The survival – and even the creation – of the State of Israel was was in doubt from the beginning. On May 14, 1948, when Zionist leader David Ben Gurion read out the independence proclamation that finally created a Jewish State, it seemed like a dream, but there were fears it could become a nightmare. On November 29, 1947, after a tense ballot, the United Nations voted to divide the land of Israel into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The local Arab population rejected the plan and no one knew what would happen on May 14, 1948 when the British Mandate, which ruled Palestine after the First World War, would end.
BENNY MORRIS, RIGHTEOUS VICTIMS: A HISTORY OF THE ZIONIST-ARAB CONFLICT, 1881-2001 During the period 1934-1938 about forty thousand Jews entered Palestine illegally, and another nine thousand by September 1939. But less than sixteen thousand made it during the following six years, when the need for sanctuary was at its most acute.
CHAIM WEIZMANN, SPEECH DELIVERED AT THE 27TH ZIONIST CONGRESS, 1939, QUOTED IN HOWARD SACHAR, A HISTORY OF ISRAEL It is with a heavy heart that I take my leave. If, as I hope, we are spared in life and our work continues, who knows—perhaps a new light will shine upon us from the thick, dark gloom.
DAVID BEN GURION, QUOTED IN MARTIN GILBERT, ISRAEL: A HISTORY We will fight with the British against Hitler as if there were no White Paper; we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.
AMOS OZ, A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS My father and mother were standing there hugging one another like two children lost in the woods, as I had never seen them before or since, and for a moment I was between them inside their hug and a moment later I was back on Father’s shoulders and my very cultured, polite father was standing there shouting at the top of his voice, not words or wordplay or Zionist slogans, not even cries of joy, but one long naked shout like before words were invented.
DANIEL GORDIS, ISRAEL: A CONCISE HISTORY OF A NATION REBORN Unlike the American Declaration of Independence, which speaks both of God and the Creator, the Israeli declaration makes no mention of God. To pacify the religious elements who hoped for a more overtly religious text, the declaration does say, “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the Provisional Council of state,” but that was an intentionally ambiguous phrasing. To the religious, “Rock of Israel” was a traditional phrase that always meant God. To the secularists, statehood had nothing to do with God; the Rock of Israel was therefore Jewish history, Jewish grit, or the newfound ability of the Jews to defend themselves.
ANITA SHAPIRA, BEN-GURION: FATHER OF MODERN ISRAEL Then Ben-Gurion in his familiar metallic voice unwaveringly declaimed the Declaration of Independence. “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel…” He did not share his feelings and fears with anyone, and even in his diary noted tersely, “At 4pm Jewish independence was declared and the state was established. Its fate is in the hands of the defense forces.”
FRANCINE KLAGSBURN, LIONESS: GOLDA MEIR AND THE NATION OF ISRAEL More soberly, she [Golda Meir] directed her words to the Arabs. “You have fought your battle against us in the UN,” she said. “The partition plan is a compromise: not what you wanted, not what we wanted. But now let us live in friendship and peace together.”
During the period in which the British outlawed immigration, many Jews defied those orders and came to the Holy Land anyway. These Jews, known as the ma’apilim, or illegal immigrants, became heroes in Israeli consciousness. They made the decision to flout the law in order to seek refuge in their ancient and sacred homeland. How do we make decisions that are against the law but might be in our personal best interest? This is a classic moral dilemma. Use the Heinz Dilemma as a way to discuss and debate the ethical nature of this.
Mordechai Bentov, an Israeli journalist and a signatory to Israel’s declaration of independence, said, “In the room sat 10 Jews who had to make what was perhaps the most important decision in the history of the people of Israel for 2,000 years.” Do you view the decision made by David Ben Gurion and the other nine people who made the decision to declare independence to be among the most momentous occasions in Jewish history? What would round out your top 5 moments in Jewish history?
Golda Meir speaks about the value of compromise and how the Partition Plan decided upon by the UN was not perfect for either side. This idea is seen also through a poem by famed Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who wondered, ‘‘What is more important—a small hope or a big dream?” Mohammed Dajani Daoudi of Wasatia explains that in an ideal world, the Palestinians would have all of Israel and from an Israeli perspective, in an ideal world, Israel would have the entire land. This huge dream from both sides should be disciplined instead by a small hope, Daoudi argues. When thinking about the Palestinians and the Israelis, which side do you think has been more willing to err on the side of a “small hope” instead of a “big dream,” and what do you think should be done to insist on more compromise, as Golda Meir envisioned?
After 2,000 years of Jewish exile and frequent oppression, the reestablishment of the State of Israel was a watershed moment, especially for those Jews who had been recently persecuted in the pogroms and Nazi campaign throughout Europe. Given this breakthrough, try to imagine what must have been going through the minds of Jews in Israel witnessing this moment. Write a first-person short letter from the perspective of someone who lived through this celebratory occasion writing to explain to his or her relatives what just occurred.
Keeping in mind the previous activity, now write a letter from the perspective of an Arab neighbor living in Haifa who has just witnessed the birth of Israel. What do you think could be his or her feelings, experiences and reservations about what just occurred. Write a letter from this perspective addressed to his/her fellow Jewish neighbor who is celebrating the reestablishment of the state of Israel.