Celebrating Israel’s Birthday
The State of Israel celebrates its 60th birthday today. All Americans should take a moment today and think about this anniversary and why we too should join the celebration. Palestine was stuck in the Middle Ages in 1948. The Ottoman Empire had ruled the area for centuries until its collapse in World War I. A British Mandate governed the territory until 1948 by which time Israel had become a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe. But, throughout the centuries, pious Jews had prayed at every Passover seder "next year, in Jerusalem." Israel may have vanished from the political maps. It never vanished from Jewish consciousness or, for that matter, from God’s Covenant with the Jews. As Catholics, our relationship with the Jewish people could hardly be more complicated or more shameful. Antisemitism had flourished within and without the Church. Pogroms in Catholic Poland betrayed this hatred. The Dreyfus Affair in France was largely the work of reactionary Catholic monarchists. And, of course, the sad history of the Spanish Inquisition showed before the Holocaust the irrational extent to which hatred of Jews could lead a people and a nation in Catholic Spain. The Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II changed all of that. The Council denounced the charge of deicide against the Jews and brought about a new appreciation for the Covenant with Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures. John Paul II went to the synagogue in Rome and called the Jewish people "our elder brothers." (That ghetto had been created by his predecessors to "protect" Christians from the contamination of Jews although, in an odd twist, many Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain came to Rome because Jewish life was less threatened there.) Of all the visual images of John Paul’s rock star-like trips, the most poignant surely was of a bent over, aging Pontiff placing his prayer note into a crevice in the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem. He also finally ended the diplomatic scandal of the Vatican’s previous unwillingness to maintain formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. As Americans, we have a different reason to celebrate Israel. She is our best ally in the world. Part of this is strategic: ever since Harry S. Truman, over the vigorous objections of the State Department, recognized the State of Israel 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the state’s existence in 1948, Israel and America have been in a strategic partnership. In an often chaotic part of the world, we had an ally that was stable and secure. But, there is a deeper reason than strategic necessity for the alliance. It has to do with shared values. Israel may have been born physically in what was once Palestine but it was born intellectually in the heart of the West. Its founders were European liberals and socialists, people familiar with the Enlightenment and its views on the proper role of government. In 1948, if you wanted to know what pre-war central Europe felt like and sounded like, the best place to go was not the war-ravaged remains of Berlin or Warsaw, but to Tel Aviv. Part of that cultural inheritance was a respect for the law of civilization. During the war that followed Israel’s declaration of Independence, the fledgling Jewish army was in desperate need of guns. The Irgun, a group of Jewish terrorists, filled up a boat, the Altalena, with weapons and ran the blockade outside the harbor in Haifa. Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel faced a dilemma. His army needed those weapons. But accepting them meant doing business with terrorists, albeit Jewish terrorists, who demanded their share of the weaponry. If he took them, he would be complicit in their crimes. If he refused them, Israel might not survive. Ben-Gurion ordered the Jewish Defense Forces to sink the Altalena. The order was carried out by a young captain, Yitzhak Rabin. The first premise of public morality in a civilized society is that might does not make right. In 1948, the fledgling Jewish state joined the ranks of civilized nations and she still stands there. It is a reason for all of us to celebrate. Michael Sean Winters
Louis J. Cameli
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