70 years of independence

We have built a State which is an inspiring success story. A state which every tyrant, every genocidal psychopath, every Jew-hater in the world hates and yearns to destroy. That fact alone shows that we are on the right path.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism המשט החגיגי לציון 70 לישראל
המשט החגיגי לציון 70 לישראל

“Seventy years old is the time for hoary old age”, said the Talmudic sage Yehudah ben Teima (Pirkei Avot 5:21), and the word he uses for “hoary old age”, שֵׂיבָה, appears in the Torah-reading this coming Shabbat: מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם, “Rise up before one of hoary old age” (Leviticus 19:32).

This included as one of the 613 mitzvot – and as the Talmud records, “Issi ben Yehudah says: ‘Rise up before one of hoary old age’ – before anyone at all of hoary old age. Said Rabbi Yochanan: The halakhah is according to Issi ben Yehudah. Rabbi Yochanan rose up [even] before hoary old idolaters , saying: How many life-teaching experiences [events, troubles, and miracles which they witnessed – Rashi] this one must have gone through!” (Kiddushin 33a).

Indeed, by seventy years old, an individual – any individual – has garnered much experience and life-wisdom.

As with a person, so too with a nation. As the State of Israel celebrates 70 years of independence, it has garnered much experience, gone through innumerable historical events, witnessed troubles, threats, and miracles beyond number in its seventy years.

Israel is light-years from the small, fragile, hesitant, uncertain, vulnerable state that it was on that fateful Friday afternoon when David Ben Gurion proclaimed independence in Tel Aviv on the 5th of Iyyar 5708 (14th May 1948).
Israel is light-years from the small, fragile, hesitant, uncertain, vulnerable state that it was on that fateful Friday afternoon when David Ben Gurion proclaimed independence in Tel Aviv on the 5th of Iyyar 5708 (14th May 1948).

On that day there were some 600,000 Jews in Israel (and a total population of 806,000), out of a world Jewish population of about 11 million (the number that the Nazis y”sh and their collaborators had left alive). That is to say, slightly under 5.5% of the world’s Jews lived in Israel.

And the Israeli population were poor. For Jews throughout the world, Israel was the place to which they sent their slightly worn-out clothes to be distributed to their needy brethren.

Those were days when life was meagre: food was rationed, clothes were rationed. A private car was an almost-undreamed-of luxury for vast majority of Israelis: there were no more than 20,000 privately-owned vehicles in the country – around one car for each 40 people – and only 43% of Israelis owned their own houses or apartments.

And those were days when life was precarious: as the British occupation forces withdrew and Israel became independent, a military coalition of six Arab countries (Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen), reinforced with volunteer units from Pakistan and Sudan, and Arab irregulars of the Arab Salvation Army and the Army of Jihad,  invaded.

Two of these countries, Trans-Jordan and Egypt, and the Sudanese volunteers, had the advantage of being trained and armed by the British Army. And in many battles, those soldiers were also officered in the field by British officers. (With all due respect to West Point, the military training of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst was still the best in the world.)

The Arabs left no doubt as to their war aims: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre”, thundered Azzam Pasha, the spokesman of the Arab League, “which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades”.

Defending the nascent Jewish State from this onslaught were fewer than 20,000 troops under arms (with another 8,000 in support roles). Of these, maybe 3,000 were highly-trained professional soldiers; another 5,000 had had some rudimentary training. The others had to learn from experience in the field while actually fighting.

Israel has come a long, long way since those days.

Since independence 70 years ago, around 3,200,000 Jews have made aliyah to Israel. Israel’s birth-rate of 3.13 children per woman is almost double the OECD average. Jewish birth-rate in Israel is currently 100,000 per year, Arab birth-rate 40,000 per year. With an average life-expectancy of 82.1 years, Israel has the 8th highest life-expectancy in the world.

