Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Posted May 07 2008
The establishment of the State of Israel sixty years ago, on 5 Iyar 5708 (May 14, 1948), was by no means inevitable.
From the moment the United Nations passed the partition resolution the previous November 29, the Arabs, desperate to thwart its implementation, ruthlessly intensified their attacks on the Jewish population of Israel.
Nearly 1,200 Jews, half of them civilians, were murdered by Arab marauders in the six months before statehood, and that instability – and fears for the survival of this remnant of Jewry that had survived the Holocaust – engendered a desire in many quarters to postpone statehood indefinitely.
General George Marshall, President Truman’s secretary of state, warned of an impending massacre of Jews that American soldiers would not – and could not – prevent.
The Brisker Rav, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik, strenuously opposed a declaration on the grounds that it would precipitate a war, and lead to the “destruction, God forbid, of the entire yishuv.”
These sentiments were fomented by voices in the Arab world predicting just that, most prominently the infamous boast of Azzam Pasha (secretary-general of the Arab League) on the radio that “this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
The political pressures on the Jewish leadership were enormous – augmented by the painful loss of life, the ongoing siege of Jerusalem, and the sense that the approximately 25,000 ill-equipped Jewish soldiers – almost completely devoid of any heavy artillery or aircraft – could not adequately defend the nascent Jewish state against the Muslim hordes, vastly superior in numbers and weaponry.
At least seven Arab nations – some only independent states for less than a decade – were poised to strangle the Jewish state in its infancy. Conversely, for the first time in 19 centuries, the opportunity existed for Jews to be sovereign in their own land.
But at what price?
The Jewish Agency, under the direction of David Ben-Gurion, was itself bitterly divided. Should a state be declared, even with the knowledge that it would provoke immediate hostilities? If yes, then pursuant to what boundaries?
The partition boundaries – a truncated Israel consisting of three barely linked triangles in parts of the Galilee, the coastal plain, and the Negev – were not only unworkable on paper but had already been bypassed by facts on the ground. And what would this new state be called?
The United States government was fragmented in a remarkable and public way. President Truman wavered, though he was reasonably inclined to push for statehood and immediate recognition. Secretary Marshall was vehemently opposed, even telling Truman that if the Jewish state were recognized, he (Marshall) would publicly declare his intention to vote against Truman in that fall’s presidential election.
In one stunning episode in March, Truman had guaranteed Chaim Weizmann that the United States would support statehood, only to learn on the very next day that the American delegation to the United Nations had voted – upon instructions from the State Department and in defiance of Truman – for a UN resolution supporting a continued trusteeship in the land of Israel and suspending the implementation of partition.
Truman recorded in his diary that he was made to feel for the first time in his life “like a liar and a double crosser. There are peoplein the State Department who always wanted to cut my throat. They are succeeding in doing it.”
Rank Jew-hatred was another obvious factor in mobilizing opposition to a Jewish state. Conspiracy theorists who feared Jewish “world domination” (venomously ironic in light of the just concluded Nazi Holocaust that consumed six million Jews and that made so manifest the reality of Jewish powerlessness) campaigned vigorously against the formation of a Jewish state.
Some Christian theologians correctly perceived a Jewish state as a repudiation of the doctrine of the “eternal wandering Jew,” punishment for our “heretical” beliefs. Some liberal Jewish leaders dreaded that statehood would inevitably spawn accusations of “dual loyalty” against Jews in foreign lands, and that Jewish nationalism would erode the universalistic dimensions of Judaism they so prized and preached – to the exclusion of Torah, mitzvot, and the prophetic vision of the return to Zion.
Secretary of Defense James Forrestal played the Arab oil card and attempted to convince Truman – and the rest of the cabinet – that a Jewish state would endanger American security by angering the Arabs. That card, worn and tattered after sixty years, is still on the table. Forrestal also averred that a Jewish state – under Socialist-minded rule – would invariably fall into the Soviet-Communist orbit, further jeopardizing American interests in that region.
Further muddying the waters, the Soviet Union in early May 1948 (perhaps anticipating that the Jewish state would become a Soviet client) called for Jewish statehood and announced that it would recognize the Jewish state.
By Thursday, May 13, nothing had yet been decided, either in Israel or in the United States.
In Washington, Truman defied most of his cabinet and the political establishment and sent word to Marshall that if a state were declared, the United States would recognize it.
In Israel, Ben-Gurion, acting with vision, courage, and foresight, argued that if statehood were not declared immediately, history would not be forgiving, and the opportunity lost might not be regained for generations.
He submitted his motion to declare a Jewish state without defined borders to the Provisional Council. The motion not to specify borders carried 5-4; the motion to declare a state, on the following day, passed 6-4. One or two votes spelled all the difference.
After briefly considering the name “Zion,” the Council approved the name of the first Jewish state since the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash in 70 C.E. – Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.
* * *
At 4 p.m. that Friday, the 5th day of Iyar, with the British Mandate due to end at midnight, Ben-Gurion, out of respect for the sanctity of the approaching Shabbat, read the Proclamation of Independence. He declared to the world the establishment of a Jewish state, “by virtue of our national and intrinsic right.” Rabbi Maimon of Mizrachi recited the Shehechiyanu prayer.
Statehood went into effect at midnight in Israel – 6 p.m. Washington time. At 6:11 p.m. the United States extended de facto recognition to the Jewish state. The Soviet Union, several hours later, became the first nation to recognize Israel de jure.
In what Rav Yosef Soloveitchik termed one of the “six divine knocks” on the door of the people of Israel to herald His renewed, overt involvement in world affairs, both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on the establishment of the Jewish state. They would agree on little else in the ensuing 50 years.
(Truman, at 36% in the polls in May, won reelection in November with barely 50% of the vote, defeating his main opponent, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey.)
