Celebrate Unity without Uniformity
It was an honor today to be the guest speaker at the Jewish Federation of the Central Valley’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. It was a challenge to speak to an audience of 8-80 year olds, yet it was wonderful to see the generations of the Jewish community come together in support and celebration of Israel. I am please do share my remarks here since there were some who were unable to be there and I know had wanted to hear them.
Celebrate Unity without Uniformity
As we mark the 67th Anniversary of Israel’s independence, I invite us to consider a challenge facing the Jewish people today: can we celebrate the unity of our support of Israel, without the expectation of uniformity of opinion?
I needn’t repeat the oft-told line about how many opinions a group of 10 Jews will have. It seems an impossible task. How can we celebrate our unified support of Israel when we collectively and individually continuously grapple with our own deep feelings about Israel?
If we consider the figures in our history whose task was to create unity among the Jewish people, one might think of Moses and Joshua, bring the Israelites through slavery into the Promised Land. Or King Solomon, bring the tribes together in shared worship at the Temple. Or Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the compilation of all our laws and rituals that are so enthusiastically debated in the Talmud and its commentaries. However, in my opinion, and most relevant to us today, the ultimate unifier of the Jewish people was David Ben Gurion, first prime minister of the State of Israel.
Ben Gurion was born in Duvche Green in Plonsk, Poland, a small shtetl between Warsaw and Gdnask. Plonsk had no paved roads, no running water and no high school. Despite the poverty around him, his father was fairly well off and they were “modern middle class family” for the time. Ben Gurion, taking a brave ideological stand as a young man, never learned Polish – rather he taught himself Hebrew because he always knew he would emigrate to Palestine. He made aliyah in 1906 at the age of 20, as part of what is known as the Second Aliyah.
Anita Shapira, in her recently published biography of Ben Gurion described him in these ways: Ben Gurion was:
- An autodidact – that mean’s someone who is self taught; he was always surrounded by books
- A boring writer and speaker
- An inveterate pragmatist – a real practical person – who learned to generate power from weakness
- Not a man without faults, he was known to have tantrums, but was at his best in a crisis, and often spiteful and held grudges. (Parenthetically, DBG wouldn’t let Chaim Weitzmann, another leader at the time, sign the Declaration of Independence because of their constant disagreements and differences of opinion)
- He was a philosopher-king, inspired by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England, and Vladimir Lenin, the communist leader of Russia who wasn’t known to be such a nice man, and the Zionist thinker and writer Micha Yosef Berdyczeski
- He was a man of tremendous will power
- And ultimately the midwife to the delivery of a nation
Consider Ben Gurion’s unfathomable task.
As he grew to positions of leadership in the Yishuv – the early Jewish settlement in Palestine – and eventually as a spokesman for Zionism around the world, he had to build unity amongst Jews of all types, Zionist factions, world politicians and political groups, and the residents of Palestine. He knew all along that unity – even without uniformity – was the key to success.
For example, by the 1920’s Ben Gurion was taking a lead role is organizing the Jewish workers in Palestine. He knew that in order to build the country he needed an organized workforce; he needed to bring people to Palestine. He focused his efforts on mass immigration, declaring, “Over the next twenty years we must create Jewish majority in Palestine. That is the essence of the new historical situation.” (Shapira, p. 50)
Interestingly, at that time Ben Gurion also knew that the Arabs were central to this process too. He said, “The Arab worker is an organic, integral part of the country, just like one of its mountains and valleys. Therefore the destiny of the Jewish worker is linked to the destiny of the Arab worker. Together we shall rise or fall.” (Shapira, p. 83-84) Ben Gurion knew, according to Shapira, that he needed to address the complex situation of recognizing the “Arabs’ rights to complete national and political equality, but reject their claim to exclusive possession of the country.” (Shapira p.85)
Ben Gurion understood what it meant to build a nation, a state. He “saw himself not only as responsible for defense and foreign policy but also for forming a national identity for Jews who came from all over the world.” (Shapira p. 174) He had to find ways to bring together Jews from around the world who spoke different languages, ate different foods, prayed in different ways, yet were all unified in their desire for a homeland. He had to find ways to bring together Jews who were recent survivors of the Holocaust, those from North African countries who had been victims of different kinds of anti-Semitism, as well as North American Jews who were committed to the Zionist cause. How did he do this? By encouraging the development of a modern, shared, uniquely Israeli culture: by building Hebrew and the arts, literature, poetry, music, theater; by funding the research and academics, by challenging Jewish scientists to put Israel on the scientific map.
I can only imagine the how Ben Gurion felt, recognizing the weight of the task ahead of him in 1948. On that day, all he wrote in his diary was, “at 4 PM Jewish independence was declared and the state was established. Its fate is in the hands of the defense forces.” (Shapira, p. 162)
Today, as we celebrate Israel’s 67th birthday, we rejoice in those successes that Ben Gurion set in motion. The immense contributions Israel has made to science, medicine and technology, the award winning literature, movies and music, delicious wines and foods, the place that Israel holds in humanitarian work around the world. Yet, in the spirit of Rabbi Tarfon, the work is not yet done. We are yet to see complete civil rights for all Jews in Israel. Women are being forced to sit in the backs of buses. Reform rabbis are still not permitted to officiate at weddings in Israel. There are economic disparities between Ashkenazic, Sephardic, North African and Ethiopian Jews. As recently as 2013 Israel had the third highest poverty rate in the world. And we await the formation of a new government – one that will hopefully find appreciation for the unified support for Israel, with respect for differences of opinion and religious practice.
The current events in Israel have the potential to both bind us and divide us. In our 67th year of celebrating our modern homeland, I pray that we will find unity in our support for and commitment to Israel, that we will appreciate our differences in vision for her future and allow us all to engage in the positive work that will bring it to fruition and bring us all together.