The consequence is that today some 6,589,000 Jews live in Israel – some 45% of all the Jews in the world. For the first time since the days of King Hezekiah, there are more Jews in Israel than in any other single country in the world. (Israel overtook the USA about 15 years ago.)

And following current trends, the absolute majority of all the Jews in the world will live in Israel in another 10 to 15 years.

These are changes of literally Biblical dimensions.

Today, Israel is an undisputed economic and military superpower. According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), “Israel’s economy continues to perform well both in terms of macroeconomic and fiscal outcomes. Growth has averaged 3.3% since 2000, higher than in many OECD countries, although this was partly driven by strong population growth, which accounted for half of this impressive increase. The external surplus is comfortable, and the public debt-to-GDP ratio, already well below the OECD average, is still falling” (source: http://www.oecd.org/israel/economic-survey-israel.htm)

This “strong population growth” is, of course, partly Israel’s high birth-rate and partly aliyah: Israel is the sole country in the Middle East which people want to immigrate into.

Today some 70% of Israelis own at least one car, and 68% own their own house or apartment.

Most independent observers rank Israel’s military as about the 14th or 15th most powerful in the world. This is, however, somewhat misleading: Israel has always been far more secretive about her military strength than any other country – Israel’s nuclear ambiguity is but one example.

Indeed, 51 years ago, when a grand coalition of 13 Arab and Muslim states attacked Israel in yet another attempt at genocide, all independent observers debated whether Israel would be destroyed or just fatally weakened. Some (though few indeed) predicted that Israel might, just might, at immense cost of life, manage to repulse the Arab onslaught.

No military analyst in the world predicted the stunning Israeli victory that would come to be known as the Six Day War. (But more of that in another three weeks, when we will mark Jerusalem Reunification Day.)

So that ranking of Israel as the 14th or 15th most powerful in the world is certainly an underestimate. The reality is far more optimistic (or pessimistic, for our enemies).

A far cry indeed from the small, impoverished, precarious Israel of 70 years ago!

Now it is very easy to get cynical about Israel. A judiciary which is at best cut off from the people, an inept government; a police-force which is all too often unacceptably heavy-handed; a large and brash Haredi society – those who should be the torch-bearers, enlightening us all on the road to Redemption – which for a the most part denies the fact of Redemption; the connexion between money and power; the politicization of the police, the judiciary and the army; the anti-nationalist and anti-religious bias of the media and the education system; the institutionalized protektziya (and how many people know that the very term protektziya is taken from Russian of the Soviet Era?); the unsupervised power the State has given to the Shabak (General Security Service); the open collaboration between the government and Arab terrorists – of course all of these can drive us to despair.

Yes, it is very easy, when viewing Israel up close at 70 years old, to see the negative and to despair. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar, however, gave us the answer: “‘Blessed is Hashem G-d, G-d of Israel, Who alone performs miracles, and the Name of His glory is blessed forever’ (Psalms 74:18-19) – even the beneficiary of the miracle does not recognise the miracle” (Niddah 31a).

If Israel sometimes looks bleak, then let us compare it with the first Jewish State at 70 years old, and with the second Jewish State at 70 years old:

70 years after the Children of Israel conquered the Land of Israel led by Joshua, when the first Jewish Commonwealth was 70 years old, we were a nation of 12 disparate tribes, often warring with each other, led loosely by the Judge Ehud. Israel was rife with idolatry, and a depressingly bleak cycle of abandoning Torah, oppression by the Canaanites, Philistines, Sidonites, Hivvites, and Arameans, followed by repentance, and subsequent deliverance.

When Ehud became judge, 68 years after the original conquest, Israel had been oppressed under Moabite occupation for 18 years. Ehud used cunning to assassinate the Moabite King Eglon, and thus redeemed Israel, bringing them tranquillity for 80 years (Judges 3:12-30).

But once Ehud died, the Children of Israel regressed into their old bad ways, whereupon the Canaanites conquered Israel and oppressed the Jews, until the Judge Barak and the Prophetess Deborah defeated them.