That same Friday, the last defenders of Kfar Etzion were taken captive. The provisional Government of Israel, in its first official act, abolished the British White Paper of 1939 that had cruelly barred the gates of Israel to European Jews during the Holocaust, and plans to evacuate Jewish displaced persons from European camps were immediately put into effect.
The British authorities and most soldiers sailed that night from Haifa harbor. Early on Shabbat morning, the Egyptian Air Force bombed Tel Aviv, the armies of seven Arab nations invaded Israel in an effort to carry out Azzam Pasha’s “war of extermination,” and the deadliest of Israel’s wars ensued.
When hostilities ended, approximately 6,000 Jews – 1% of the population – had fallen in battle, but Israel had successfully expanded its territorial holdings far beyond the boundaries of the 1947 Partition Plan that had been summarily rejected by the Arabs.
Israel’s sovereignty extended over the Galilee and the Negev all the way to Eilat, the coastal plain was expanded, and Jerusalem itself – the “New City” – came under Israeli jurisdiction.
As the notion of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” had not yet entered the world’s legal or moral lexicon (that ingenious bit of hypocrisy would be concocted to torment Israel only after the Six-Dar War), no retreat to the 1947 borders was contemplated, and the battles ended in the signing of armistice agreements – but no peace treaty – between Israel and most of its adversaries.
In a factual sense, though, the war has never ceased, notwithstanding the variety of peace treaties signed with a number of parties whose commitment and stability are both questionable.
The “era of peace” signaled by those agreements has not yet permeated the Arab masses, and the hatred and intolerance of our enemies show no signs of relenting in the near future. In Israel, wishful thinking and indulgence of fantasies have substituted for sound policy judgment, reasoning, and execution. The three pillars of government are indecision, hesitation and paralysis.
But, in May 1948, for one moment in time, true and gifted leaders made decisions – without consulting pollsters or reading tea leaves and in defiance of some of their closest advisers.
They led, knowing that their choices would have adverse consequences, but with the confidence that the positives far outweighed the negatives.
They made decisions recognizing that war would follow, casualties would ensue, criticism was sure to follow, and political defeat might be their personal fate.
They understood that the good is not the enemy of the perfect, and that inertia is often fatal to both personal and national aspirations.
In our generation – orphaned of real leaders – one looks back longingly on Ben-Gurion’s determination and steely resolve, and Truman’s courage and political will, and marvels at how great leaders with a sense of history can, in fact, shape history and even transform it.
They were neither infallible nor beyond reproach; they were both flawed and biased people who made mistakes before, during and after the transpiring of these events. Yet we recognize that “the Omnipresent has many agents” and that “the heart of a king is like streams of water in the hands of God; wherever He wishes, He directs it” (Proverbs21:1).
Truman and Ben-Gurion stand out as historic figures who acted with daring and steadfastness, and together ushered in a new era in Jewish and world history.
The concerns of some of the opponents of statehood – Jews and non-Jews, religious and otherwise – were not illegitimate. War did come, but the yishuv was not destroyed and was able to repulse the invaders. Israel did not fall into the Soviet orbit – something that in a very short time would cause the Soviet Union to turn against Israel with a vengeance.
Rav Reuven Grozovsky, speaking for the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel, pledged to participate in the governance of Israel, saying that abstention from Israeli politics would mean “relinquishing our basic rights.”
In retrospect, Ben-Gurion, forced to make an agonizing decision, was right, and Truman’s judgment was vindicated. Ben-Gurion knew that war was coming, but chose to fight it on his terms from a position of moral strength – a nation fighting for its independence and not relying on the kindness of strangers or the cult of victimization.
And when Israel’s chief rabbi, Yitzchak Herzog, visiting the White House in 1949, told Truman, “God put you in your mother’s womb so you would be the instrument to bring the rebirth of Israel after two thousand years,” the president burst into tears.
Israel’s founders had a profound knowledge of the Bible, and of the modern state’s place in Jewish history. The contrast to today’s Israel is striking, if not somewhat depressing.
One can only wonder how the Olmert government perceives the glorious struggle for independence and statehood, and how it explains away the jarring contrast of that generation’s decisiveness and accomplishments with its own inadequacies.
Those officials who have boasted about how “tired” the people of Israel are; who have carried out the destruction of Jewish homes and communities and the internal exile of thousands of Jews and are currently plotting future retreats and expulsions; who botched a war and squandered Jewish lives and treasure; who lack a coherent strategy to deal with looming threats and improvise (poorly, at that) in response to each of the enemies’ maneuvers; who have dissipated the justification for Israel’s existence by embracing the enemy’s narrative and conceding that the land of Israel is not inherently Jewish; who shamelessly cling to power through a combination of schemes, spoils and bribes – those officials must cringe at any comparison with even the flawed giants of Israel’s founding.
We look poignantly, even enviously, on that generation – on Truman, on Ben-Gurion, and also on Menachem Begin, who tenaciously spearheaded the underground that enervated the British and hastened their departure and Israel’s establishment.
The mediocrity of today’s leadership underscores the greatness of those who sixty years ago changed our world for the better.
But such greatness, we pray, lurks within our Jewish leaders of tomorrow. Israel’s 60th anniversary is most meaningful if we internalize the spirit of 1948 – the benevolence of our Creator, the justice of our cause, the magnitude of our choices, and the awesome responsibility thrust upon those who move Israel’s destiny forward.
Then, the majestic moment of the Jewish people’s reentry into the world of nations – as overseers and landlords of their own independent, sovereign country – will continue to inspire us to build the Israel of tomorrow, the homeland of all Jews and the foundation of God’s kingdom on earth.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author of “A Prophet for Today: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Yehoshua” (Gefen Books) and the forthcoming “Judges for our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim.”