Today is Yom Ha’atzmaut or “Independence Day” in Israel. Yesterday was Yom Hazikaron, or “Memorial Day.”
Yom Ha’atzmaut falls on the fifth of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, which moves a bit through the year as its organized by the Western calendar. This year, Israeli Independence Day falls on 26 April.
There was a flyover of fighter jets earlier today, and the beach here in Tel Aviv is absolutely packed with people doing barbecues, flying kites, and roller skating. At midnight, the transition between Memorial Day and Independence Day was marked by firework displays throughout the country.
Israelis take Memorial Day very seriously. In such a small country, virtually every family that’s been here for a while has lost somebody in a war or to terrorist attacks. The pain is national, but also deeply personal and very real. Twice during Memorial Day a siren sounds, and every Israeli pauses at that point for two minutes in memoriam.
It’s essential, for anybody who wants to understand Israel, to understand its birth out of the incredible pain of the Holocaust and its continued life under constant threat and frequent war. The pain commemorated in Memorial Day makes the happiness and pride of Independence Day all the more powerful.
What was achieved on the original Independence Day in 1948?
For the first time in more than two millennia, Jews had their own independent state.
What did that mean?
There weren’t substantially more Jews in Palestine than the day before. What had shifted was the fact that Jews now had a government of their own.
“Political power,” Mao Tse-tung famously and cynically but accurately observed, “flows from the barrel of a gun.” What is unique to government or to the state, as opposed to, say, corporations or churches, is a legal monopoly on force, on the power to coerce. (Hence my comment, the other day, about the distinction between the voluntary character of tithes and the compulsory nature of taxes.)
Jews had been harassed and even butchered by European governments for a very long time prior to 1948. Now, they not only had a refuge in Palestine — the Yishuv or Jewish settlement in Palestine had been growing for many decades — but a government of their own: their own sphere in which to exercise a legal monopoly of force, and to defend themselves, legally, with force.
This has, in the opinion of the vast majority of Jews, been a very, very good thing.
One sometimes wonders, though, whether it hasn’t come at some serious moral cost to Judaism. Has it corrupted one of the great religious traditions of humankind? Certainly not altogether. But it seems to me arguable that at least some strains of Judaism have had to compromise certain principles — especially after 1967, when Israel became (even more than it had been since 1948) an occupying power, ruling over a very unhappy subject people. Some Zionists dreamed of a Jewish presence in their ancient homeland without wishing for a state. That may or may not have been practical. But one has to wonder whether even those early socialists and idealists who founded the first kibbutzim in Palestine and dreamed of an autonomous Jewish nation would have been willing to sacrifice as they did in order to see Israel become essentially a state like every other. Not a utopia, not a spiritual light to the nations, but, on the whole, a rather successful but ordinary government with a powerful military in a very, very dangerous neighborhood. Would they be satisfied with the decaying Bauhaus architecture and beach hotels of modern, highly secular Tel Aviv?
As you can perhaps recognize, I myself am ambivalent about all this. I once lived briefly on a kibbutz, and I disliked it intensely. I’m a libertarian on economics, not a socialist. But I recognize the idealism of the early Zionist movement, the dream of fulfilling the vision of social justice described by ancient prophets like Amos and Micah, and I see little of that still surviving in the prosperous, powerful, technologically advanced Israel of 2012. For many modern Israelis, nationalism seems to have taken the place of historic Jewish religious belief. Is that ultimately enough?
Posted from Tel Aviv, Israel.