Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, N '95, on the Declaration of the State of Israel

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sixty years after Jews transcended their denominational divides to proclaim the establishment of a state "for the benefit of all its inhabitants", have we succeeded in fulfilling their legacy of pluralism and tolerance? 

On May 14, 1948, at precisely 16:00 in the afternoon, some 250 people packed the main hall of the Tel Aviv Museum. The crowd, solemn and tense, represented a heterogeneous cross-section of the Jewish population of the Yishuv: kibbutz members in sandals and khaki; socialist intellectuals in suits and wire-rimmed glasses; South African immigrants in their traditional garb; religious Zionists, clean-shaven and in skullcaps; and even ultra-Orthodox rabbis, bearded and behatted. The previous years had seen bitter wrangling between members of these different subgroups, ideological wars and mutual accusations of treason. Yet for that one hour in 1948, Jews across the political-religious spectrum set aside their differences, coming together to announce the birth of the sovereign State of Israel. 

Since the great denominational split of the early 19th century, when the Jewish people - scattered as they were throughout the Diaspora - further fragmented into narrow religious factions, there have been two unifying moments in Jewish history: the Holocaust and the Declaration of Israel's Independence. Jewish unity, it seems, can only be brought about by the greatest of extremes; nothing short of the depths of despair or the heights of euphoria can induce us Jews to overcome our differences. Today though, as fewer and fewer Jews are prepared to ground their sense of solidarity in an event as dark and traumatic as the Holocaust, the Declaration of Independence remains the one cord that might still bind us together. 

Yet what has become of this unifying foundational document? Sixty years after Jews transcended their denominational divides to proclaim the establishment of a state "for the benefit of all its inhabitants" (The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel), have we succeeded in fulfilling their legacy of pluralism and tolerance? Is the Declaration a source of inspiration and a living presence in Israeli society or does it hang on our wall, silent, allowing us to conveniently forget its demands? 

The latter, I fear, is closer to the truth. Israel of 2008 has, to be sure, come a long way in cultivating its ethos of democracy and human rights - no small feat in a region in which such notions are so foreign. At the same time, however, Israeli society in general still gives very little room to alternative political, religious and ethnic voices. There is still much to be done in way of bridging center and periphery, establishing gender equality, instituting minority rights and, most importantly, accommodating different religious ideologies and lifestyles. Ironically, the Jewish state founded on the commitment to "freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture" has failed to recognize any form of Judaism save one. 

While Israel today is witnessing a religious renaissance, with more and more Jews searching for diverse expressions of spirituality and religious meaning, Orthodoxy still holds exclusive control of the country's religious public sphere, institutions and funding. We are still a far cry from the freedom of religion envisioned by the founders of this great State. 

As we stand now at Israel's 60th anniversary, it is time to take the Declaration of Independence off the wall and bring it back into our public lives on every level. It is time to let its spirit of pluralism pervade every classroom and courthouse, every synagogue and wedding hall, every bookshop and theater in Israel. It is time to invite all Jews, of every political and religious affiliation, to take part in "the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel". 

Written with Gila Fine 

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