Celebrating Israeli Independence Day

The modern State of Israel was brought into being after more than 60 years of dreaming and struggle by the leaders of the Zionist Movement -- the national liberation movement of the Jewish People -- that began in Europe at the end of the 19th century and led to our Declaration of Independence, which was proclaimed by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948.

We will celebrate Israel's Independence next Monday night and all day Tuesday in Israel as a national and religious holiday. For many of us, it is "the beginning of the flowering of our redemption" (as stated in one of the versions of the prayer for the state of Israel recited every Shabbat in synagogues in Israel and throughout the world). It is preceded by Memorial Day, a very solemn day in our country on which thousands of people visit cemeteries all over the country to remember those who sacrificed their lives so that this independent Jewish state could be free and prosper.

Israel has changed greatly during the years since the state was founded in 1948. New waves of aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) have helped Israel grow from a population of 600,000 people to a population of 7.9 million people today, 80 percent of whom are Jewish. With time, the idealism and socialism of the pioneering decades in the pre-state era and in the early years of the state, has dissipated greatly. Contemporary Western Culture -- for good and for bad -- has inhibited greatly our previous egalitarianism and socialism to compete in the free market of ideas and trends, especially for the younger generation.

And many decades of wars and intifada (the Palestinian term for "uprisings") -- including a great deal of terrorism, especially suicide bombers -- have pushed the mainstream Jewish population to the right, with the feeling that the world is still out to get us via terrorism and wars that threaten to destroy the Jewish state (not to mention the possibility of a nuclear Iran which promises every day to wipe Israel off the map of the nations of the world).

In other words, the right has take over the center in Israeli political and social life. Perhaps the greatest irony is despite our great military and technological power, we still live with a Holocaust consciousness which reminds us that major powers in the world still seek our destruction. In this sense, we are not yet entirely free, even though we live in a land of freedom, in our own national home.

In the light of this developments, I often wonder whether the idea of a humanistic, liberal understanding of Zionism -- the kind that I believe in and represent -- is still tenable in contemporary Israel. My answer, of course, is yes. Let me explain.

Israel's founding document -- our Declaration of Independence -- is an inspirational statement of the ideals on which this state and society are based. I quote below just a few paragraphs to give the reader some idea of the vision of what kind of state we are supposed to have here in Israel, according to our founding generation:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions....

WE APPEAL - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions...

WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East

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In many ways, all that is called for is a return to these basic values enshrined in our declaration of independence! Indeed, a Jewish organization of which I am a member, Rabbis for Human Rights, has written a new commentary on the Declaration of Independence to remind all Israeli citizens of the basic values upon which this state rests. (Tractate Independence was published in an experimental edition by Rabbis for Human Rights in 2008.)

The Declaration of Independence is a lofty document. Inspired by reading the biblical prophets, our founders envision a society to be based on freedom, justice and peace for all citizens of this state. On this our 65th anniversary of this historic document, I am mindful of how far we have strayed from these original ideals and how much needs to be done in the years ahead to return to try to make these ideals a reality in this country. As President Shimon Peres said in one of his speeches during the visit of President Obama to Israel recently, "We need to turn the Promised Land into a Land of Promise."

Not only do we need to recommit ourselves to establishing a society which will "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex" but we also need to pursue peace seriously with our neighbors, not by merely giving lip service at ceremonial events with good speeches, but by concrete actions that will actually lead to a fair peace agreement and peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians in the land which we all share.