It would take some 400 years before those 12 Tribes would unite sufficiently to institute a single united monarchy – four centuries which were plagued with recurring foreign occupation and civil war, Tribe against Tribe.

Our second experience of independence was far worse. After returning to Israel from Babylonian/Persian exile, even though we rebuilt the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the very start of resettling the Land, we nevertheless spend the subsequent 300 years under foreign occupation and domination – first relatively benign Persian occupation for 125 years; then from 333 B.C.E. until 198 B.C.E. under even more friendly Greek occupation; and then from 198 B.C.E. until the Maccabean revolt, beginning in 168 B.C.E. under harshly oppressive Seleucid occupation.

The Maccabees succeeded in restoring Jewish sovereignty to Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E., though most of the Land was still under Seleucid domination. Rome – the up-and-coming super-power – recognised Jewish sovereign independence in 161 B.C.E., and Yehudah (Judah), the Maccabean commander, signed a treaty of military alliance with Rome.

Within a frighteningly short time, the Maccabean-Hasmonean dynasty regressed into the very Hellenism that the founders had given their lives to fight against; indeed they quickly out-Hellenised the original Hellenisers.

In 134 B.C.E., 29 years after Hannukkah was established as an annual celebration, Yochanan Hyrcanus I succeeded his father Shimon as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and ruler of Judea. His Greek name (Hyrcanus) was a harbinger of what was to come, and his reign was a curious mixture of fighting the Seleucids and collaborating with them (reflected with remarkable precision in the current Israeli government which fights against Arab terrorist organisations and simultaneously collaborates with them).

To be sure, this was partially because of military expedience, but it nevertheless influenced him and his descendants for the remainder of the Second Temple period.

Yochanan Hyrcanus was indisputably a devout Jew and a sincere nationalist. When he came to power, Jewish sovereign independence was limited to a tiny area: a narrow strip of land from the Mediterranean coast to the River Jordan, the northern border running generally east-west about 25 km (15 miles) north of Jerusalem, and the southern border roughly parallel 25 km (15 miles) south of Jerusalem. In his 30-year rule, he more than trebled the extent of the Jewish state.

And he restored economic independence, minting his own currency, and instituted several decrees which strengthened Torah in Judea.

The Talmud (Berachot 29a) records that Yochanan Hyrcanus seved as Kohen Gadol for 80 years, which means that eighty times he entered the Kodesh ha-Kodashim (the Holy of Holies) in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur and emerged alive, which in turn means that for eighty years he either had no sin or that all his sins were forgiven.

Yet at the end of his life he became a Tzedukki (Sadducee), and just as he detiorated, so too did the Jewish state.

He nominated his wife as his successor as temporal ruler, and his son Aristobulus as his successor as Kohen Gadol. However, Aristobulus wanted all the power for himself, so when his father died he threw his own mother into prison where she died of starvation, thus assuming temporal political power for himself. To consolidate his authority, he also imprisoned three of his brothers, and eventually had the fourth, Antigonus, murdered.

Such was the deterioration of the Hasmonean Jewish State seventy years and more after independence.

Comparing Israel of today, on our 70th year of independence, with both our previous experiences at 70 years after independence, we are actually doing remarkably well.

We have built a State which is an inspiring success story. A state which every tyrant, every genocidal psychopath, every Jew-hater in the world hates and yearns to destroy. That fact alone shows that we are on the right path.

This is a time to celebrate: a time to celebrate our return to our ancient homeland, a time to celebrate the beginning of the Redemption which all our Prophets foretold, a time to celebrate a sovereign independent State which is a remarkable success story in the modern world.

מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם, “Rise up before one of hoary old age”, and 70 years old is the time of “hoary old age”. At 70 years old, Israel has thoroughly earned her place of honour and respect in Jewish history.

Chag Atzma’ut sameach!