Memory of Things Past: Independence, 1948

Memory of Things Past: Independence, 1948

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Shalom everyone!

One of the most precious gifts granted to the elderly is a detailed memory of things past. I was 12 years old in 1948 when Israel was proclaimed an independent state. I remember hearing the brand new Declaration of Independence read by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, on the radio. Three generations of our family – parents, children, grandparents – clustered around the crackling radio in our Montreal living room. Such excitement filled the room as we strained to listen to every word broadcast to us from so far way. From Eretz, from the Promised Land.

In 2018, I cannot expect the generations that did not experience this literally awesome moment – and the events that led up to it — to feel those same Diaspora vibrations of pride and joy when they read about Israel, an established country now with many amazing attainments. But at least the dwindling number of those who remember its beginnings can try to communicate what it meant to us as Jews to have a homeland at last. Not only a spiritual homeland, but, after 2,000 years, a physical homeland – to which we could flee if we were persecuted for being Jewish. No longer could our schoolmates taunt Jewish children at Easter, “Go back to Palestine” (even though we couldn’t), because now there was an actual place where we could go.  At the same time, we understood that it was our obligation to help the young Israel grow in every way we could.

Every Sunday, my parents, my sister, and I packed clothes for immigrants to Israel – “Aid to Israel.” My family helped displaced immigrants. I took a leading part in a Jewish Federation play created to train volunteers to fund-raise. My father, a dentist, equipped two mobile dental units in Israel. On my wedding day, my in-laws contributed the money to plant one hundred trees in my name and one hundred trees for my husband in an Israel reclaiming itself from the desert. My cousin went to Israel to help. That was a long time ago. Of course, I have visited since and once gave a Drama Therapy Workshop on preventative drug education at the Jerusalem Theatre.

Now I live in California, close to my children and grandchildren. It is hard for young American Jews, who have grown up in freedom, with a firm appreciation of their rights as American citizens, and with a true love of their country of birth, America, to understand that maybe, just maybe, “it could happen here.” Something we must not allow to happen. And Israel must be more to our young people than an insurance policy.

A variety of articles in Jewish weeklies or on the Internet have recently been questioning whether Jews can be Jewish without God – or even without Judaism. [1]

In my humble opinion, such questions verges on being oxymorons. Can human beings truly be human, one might ask, without having at least a spark of humanity? In that sense, can we truly be Jews without holding Judaism or at least Jewish Peoplehood, if not religion itself, at the core of our belief system? I am aware, of course, that many Jews define themselves in limited ways: as secular Jews, cultural Jews, historical Jews, humanistic Jews, and even anti-Israel Jews. We come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Many of us are intermarried. Some of us simply don’t believe, or at least not without reservations, in the God of the Torah and its teachings, nor the moral covenant that has bound us together for thousands of years. Nor in the promise of Eretz Israel, even though the Jewish People are indigenous to Israel, a fact recorded in history.[2] How do we pass on such a weakly brewed tea of Jewish peoplehood and all it implies to our children? This is a subject discussed in detail in Religion or Ethnicity: Jewish Identities in Evolution, a group of essays edited by Zvi Gitelman [3].

In the light of the displacement that took place during and after World War II, with its consequent unavailability of identity papers, David Ben Gurion proclaimed that anyone was a Jew who said that they were. Anyone who was a Jew could come to Israel for a new beginning. That was the immigration policy of the new state of Israel.

I realize that fewer and fewer Jewish people are still alive who remember what else was happening at the United Nations in 1947, when the UN approved partition of the land called Palestine (after the Romans had destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., they renamed Israel “Palaestrina”). The boundaries of what would once again be Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arabs were defined. (Before that name change took place, however, a silver platter was awarded to my late father by the Canadian Jewish community to honor his devoted service to “Palestine.”)

However, there was another partition taking place in 1947. The partition of India into two parts – India for the Hindus, and Pakistan for the Muslims. The two religions, it was bloodily evident, could not live together without persecution and violence. Better they should separate and live peaceably as two states side by side. Better they should pray to their own deities.

And the same logic was applied to the separation of Israel into two homelands: one for Jews and one for the predominantly Muslim Arabs. (It was Arafat who coined, years later, the term “Palestinians.”) Today we speak of a “two state solution.” That was the original concept!

However, it was not to be. The day after the new state of Israel declared Independence, all the surrounding Arab nations attacked. It was bloody war, and the world expected the Arabs to win. With assurances from the new state, Israel, that those who wanted to could stay, many Arabs did (now Israeli-Arabs), but many others fled from Israel to join the Arab brothers who had broadcast for them to come; sadly, in other cases, they were pushed out of their homes or killed by Israelis soldiers fearing their attacks. Yes, it was war. At least an equal number of Jews fled Arab lands in desperate fear of their lives. By some miracle, propelled by knowledge there was nowhere else for Jews to go, Israel won what Israelis have since celebrated as the “War of Independence.” The Arabs, by contrast, glumly call what happened the “Nakba,” the “Disaster.”

Seventy years have since passed. Other wars have transpired between Israel and its adversaries, and peace is still to be found. But people get tired of perpetually killing one another. I believe that, with eventual good will and plenty of common sense (and maybe a little help from God), peace will come. Shalom/Sala’am. That is what I hope will both “happen here” and “happen there.” That is what Jews everywhere, even if they are not firm believers, will pray for at Rosh HaShana.

L’Shana Tova!

[1] See the diverse opinions expressed in the Jewish Journal’s round table, for example.[t-4-2018.-can-jews-without-judaism

[2] “The Jewish people area are indigenous to Israel, the birthplace of their identity and unique culture, and have maintained a documented presence there for over 3,000 years. Half of modern Israel’s Jews returned home to Israel from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Jews who came from Europe were not colonialists. They did not represent a foreign power and rejected any identification with European nations. They were idealists who sought to restore and preserve their unique heritage and fought for the same rights that are granted to all peoples: self-determination and independence in their ancestral home. Over 150 years ago, Jews returned in ever-larger numbers, again became the majority in Jerusalem in the 1860s, and established Tel Aviv in 1909. In 1920 the international community officially recognized the indigenous rights of the Jewish people and endorsed the restoration of the Jewish homeland”(“Answering Tough Questions About Israel,” Los Angeles: Stand With Us: Supporting Israel Around the World, 2015, p. 7). See for booklet.

[3] Zvi Gitelman, Ed. Religion or Ethnicity: Jewish Identities in Evolution. (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.