By Aliza Gershon
As the nation arises
Torn at heart but breathing
To receive its miracle, the only miracle.
With soft voice: We –
Are the silver platter
On which the Jews’ state
Was presented today.
Thus wrote Natan Alterman in his celebrated poem, “The Silver Platter,” in December 1947, anticipating the rebirth of national sovereignty by a few months.
The establishment of the State of Israel 70 years ago was one of the great revolutions in history: a people dispersed throughout the world and deprived of its own land for more than 2,000 years, shook off the dust of the Diaspora and resettled in its historic land. It created governing systems, educational and industrial infrastructures, culture, medicine and agriculture.
To whom does the credit for this great revolution belong? Certainly to those who uprooted themselves from their families and homelands and immigrated to the Land of Israel to settle in Degania and Hanita. And to those who left the walls of Jerusalem and Safed. And to those who survived the agonies of the Holocaust and immediately set off to bear weapons during the War of Independence. And to those who arrived and were sent to the ma’abarot (immigrant camps) where they had to endure leaky tents and deprivation. And to those who set up home in remote settlements in the sparsely populated frontiers of the young nation.
Over the years, the Israeli nation divided into different tribal groupings, each of which regards its own principles as a guarantee for the continued existence of the country’s Jewish society. The haredim (ultra-orthodox) believe that study of Bible and Talmud protects us and that it is halacha (Jewish law) that should guide the path of the nation; in contrast, the secular are convinced that national activism is what ensures the existence of a modern and strong Jewish state.
But the truth is that the two forces needed to unite together to ensure that the miracle could take place.
It would have been impossible to create a state without abandoning the study halls of exile and without being affected by the winds of revolution that swept across Europe during the 19th century. It would have been impossible to create democratic institutions without embracing the values of enlightenment, democracy, human rights, equality and the right of the individual to defense and security.
But despite all that, there is little doubt that the religious yearning for the Land of Israel was the wind beating in the wings of revolution. The concept of “Return to Zion,” and the age-old prayer, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem,” recited at every Jewish wedding, as well as fundamental narratives regarding the destruction of the Temples and “Let my People Go!,” were an inherent part of the national Jewish DNA during 2,000 years of exile.
Without the religious fervor that accompanied the yearning for the Land of Israel, Zionism would not have come about. Without that religious fervor, a national movement could have led to the creation of a Jewish state in Uganda. Without that religious fervor, there would have been no common ground that united Jewish anarchists throughout the world.
All of them were familiar with the biblical promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each of them knew that Jews turn their faces to the east in prayer and they could all recite the words Shema Israel in Hebrew. They drew spiritual justification for their secular beliefs from their Judaism.
On the other hand, without the secular rejection of the Diaspora, the young men would never have abandoned study of Gemara in favor of the plough and hoe. Concepts such as freedom and brotherhood to which they were exposed, and the striving for democracy that swept like a wind across the west, led them to jump on the wagons of change and gallop in the direction of Zion, bearing flags, to effect a miracle.
Today too, in the 70th year of our independence, we are enjoined to reflect on these forces that continue to exist and which cause not a few conflicts in our society. We need to understand that only synergy between them will enable us to realize the great aims of a multi-faceted people that adheres to the principles of individual freedom and the right to respect, but that at the same time, strives to strengthen and deepen an appreciation for its national identity and heritage.
Aliza Gershon is CEO of Tzav Pius.