Israel's 50th Anniversary

Presented by David P. Stern 7 March 1997 in Greenbelt, Maryland



Public Anniversaries

Today let us talk about public anniversaries. Not private ones like birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but anniversaries for an entire nation observes. How many can we recall?

      Nearly 22 years ago, in 1976, we had the bicentennial anniversary of the American Revolution. Quite a festive summer, it was--the Air and Space Museum opened, and Washington Metro started to run. On the 4th of July 1976, 200 years after the US declaration of independence, the celebration reached its peak in New York harbor, with fireworks, tall ships and what not. And then, it was promptly upstaged by something that caught the public's eye much more than the round number of years. Anyone remembers?

      That's right, it was the rescue of the hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, by Israeli paratroopers. The only casualty was the commanding officer of the force, Yonathan Netanyahu, brother of Israel's prime minister today.

      Then in 1989 came the 200th anniversary of the French revolution, of the storming of the Bastille, widely viewed as the benchmark for the start of the modern era. It certainly was one for Jews, for in that revolution gave them their civil rights. First this only happened in Francs, but later, in all lands captured by Napoleon's French Army, Jews received similar rights--except for Russia and Poland, where Napoleon failed. Once attained, those rights were retained.

      But a funny thing happened in 1989. The French indeed staged a big anniversary parade on Bastille day, but it was a strange one, more entertaining than commemorating, and the rest of the celebrations were rather low key. Maybe France remembered how the revolution also brought the reign of terror, when thousands of innocents were sent to the guillotine, and it decided, it was OK to remember, but better not get into details.

      Something similar happened in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus. A major anniversary--500 years, a very round number--yet it ended as a rather quiet remembrance. Suddenly, it seemed, people also recalled that the Caribbean Indians who welcomed Columbus vanished from the scene not long afterwards, and other natives in Peru and Mexico were soon enslaved. As for us Jews, 1992 seemed more fit for mourning than celebration, because it was also the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

50 Years of Israel Independence

So public anniversaries can bring up mixed memories. I say this because we are fast approaching a very significant anniversary--50 years to the declaration of the State of Israel. How many here can name the day?

      The official date will be Thursday, the 30th of April. The state was declared on the 5th of Iyar, 5708, which was May 14, 1948. But this year the celebration will be shifted ahead by one day, to the 4th of Iyar, because the 5th is a Friday, and it is traditional to shift holidays that fall on Fridays, so as not to interfere with preparations for the Sabbath. As those familiar with the Jewish calendar might know, in addition to the periodic insertion of an extra month to keep up with the seasons, that calendar also contains various minor adjustments, for reasons like this.

      Actually, the celebration of related anniversaries has already started. November 29th last year was the 50th anniversary of the UN decision to divide British Palestine between Jews and Arabs, opening the door to the establishment of Israel, It was a narrow vote, made possible only because Stalin's Soviet Union decided not to block it, for political reasons of its own.

      [The Jewish date was 16 Kislev, which would make December 15, 1997 the anniversary, but here observances seems to follow the common calendar.]

      While Jews danced in the streets, Arab leaders resolved to oppose partition, and next day a Jewish bus was attacked and five passengers were killed. I remember that, because one of the dead was Hans Bayd, an immigration officer who had helped my family when it arrived in 1939, arranging for me--8 years old at the time--to be placed in a boarding school.

      The period between those two dates-- from the 29th of November 1947, to 15 May 1948, the day after the declaration of independence, when the armies of neighboring Arab states invaded and the British pulled out--that critical for everyone.

      The Jews had little in the way of weapons, nothing to match Arab armies, no airplanes and tanks, just trucks armored with boilerplate. A desperate effort began to purchase at least some means of defense, and the Czech nation came to the rescue. The Czechs always had a large armament industry, which the Nazis took over during the war, and a great deal of German equipment was still on hand, left over from World War II. That was now sold to the new state, which is why the rifle issued to me that June, when I was conscripted to the army, bore a swastika, overstamped with the emblem of Israel. That also was the reason, why for a while the only defense of Tel Aviv against the Egyptian Air Force were three Messerschmidt 109 fighter planes.

      But it was a crucial period in other ways too. If only the Arab leadership were not been unanimous in opposing the Jewish state, the two nations might have lived together in peace. Certainly, many Jews were willing to do so--for one thing, they were aware of the military weakness of their side. Instead, during those critical 6 months, events drifted further and still further from peaceful accommodation.

      It would take too long to discuss this complicated period--it was very complicated--but, in different circumstances, history might have developed completely differently. When Arabs fled Haifa where my family lived, some 4000 stayed behind and became citizens of Israel. Later, when Israel appeared strong enough to prevail, the Arab inhabitants of the Galilee surrendered to it, and as a result, the Galilee still has a majority Arab population, citizens of Israel with representatives in the Knesset.

The Opening Gap

In any case, the anniversary is approaching, and I am beginning to wonder if there, too--as in 1989 and 1992--sober realization is not dampening the festivities. I have yet to hear about US Jews getting excited, getting worked up towards this magic date, 50 years of Israel.

      Indeed, Israel has nowadays a very low profile indeed in US Jewish communities. How many Jews knew they could have voted for delegates to the International Zionist Congress? I, for one, only heard about it later, by accident. By tradition, our congregation continues to hold Israel bond appeals on Yom Kippur, and occasionally discusses of Israeli politics, but too few cultural ties remain It has not had an Israel Committee for decades.

      Sadly, many Israeli politicians prefer it that way. They seek support but reject involvement--"you cannot understand us if you do not live in Israel" is what they say. Here too there might have been once a fork in the road. The wrong turn was taken, and now, on this anniversary, the gap between US Jews and their brethren in Israel--especially, secular Jews of either community, still the majority and perhaps the most creative part--that gap is wider than ever.

      As the 50th anniversary of Yom Ha'Atzma'ut is drawing near, people on both sides have the uneasy feeling that "something should be done." But what, and by whom, remains a wide open question. Meanwhile, even if we choose not to go into details, we should still remember.

      Shabbat Shalom.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 25 June 2002