(First Published in the Jewish Press, April 20, 2018)
The establishment of the state of Israel seventy 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 of statehood 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 people…in the State Department who always wanted to cut my throat. They are succeeding in doing it.”
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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 murdered six million Jews and that underscored 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 seventy years, is still on the table, even if the United States today produces more oil than Saudi Arabia. Forrestal also averred that a Jewish state – under Socialist-minded rulers – 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.
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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 for the next 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 clever 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.
The concerns of some of the opponents of statehood – Jews and non-Jews, religious and otherwise – were not illegitimate. War did come and exacted a heavy toll in Jewish lives lost 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.
In the meantime, the process of state-building – the first for the Jewish people in almost two millennia – unfolded. 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.” And in retrospect, Ben-Gurion, forced to make an agonizing decision, was right, and Truman’s judgment was vindicated. When Israel’s chief rabbi, Yitzchak Herzog, visiting the White House in 1949, told Harry 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. Ben-Gurion, who knew that war was inevitable, chose to fight it on his own 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.
Israel’s founders had a profound knowledge of the Bible, of the modern state’s place in Jewish history, and of the wars that needed to be waged to found and preserve the Jewish state.
In one sense, those wars have never ceased, although their nature has changed in the recent past. The era of “peace” signaled by those agreements has not yet materialized, and the hatred and intolerance that lingers in part of the Muslim world show no signs of relenting in the near future. In Israel, the wishful thinking and indulgence of fantasies of the Oslo era have receded for the most part, its extravagant oratory and ceremonies drowned out by the din of too many suicide bombs, bullets, rockets and missiles. A greater realism has engendered sounder policy judgments, reasoning, and execution. That, too, can change in an instant, motivated politically by a potential new array of leaders, Arab and Israeli, who will try to sell again the same used rug of territorial surrender and Israeli concessions as the panacea that has not yet been tried. But it is also engendered by this spiritual reality: every mitzvah has a yetzer hara that counters it and tries to undermine or weaken its observance. The mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael is no different, and its yetzer hara is couched in conferences, treaties, international popularity and acclaim, and intense pressure to relinquish the land itself. It can be difficult to resist once it is proffered – and it will be proffered again. The Oslo mentality has been shattered but not completely purged from the Israeli mindset. Israel’s leaders are still largely hesitant to move the nation’s destiny forward and therefore refrain from asserting fully its rights that are grounded in God’s gifts, the Torah, and the dictates of morality and justice.
Yet, Israel, with G-d’s blessings, is in a remarkably good place as its seventieth anniversary is celebrated. A temporary rapprochement has been achieved with many of the countries surrounding Israel – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others – born not necessarily of love of Israel but of fear of their common enemy, Iran. That Israel would form an alliance with an arc of Sunni Muslim states to ward off the common threats from Shiite Iran could not have been predicted even ten years ago. Would that Israel’s leadership were better able to exploit this moment in history – a friendly American president and alliances with its Arab neighbors – to change the entire dynamic of the conflict and move beyond preserving the status quo.
In another extraordinary development, the attitudes of much of the Arab world toward Israel have shifted from hatred to jealousy, even a grudging admiration of what Israel has been able to achieve – a prosperous, stable, just, free and diverse society – all of which stands in stark contrast to the economic hardships, political instability, and notable lack of freedom that plague their own countries. For sure, many Arabs still harbor the fantasies of Israel’s disappearance but many more, especially the modern ones, would love to emulate the openness and success of Israeli society. Israeli ingenuity, technological genius, and economic success are conspicuous in the Middle East especially and in the world generally, and Israel’s willingness to expend its resources saving lives and rescuing innocents across the globe is in the best tradition of the aspirations of our ancient, holy people. Many would never admit it publicly but Israel is perceived as a beacon of morality and human rights.
Those who listen closely can already hear echoes of Yeshayahu’s prophecy of old in the voice of the nations of the world: “It will happen at the end of days. The mountain of G-d’s House will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, it will be lofty above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, ‘come, let us go up the Mountain of G-d, to the Temple of the G-d of Yaakov, and he will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will go forth the Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 2:3). Is it not uncanny how so many nations today crave Yerushalayim, want a share in Yerushalayim, and cannot – for reasons they cannot articulate – embrace President Trump’s recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital? Indeed, but that day of acceptance is fast approaching as well. There is still a road ahead to be traveled but that road has guideposts pointing in only one direction.
Seventy years ago, in Iyar 5708, 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 advisors. 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, we look back longingly on Ben-Gurion’s determination and steely resolve and Truman’s courage and political will, and marvel 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 these events transpired. 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” (Proverbs 21:1). Such gifts of leadership, we pray, lurk within our Jewish leaders of tomorrow. Israel’s 70th anniversary is most meaningful if we internalize the spirit of 1948 – acknowledging the benevolence of our Creator, the justice of our cause, the magnitude of our choices, and the awesome responsibility thrust upon those who are G-d’s partners in building the Torah state and advancing the era of redemption.
May the majestic moment of the Jewish people’s reentry into the world of nations – as overseers and landlords of our own independent, sovereign country – continue to inspire us to build the Israel of tomorrow, the homeland of all Jews and the foundation of God’s kingdom on earth. Seventy years later, Jews and friends of Israel across the world can only bless the Creator of all who kept us alive, sustained us and brought our generation to this moment in history.