Tuesday, May 2, 2017
One hundred and twenty years ago, Theodore Herzl wrote in his diary after the First Zionist Congress, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State.” He readily acknowledged that this statement would be met with universal laughter. And yet, only 51 years intervened between that first Congress and the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948.
What began as an evanescent movement – many of whose most ardent supporters never believed that the object of Jewish sovereignty in the British mandate of Palestine would be achieved in their lifetime- became a national movement that shaped a society and nation and built a dynamic, democratic modern state. The re-establishment in 1948 of a sovereign nation in the land of their ancestors reversed a long history of wandering in the diaspora, expulsions and pograms, insecurity and powerlessness. Rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust, with an ingathering of Jews from all four corners of the world and multivalent cultures, Israel was a collective affirmation of 2,000 years of hopes and dreams,memories and prayers.
Today the tiny nation, barely the size of New Jersey, is 69 years old, but the story of how the Third Commonwealth was created encompasses nearly 4,000 years of Jewish history. As Herzl proclaimed, it is an “old-new” land, as ancient as the desert sands that blow across the mosaic tiles at Masada, as old as the gnarly olive trees that dot the country, and as timeless as the basic tenets of Judaism that forged its identity, values and aspirations, upon which the nation was founded.
As the words of Israel’s national anthem state, there was always the ever-present hope, no matter where the Jews lived in exile, cloaked in memory and with the staff of hope in their hands and the words of the psalmist on their tongues, they would return to Zion and “live as a free people in their own land.”
Israel is a place with a sacred past and a glorious future.
It’s a tale of a nation’s will to exist against all odds, a will to survive in the face of adversity. It is a story of religious faith, pioneering spirit, ingenuity, creativity, and purposefulness that turned a virtual wasteland into a thriving start-up, can-do nation, a dead language into a living one, millions of ragged, rejected, shattered refugees into a proud people. It is a nation of museums and patents, timeless holy sites and ground-breaking innovation. And despite wars, and intifadas, nuclear threats and terrorist attacks, Israel’s population is the 11th happiest in the world.
David ben Gurion, first prime minister of the nascent state, once said that “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.” And there were and are so many miraculous things to cause wonderment about in Israel every day. The land of milk and honey is also producing great wines; vegetables, fruits and flowers in great quantity and quality, fed with desalinated watered; WAZE and Messenger, medical breakthroughs, scientific and technological research, and miracle of miracles, the freest, most self-critical press in the world.
In his poem “They Say There is a Land”, Saul Tschernichovsky writes: “A miracle did not happen to us.” The air of Jerusalem may be heavy with prayers, kings and prophets walked the streets and alleys of the holy places, miracles once happened in the Holy Land but Israelis know that they must make their own history, with their own hands, with their own creativity, with their own children serving in the army that protects them.
Israel’s 69th anniversary is cause for celebration and rejoicing. Monday evening, after a day of national commemoration for all those who gave their lives in wars and terrorist attacks, Israel will move from sorrow to great joy, from mourning to festivity, in the blink of an eye, and celebrate with song and dancing, the anniversary.
My wish for Israel would be that on the very next day, in the blink of an eye, they would turn from rejoicing to devoting themselves to searching once again, with greater resolve, to finding a pathway to peace with the Palestinians which would preserve both Israel’s safety and her Jewish and democratic soul. Now that would be a miracle we could all believe in!
Sydney Perry retired as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven after three decades of service.