Today the four women who make up CFOIC Heartland’s Israel office went on an outing, to recharge our batteries and learn something new about our wonderful land of Israel. We chose the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv which tells the story of the pre-State underground group which did so much to protect the Jews in the Land of Israel before the State was established and which later formed the core of the IDF. Although I was quite familiar with the history of the era, it was a moving presentation and enabled us to reflect on the great sacrifices that were made by so many young men and women so that the State of Israel would survive. As we left the museum, we talked about the bravery of these Palmach fighters. Some of them had just escaped from Nazi Europe and had lost all of their families in the ovens of Auschwitz. Some of them grew up on farm settlements and their families had drained the swamps in the Galilee and created new communities in the Negev. Others were from Jerusalem and took part in brave attempts to defend that city and break through the siege that left its Jewish inhabitants starving and desperate. With almost no ammunition and far too few weapons, they held on and prevailed and the State of Israel was born. Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu took part in a memorial service for Israel’s first prime minster and pre-State mythical leader, David Ben-Gurion. In his speech, he recalled Ben-Gurion’s bravery in declaring the state. The British Mandate was due to end on May 15, 1948 and the UN had voted six months earlier to create Jewish and Arab states in Palestine, but the Arabs had not only rejected the UN decision, but were already attacking and murdering Jews ruthlessly throughout the land. Five Arab armies stood poised to invade Israel the minute the British left and there were some in Israel and many around the world who thought that declaring a State would only exacerbate things. They worried about international condemnation, boycotts and the destruction of the small Jewish population then living in the Land of Israel. And yet, Ben-Gurion understood that his was a time of heroism and decision. That he held responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people, including hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors in refugee camps whom no one wanted. He made the decision and on May 14, 1948, he declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Netanyahu recalled that decision: “Great statesmen as well as friends of the Jews and of Zionism warned Ben-Gurion that declaring a Jewish state in 1948 would bring an invasion of Arab armies and a grave and difficult battle. He understood full well the decision carried a heavy price, but he believed not making that decision had a heavier price. We are all here today because Ben-Gurion made the right decision at the right moment.” Most commentators assumed that Netanyahu was making a veiled reference to the dangers emanating from Iran and the need for the leaders of Israel to make difficult decisions. I am convinced that Netanyahu did have this issue in mind when he spoke these words. But I am equally convinced that Netanyahu’s message is the message of Israel from its inception. No other country has had to make life and death decisions so often, in such a short number of years. These decisions have been made on the government level, on the military level and on the individual level throughout our short history. Prime Ministers and their ministers have had to decide, then as now, how to respond to existential threats. Generals and lower-level commanders have had to decide whether to shoot a suspected terrorist or approach him, hoping that he is not strapped with explosives. And individuals have made daily decisions as to where to travel, what precautions to take, how to protect their children and families, whether to travel on bullet-proof busses and whether to hike along beautiful hills and valleys that might hide terrorists. As a society, we have chosen caution but we have also chosen to live full lives. We have refused to stay locked behind closed doors and high walls and we have remained determined to live our lives to their fullest. Whether in Israel’s largest cities or in its smallest villages, Israelis are out, on the streets, at all hours of the day and night. Neighbors trust each other and perfect strangers help each other. In our 63 years, we have developed theater, television and movie industries, symphony orchestras, universities, brilliant scientific and technological innovations which benefit all of humanity. Our hospitals are among the finest in the world. We are known as the people of the Book, and we take that tradition seriously. Israelis read and write books in astounding numbers. More Jews are studying the Bible in Israel today that at any time in history. And the Bible is alive in our daily conversation as Israelis from every walk of life continue to explore their relationship to Jewish history, to G-d and to the Land of Israel. Newspapers and the media in Israel are dynamic models of democracy. Vociferous debates are encouraged and every opinion is heard. Recent attempts to pass legislation in the Knesset regarding libel laws and the Supreme Court are not reflections of an attempt to muzzle any part of society but a tribute to the freedom of our society. Opinions are freely held and exchanged and the debate remains lively. The message of the Palmach’s brilliant legacy and Netanyahu’s recent speech are both reflective of a society that has had to take risks since its inception and yet refuses to succumb to despair. The famous slogan that became the symbol of the struggle for freedom of Soviet Jewry was “Am Yisrael Chai” – the Nation of Israel lives. And that is the message that must ring in our ears, even as we consider the threat from Iran and the criticism that never ceases to be directed at us from politicians all over the world. Yes, the challenges are many and the decisions difficult. But the Nation of Israel lives! We will overcome the challenges and with G-d’s help, we will not only survive. We will thrive.
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