was a very important moment in time. I was so proud that my parents wanted to include me in their celebration.
The declaration of the independence of the State of Israel changed the world of Diaspora Jews dramatically. “Next year in Jerusalem” was now a real possibility for all Jews, not just a vision that had bonded the Jewish people to their homeland over thousands of generations. We had played a part in making this happen, and around the world we celebrated. However, the celebrations immediately turned to fear as the newborn Jewish state was attacked by all its neighbors. So, how did this sequence of events come to pass?
Historically, Jews have always lived in the area called Palestine by the Romans, even after Rome destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. However, it was always under the rule of one powerful empire after the other.
By the mid-1880s, Jews from all walks of life in the Jewish Diaspora started to see the ancient Jewish homeland as the place where Jews could escape the rampant antisemitism, persecution and pogroms that were making their lives unbearable. They perceived it as “returning home” to the place where they belonged.
This movement became known as Zionism, and Theodore Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state was formalized in 1887 by Jewish delegates from every corner of the world at the first World Zionist Congress in Switzerland. The Jewish Diaspora now had a roadmap for creating a modern Jewish homeland.
The Karen Hayesod Foundation Fund was established to raise money in the Jewish Diaspora to begin the work of taking what was a neglected region of the Ottoman Empire and transforming it into their concept of what a Jewish homeland should be.
Many Jewish homes had a little tzedakah box, also known as a pushka. This was a donation box into which spare coins could be dropped, collected periodically and sent to support the building of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Idealistic young Jews made aliyah and began to work the land and drain the swamps in what became known as the yishuv (settlement). These chalutzim (pioneers) sang “We came to Israel to build and to be built by it” (“Anu banu artza livnot v’lehvanot ba”).
Religious Jews moved to Jerusalem to be in the Holy City and pray for the Jewish people. They maintained the traditions and customs of Judaism as they existed in mid-18th-century Eastern Europe. They built yeshivot (religious schools) and houses of worship and would send emissaries to various parts of the Diaspora to solicit funds so that the men could continue to worship, study and pray all day.
In the United States, a group of idealistic Zionist women under the leadership of Henrietta Szold formed Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, in 1912. Their initial contribution would be to bring good hygiene to the residents of Palestine, to care for mothers and children and to combat eye disease in the then-squalid city of Jerusalem. Later, the founders of Hadassah would develop a modern health system for the entire yeshuv.
By 1947, friction between the Jewish and Arab residents of Palestine was at a boiling point, and the British, who held the United Nations mandate to govern Palestine, threw up their arms and handed the problem back to the UN.
In November 1947, the UN passed a resolution that there would be two states in what had been the ancient Jewish homeland – one Jewish and one Palestinian. The Arab countries surrounding Palestine rejected this compromise solution. The British withdrew on May 14, 1948, and David Ben Gurion, who headed the Jewish yishuv, immediately proclaimed a Jewish state, to be called Israel, in the area allocated by the UN to the Jews.
Even as the fledgling Jewish state was attacked by its neighbors, Jews around the world rallied to defend their right to a homeland and to support the small army that fought for Israel’s existence. Miraculously, that army prevailed.
Only part of the Old City of Jerusalem was incorporated into the new country. Absent were East Jerusalem with the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf, which includes the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock; the Kotel (Western Wall), Jews’ most significant religious site and one to which they would no longer have access; the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; several synagogues; and the Mount Scopus neighborhood, home to the Mount of Olives and Hadassah’s first hospital.
The small Jewish population in Israel quickly absorbed new arrivals. Israel became a safe haven for tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors as well as 750,000 Jews who had been expelled from countries surrounding Israel. They arrived as refugees, with little more than the clothes on their back.
Israel also set up contingency plans to rescue any Jewish community under extreme duress and bring its residents to Israel. As a teenager living under apartheid in South Africa in the early 1960s, when the potential for a bloody uprising was real, I remember thinking, “At least someone will care and try to help rescue us if the need arises.”
Jews in the rest of the world pitched in to help. Building Israel became the responsibility not only of the Jews living in Israel, but also of every Jewish man, woman and child, no matter where they might live around the globe. We would stand up united as a people and work together to create our homeland. We were finally able to fully celebrate our peoplehood as well as our religion. Whether it was the World Zionist Organization, Hadassah (including, later on, Hadassah International, Hadassah’s global partner), the Jewish National Fund, HIAS, the local Jewish community federations, Zionist youth movements, WIZO or Jewish religious organizations and synagogues across the world, every Jewish organization took it upon itself to raise money to help to fulfill the Jewish dream.
And each person and organization defined that dream a little differently!
Israel is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with citizens from every corner of the globe and each group of immigrants has brought its own culture and ways of doing things. Israel is also one of the most tolerant countries in the world; diversity is celebrated, and different points of view bring new ways of thinking. Innovation is an intrinsic part of Israel’s identity and culture.
Last weekend, over 100,000 Israelis (including families with children) from all over the country came together for a four-day demonstration. Proudly carrying the Israeli flag, they marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, determined to let their elected representatives know that they did not agree with the legislation before the Knesset – legislation aimed at diminishing the power of the judicial branch. These were Israeli citizens peacefully voting with their feet for the country they want, knowing that, in a democratic land, they were safe from reprisal.
What we are witnessing is a vibrant, engaged people with often opposing opinions working to map out the future of the country they love. I am so proud of Israel for taking the time to examine the country it is today and trying to figure out how the different facets of its culture can be reconciled.
“We came to Israel to build and to be built by it.”
“Anu banu artza livnot v’lehvanot ba.”
Patricia Levinson is Communications Chair for Hadassah International.