Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Israel’s 75th Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron)
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is recognized as perhaps the greatest memorial for fallen soldiers ever delivered. This is likely because he tied their sacrifice to the great existential struggle and humanitarian striving for greater liberty and equality, while also supporting the ideal of representative government (of, by, and for the people). Moreover, he enlisted the living in honoring the fallen through an ongoing commitment to the very cause for which they fell. He tied the act of memorializing what was lost to a responsibility for what can be done to gain the future. It is no wonder, then, that I have thought of the Address as often on Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) as on the American Memorial Day.
Yet, for this year’s Yom HaZikaron the Address takes on a special meaning, a dire and deadly warning about the potential costs of unresolved civil strife, and a piercing plea to find common ground instead, while it is possible. In that light, the similarities between Israel’s first decades and those of the United States, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, take on a greater meaning, not just as metaphor but as lessons and even warnings that need to be heeded
To be clear, I am not here discussing conflicts with Palestinians or other conflicts with nations who see themselves at war with Israel. Those are worthy topics, but I am focused on Israel’s internal conflicts.
First, though 171 years apart, both countries were born by rebelling against the same dominant imperial power– the English Crown. This is still worth remembering, as the dozens of new born states who achieved independence from their European colonial rulers, have all been celebrated for their victory over Imperialism, except for Israel.
So, the first lesson to learn from the US – Israel analogy is to remember that like the American Colonies, the Irish, and so many other oppressed peoples, we were under the boot of the British Empire. We were not a Western Imperialist conquering force, as the entire academic world seems to now believe.
Second, is the historical idea, that to bring a democratic nation into being is one thing, but the ongoing work of getting that democracy right is a multi-generational process, and we must have the patience to see it through. In the US case, the Revolutionary War was the birth of the nation, but its democracy evolved for four score and seven years before the needed corrections were achieved. The founding of America like the founding of Israel was done in haste with many issues not resolved during those traumatic births.
Like so much of historical wisdom, this insight is already documented in the Hebrew Scripture telling of the founding of Jewish peoplehood. While the nation of Israel was born at the exodus from Egypt, those newly freed slaves were not prepared to form a commonwealth until two generations had passed. It took wandering in the desert until the third generation to truly integrate the idea of its freedom, It took experiential learning and the many social challenges documented in that story to discover how to function together as a society that could form a country. Moreover, its initial form of governance, the leadership of Moses, had to change as well. Moses was an appropriate leader for newly freed slaves, not for truly free women and men of the third generation. This is captured in Moses striking the stone instead of speaking to it. (An insight my father, of blessed memory taught us at every Seder.)
Thus, the second lesson of the US – Israel analogy is that nation building takes generations. Like the goals expressed at the founding of the US, the goals in the Israeli Declaration of Independence were unabashedly lofty, and challenging:
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; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Just finding a common home for the diversity of Jews after two thousand years of geographic, cultural, educational, ethnic and religious dispersion is a mind boggling social and political undertaking. We must recognize that we are still in the middle of that development, and draw from this a much greater patience with each other, and an optimism for the possibilities of the future. It was this vision that those we memorialize died for, and they have already modeled doing the impossible.
The third aspect of the analogy is that Israel’s current crises seems, in some aspects, to parallel the lead-up to the Civil War. For Israel this existential political crisis comes at 75 years, somewhere in between the 40 years of the desert and the 87 years between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In the extreme struggles of Israel’s founding, the driving need was to deliver a living nation, and many conflicts were overlooked in the common interest of a live birth. But now the time has come, in fact is past due, to resolve the issues not dealt with then. Nor are we completely unique in this. If part of the conflict is between upholding our past history versus moving into the cosmopolitan city of the future, then a number of ancient civilizations, that have survived in some modern form, are having the same struggle, for example Iran, China, Greece, and Egypt.
And so, the third lesson is that we must break with the analogy with the Civil War. Unlike the situation Lincoln faced, we do have a choice. Avoidance of violence against each must take existential precedence over any other political or policy goals. On the eve of Yom HaZikaron, this is the only true way to honor the already fallen soldiers and citizens, who made the birth and development of Israel up to this point possible. To add to their number through fratricide would be the greatest desecration of their sacrifice.
Modern Israel’s aspirational destiny might just then be the creation of the social and political mechanisms of governance that can somehow contain the seemingly impossible contradictions and conflicts that make up the incredible diversity that is Israeli society. This is in the spirit of Lincoln’s famous speech.
When I first heard of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, as a child, I remember thinking it was a street address – where Lincoln lived in Gettysburg. And it made me anxious because there was a sense that we, even as children, were supposed to know it. And I did not. Nor could I understand why we should memorize a street address we would never visit.
It is also interesting that Lincoln choses to use the term “score” as a measure of time, indicating 20 years, but also indicating a generational passing, as we discussed above.
So, I ask Lincoln’s permission to adapt his text for Israel’s 75th Yom HaZikaron. I think he would agree, as he truly was a friend of the Jews. Most famously, he countermanded General Grant’s order #11, which attempted to banish Jews from a large parts of the American South.
With that permission, I plan to recite the following on Yom HaZikaron:
Three score and fifteen years ago our fathers and mothers brought back to this coastal strip an ancient people and founded a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that the Jewish people were created equal to other peoples, with equal rights to life and liberty, and affirming the belief that they could live together in harmony despite their internal and external conflicts. Now we are engaged in a great civil conflict, testing whether that nation, dedicated to those principles, can long endure. We are met on a great intellectual and political battlefield of that conflict, stretching from the chamber of the Knesset to the streets of Tel Aviv. At the same time, on our 75th Yom HaZikaron, we must come together to remember and to re-dedicate the final resting places for those who, over these many years, gave their lives so that that this nation might live again, after two thousand years of exile. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow their ground. Those brave men and women already consecrated this land in their dedication to a vibrant democratic and Jewish nation in which all the inhabitants find a way to live together despite serious conflicts and diversity of opinions and lifestyles. Over and above its ancient consecration as a Holy Land, they saw this nation as one model in history’s ongoing struggle for freedom for all people. It is, therefore our obligation to their sacrifice to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, to complete and perfect their dream, to find a form of society and governance that makes that dream possible. We are here to highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall not descend into conflict, but instead shall have a new birth of freedom and justice, and a form of governance that is for all the people, protecting the rights and desires of all the people of Israel, and promoting their security, while seeking peace with their neighbors.