A Unity of Purpose
When it comes to the “greatest” of anything, opinions vary. If the United Nations voted on which nation is the greatest, it’s likely no country would get more than a single vote. If you Google the greatest watershed moments in world history, you’ll find many candidates—from the American, French and industrial revolutions to the smallpox vaccine, Guttenberg’s printing press and, well, the creation of Google itself.
But I am confident I can make one greatest assertion that can’t be seriously contradicted: In Jewish history, May 14, 1948, the day that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed modern Israel’s independence, was the most important date in the last 2,000 years. It utterly transformed life as we know it, not just by recreating Jewish sovereignty but also by altering the self-image, culture and security of millions of Jews who were alive then or born subsequently. (Because of the elastic relationship between the Hebrew and secular calendars, Yom Ha’atzmaut—Independence Day—was celebrated in Israel this year on April 26.)
The impact of Israel’s independence was not a temporary shift of perception but a permanent change in the Jewish condition. Jews everywhere knew there was now a fixed homeland where, if and when they showed up as immigrants—a status every Jewish family in history has had at one time or another—the door would be open. This has been true for those comfortably ensconced in America, stuck in the Soviet Union, waiting in refugee camps in Germany, suddenly threatened in Egypt or Iraq, or anywhere else—whether we contemplated moving or staying put.
Holidays, whether secular or religious, typically take us back to a time long before our own, reminding us that the world was not always as it is today. And what changed in 1948 was unique.
Israel’s existence altered the way the world looks at the Jewish people, mostly, though not always, for the better. And it altered the way we look at ourselves, in both pride and self-awareness. Perhaps the most edifying result of Israel’s growth and development is that it enabled us to get to see our grand diversity. For the better part of two millennia, homogeneous Jewish communities lived largely in ignorance of the wide spectrum of Jewish culture and custom. The ingathering of the exiles in Israel allowed us to see our true colors and—in the most literal sense—to unite.
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Nationhood is wonderful, but exile was a good teacher. Israel and the Jewish people will endure only if we remain aware of vulnerabilities past and present. Ben-Gurion understood this as it applied to both war and peace.
“In the conflict of wills, the stronger will wins,” he observed in Ben Gurion Looks Back in Talks with Moshe Pearlman. “I knew we would be vastly outnumbered…. But for the Arab armies, failure would not mean the loss of their countries…. For us it would mean national destruction.”
Like the grand sweep of Jewish history, Israel is still a work in progress, struggling to define itself. Great doesn’t mean perfect, and a crisis of the moment should not distract us from a miracle for the ages.
The measure of anything called “greatest”—person, invention or event—should not be competing phenomena but the far-from-great conditions that illuminated the path to greatness. May the Jewish people, in respect, in debate and in our drive to improve, always recognize the conditions that led us to May 14, 1948, and strive for a unity not of opinion, but of purpose. And may Israel be, as it already is in so many ways, a light unto the nations.
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