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April 28, 2023 10:36 am

Israel at 75

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


David Ben-Gurion declares Israel’s independence, at the Tel Aviv Museum, May 14, 1948. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I recently read two great books — “Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment” by Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Ziegler (Cambridge University Press), which came out this year, and 2019’s “A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion” by Tom Segev (Picador). Both are essential for anyone interested in the mechanisms of establishing the State of Israel, and why its politics are still such a mess today.

Both books illustrate the internal and external divisions, conflicts, and compromises and yes, the violence and murders that lay behind the process of achieving a state and reaching a declaration that all parties signed onto, despite their differences.

The Jews in the Land of Israel were split between what was called the Old Yishuv, the Haredi, and Sefardi Jews who had been coming in relatively small numbers during the previous centuries. The New Yishuv was made up of mainly secular Jews coming from the antisemitic cauldrons of Russia and Poland. The groups were opposed ideologically. They were barely on speaking terms. But even within themselves, they were seriously divided.

Theodor Herzl organized the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 ( but died in 1904). It was always a fractious mix of anti-religious, religious, Marxist, socialists, capitalists, and all shades in between. At the start of the 20th century, 90% of the Jews lived outside the Land of Israel. Chaim Weizmann was regarded as the prime mover of the Zionist movement in the Diaspora. He became Israel’s first president. In Palestine, the Zionist movement and its agencies ,the Minhelet Ha’Am and Moetzet Ha’Am, along with the workers’ cooperative the Histadrut, were dominated by the left and David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. Ben-Gurion adamantly believed the Diaspora had no right to interfere in Israeli life, yet needed its support. Weizmann saw Israel as part of the wider Jewish world. They despised each other.

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The British mandate was set up partly by the United Nations after World War II. From the start, there was tension and violence between Jews and Arabs. The British tried to crack down on both sides and limited Jewish immigration, right at the time when Jews were desperately trying to escape Europe. The New Yishuv was divided. Negotiate or fight?

After World War II, the United Nations, via Resolution 181, approved a partition of the British mandate into Jewish and Arab states. The Jewish community was split between Ben-Gurion, who argued something was better than nothing, and Menachem Begin on the right, who saw this as a betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and the 1920 San Remo conference and wanted to hold out for all of the Mandate territories.

Ben-Gurion won the argument and accepted the partition. The Arab world rejected it out of hand, and prepared to invade when the Mandate expired. On Friday, May 14, 1948, as the Mandate came to an end and Britain left, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of an independent Jewish state as the War of Independence raged. The Arab world declared war on the Yishuv, and the Jewish community, and invaded. At that time there was military disarray. The Haganah and Palmach were on the left. Irgun, Lechi, and the Stern Gangon on the right, but in competition with each other.

This was the background against which Ben-Gurion had to formulate a Declaration of Independence. What should be its values and its political structure? Should it define its borders? The predominant ideological force of Israel at this moment was the secular/ left-wing/ Marxist/socialist who saw labor as the basis of the state. On the other side stood the cultural Jewish values of Ahad Ha’Am and Jabotinsky and the religious of various shades. Should Israel be like the US or the USSR? Would the world recognize a Jewish state?

The text was rushed through in a crucial month. The first draft was written by a young Ukrainian-born lawyer, Mordechai Beham, influenced by an American rabbi, together with Pinchas Rosen, the Berlin-born lawyer, and later Minister of Justice using the American declaration as a model. A follow-up version was written by Tzvi Berenson, based on the United Nations Charter of 1945. It emphasized labor as the moral justification and included the term democracy. Hersch Lauterpacht (1897-1960), born in Lvov and one of the most prominent  human rights lawyers of his time, gave his version. Then it was passed on to Moshe Sharret, the diplomatic representative in the US and later the second prime minister of Israel. He handed it to Ben-Gurion, who labored over the night to put his stamp on it. Everyone was unhappy with the text. The wrangling went on for hours until Ben-Gurion miraculously got everyone to sign on just before Shabbat came in, as bombs were falling.

Ben-Gurion also negotiated several understandings of national interest, both political and religious, to ensure the cooperation of the different parties in Israeli life. The authority of the Chief Rabbinate and religious courts in matters of religious identity were established. The legal system of the country would be an amalgam of Ottoman, British Mandate, and Jewish law. And Basic Laws passed by the Knesset, equivalents of constitutional amendments, which are now at the center of the current demonstrations, were agreements negotiated by the Knesset at the time. And over time, the Supreme Court has enlarged its scope and authority.

Israel in its early years was overwhelmingly and aggressively anti-religious. Even now, most Israeli children know very little about Judaism. Sephardim were sometimes mistreated and humiliated. Every new migration has brought new problems — each with a different vision of what the country should be and what values it should have. It is a miracle that so many disparate migrants were integrated. Yet there was always dissatisfaction and I remember all the different times when large numbers of Israelis threatened or left the country, and the mood was pessimistic. Only the external threat kept things together. But slowly things improved, particularly after the Six-Day War.

Much of the dysfunction in Israel was and is due to the electoral system that allows for too many small parties that can exert disproportionate influence in fractious coalitions. Although Ben-Gurion wanted a different electoral system like the British one, he was overruled and never brought it up again. And today that seems to me to be a far greater problem than the Supreme Court, where in many countries the power of the judiciary to overrule the executive is hotly disputed. The miracle is that Israel has survived, altogether, and succeeded beyond imagination — despite the rest of the world either trying to destroy us or write it off.

The present situation in Israel was sparked off by political stupidity, exacerbated by extremism on all sides, and whipped up by social media. It is little comfort that so many other democracies now face similar problems of excessive wealth, conflicting interests, ideologies, and minorities. The dreams that a welfare democracy would prove therapeutic are being challenged, but no alternative is appealing.

This current situation is in many ways healthy. It should be forcing people to think calmly and rationally. But mediation and compromise require wise leadership, not confrontation. In 1948, it was the strength and power of leadership and compromise of both Ben-Gurion and Begin that steadied the ship. For all his faults, Ben-Gurion managed during the early years of the State to hold it together. By the end, even he was defeated by the infighting and corruption. He stayed on for too long, would not let go, and undermined his leadership and legacy. Familiar?

None of this answers the question of whether it is possible to have a constitution that combines a Jewish State with real equality for all citizens, or how democracy and human rights can be reconcilable for as long as Israel occupies millions of Palestinians, many of whom want to see the elimination of a Jewish State altogether. This can only be settled when there is a peace treaty that has not been achieved for the past 75 years and may never be. That to me is the more important challenge.

Israel itself will have to decide its own destiny. Will it be America or Judea? Will it be ethical or venal? Is there any way of getting all these disparate ethnic, religious, and secular people together? But if we cannot see the dangers of hatred and antagonism within, then we will re-visit the chaos that destroyed our last state nearly 2,000 years ago.

The celebrations this week in Israel for Memorial Day for those who died to defend the State and Independence Day were celebrated with dignity, enthusiastically, and professionally by the vast majority of the people. Only a few tried to disrupt them. I am optimistic that common sense will prevail.

The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.

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