February 23, 2020

The Second and Third Israeli Miracles

Much of the commentary on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding has focused on the miraculous re-creation of the Jewish state after 1,878 years, on the same land where Jewish kingdoms had existed for centuries, with Jews speaking the same language in 1948 that they spoke in the first century, when the Romans exiled them from their land.

But there was another miracle in 1948. David Ben-Gurion described it in an essay he wrote in 1954, when Israel was six years old, titled “The Eternity of Israel.”

The second miracle, Ben-Gurion wrote, was the extraordinary Jewish unity on May 14, 1948. Zionism had never been a single ideology. The movement included very disparate factions — Labor Zionists, Religious Zionists, Socialist Zionists, Revisionist Zionists, General Zionists, Cultural Zionists — and the conflicts among them had been fierce. But every group signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence after resolving a final, seemingly intractable issue: Some of the Zionists insisted that the document express thanks to God, while others were adamantly opposed, since they thought the Jewish state was solely the result of human effort, in a world where God was either indifferent or did not exist.

Ben-Gurion managed a compromise through the use of a skillful phrase. In its final form, the declaration expressed the signatories’ faith in the “Rock of Israel.” It was a phrase that could be read as a reference to God — or rather as a metaphor for Jewish national strength.

Everyone signed the declaration — including the non-Zionist Jews, from (in Ben-Gurion’s words) “the Communists, who had forever fought against the Zionist enterprise as reactionary, bourgeois, chauvinistic, and counter-revolutionary, to Agudat Yisrael, which had perceived as apostasy any attempt to bring about the redemption of Israel through natural means.” From left to right, every Jewish group joined.

David Ben-Gurion concluded that it was “difficult to assess which of the two [1948] miracles was greater — the miracle of independence or the miracle of unity.”

In his essay, Ben-Gurion concluded that it was “difficult to assess which of the two miracles was greater — the miracle of independence or the miracle of unity.”

As Israel turns 70, unity is not a notable feature of Israeli democracy. The current Knesset includes 17 political parties. The government is a shaky coalition comprised of five of them, holding a bare majority of seats. The prime minister is surrounded by politicians who believe they could do a better job than he can. Josephus, the first-century historian, described Jewish politics at that time as consisting of disputes between religious and secular parties, with numerous Jewish leaders who “competed for supremacy because no prominent person could bear to be subject to his equals.” Two millennia later, not much has changed.

Israeli governments since 1948 have been a coalition of both secular and religious parties, with a constant political battle between opposing leaders, in a country known for its boisterous politics. In his May 15, 2008, address to the Knesset, marking Israel’s 60th anniversary, President George W. Bush noted it was “a rare privilege for the American president to speak to the Knesset,” but that the prime minister “told me there is something even rarer — to have just one person in this chamber speaking at a time.”

And that is the third Israel miracle. Along with its fractured politics — interrupted momentarily by the miraculous unity of May 14, 1948 — Israel has produced one of the world’s most vibrant democracies and most dynamic economies, a civilian-based military force that has defended Israel (a state the size of New Jersey) against genocidal wars waged by much larger foes, and a society that respects the rights of women, gays and Arabs (who — men and women alike — have considerably greater civil rights and religious freedom than Arabs in Arab states, and have no less than three Arab parties in the Knesset).

The third Israeli miracle demonstrates that, in fact, a fractious democracy may well be a necessary condition for generating the variety of ideas and leaders that can move a society forward — just as the multiple approaches to Zionism produced remarkable leaders across Zionism’s left (Ben-Gurion), right (Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin) and center (Chaim Weizmann), creating a national movement spanning the Jewish political spectrum.

Israeli-Palestinian peace remains elusive, but surely a significant part of the problem is that the Palestinians lack a political system that could move them in a different direction from the one they have followed, for so long, to their detriment. Today, half of them are ruled by a terrorist dictatorship, and half by an autocratic president still in office 10 years after his term expired. Neither half of the Palestinian polity has a working legislature, much less a variety of political parties, and nowhere is there freedom to debate different approaches without fear.

In the past 80 years, the Palestinian Arabs have rejected no fewer than six offers of a state: in 1937 (the Peel Commission), 1939 (the British White Paper), 1947 (U.N. Resolution 181), 2000 (the Israeli Camp David offer), 2000-01 (the Clinton Parameters) and 2008 (the Israeli offer at the end of the Annapolis Process). Their holdover president regularly states that he will “never” recognize a Jewish state. Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza produced only new rocket wars from its enemies, from new forward positions.

Despite its miraculous success, Israel thus remains under existential threat. Iranian-backed forces have trained more than 100,000 rockets on Israel, from both the north and south, and Iranian proxies advance ever closer to Israel from the east. The Iranian nuclear program is only temporarily restricted, while its missile program proceeds apace. Iran continually makes its final goal unmistakably clear.

The Jewish state requires eternal vigilance. Past miracles are no assurance of future ones: In the words of the Talmud, one should believe in miracles but not depend on them. For the Jewish people, there is never an end of history.

But on its 70th anniversary, we can pause to reflect on the fact that Israel is a living monument to what faith, freedom and democracy can achieve. The Rock of Israel has generated multiple miracles.

Rick Richman is the author of “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler” (Encounter Books, 2018).