Around the time of Israel’s 60th anniversary, Jewish Current Issues linked to an article from the November 1961 issue of The Atlantic. The author was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and in the monthly magazine he was reflecting on 3,000 years of history coming together as the Jewish state came of age.
Ben-Gurion’s no Natalie Portman, but his vision of Israel carries much more water because, um, he helped create the modern Jewish state. And considering Israel’s war in Gaza, now seemed as good a time as any to discuss the half-century-old article.
A lengthy excerpt is after the jump:
Little is known about the history of our people during the period of the Persian rule. The Hellenistic era initiated by the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. led to a desperate struggle between Judaism and the superb Hellenistic culture. The struggle was not only that of a downtrodden people fighting foreign oppressors. In the main, it was a cultural contest of great drama between two unique peoples utterly at variance in material, political, and philosophical terms, but alike in spiritual grandeur.
The Jewish people’s most difficult test came, however, after the birth of Christianity. Unlike the cultures of Egypt and Babylon, Greece and Rome, Christianity was not foreign to Judaism. It stemmed from the Jewish people; its inspiration was from a Jew whose ideas belonged within the framework of the Jewish concepts of his day. The new faith was given its direction away from Judaism by Saul of Tarsus. Called Paul, he was the son of a Jewish citizen of Rome living in Syria. He was brought up in the spirit of Judaism and was a zealous Pharisee, but as a Diaspora Jew he had absorbed something of Hellenistic culture. Once a fanatical opponent of the Christians, he “saw the light,” came to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and gave new direction to the sect. His mission, he believed, was to the Gentiles, and he created a church opposed to Judaism. In the name of Jesus, we find it said, “I am not come to destroy [the law] but to fulfill.” Paul, however, was determined to root out the law.
About five hundred years after the defeat of Bar Kochba in 135 A.D., the land of Israel was conquered by the Arabs. Unlike most of the preceding conquerors, these invaders were not merely a military force; they were armed with a new faith, Islam. This religion, though not an outgrowth of the land of Israel, showed clear signs of Jewish influence. The conquests of Mohammed and his disciples were more rapid and remarkable than those of Christianity. All the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa succumbed to the new religion. Only the Jewish people withstood it.
A new ideological trend against the Jewish people’s survival arose with the great revolutions of modern times, in France and Russia. The French Revolution, inspired by “Liberty, egalite, fraternity,” had powerful effects throughout Europe: it undermined monarchy and feudalism; it gave the Jews the first impetus to emancipation and equality of rights. But this revolution demanded of Jewry the obliteration of its national character. Many Western Jews willingly succumbed, and an assimilationist movement arose which threatened to overwhelm the Jewish people.
The Jewish historic will withstood even this powerful challenge. Emancipation instead led to new expressions of its national character and Messianic yearnings. Much of Jewry divested itself of its theocratic garb and adopted a secular outlook, but its attachment to its historic origins and its homeland became stronger; its ancient language awoke to new life; a secular Hebrew literature was created; and there arose the movements of Chibbat Zion (“Love of Zion”) and Zionism. The emancipation which came from without was transformed into self-emancipation—a movement of liberation from the bonds of dependence on others and life in foreign lands—and the first foundations were laid for the resuscitation of the national independence in the ancient homeland.
Like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution also aroused—and continues to arouse—repercussions throughout the world. Once again the Jewish people were confronted with an ideological struggle and a historic test, no less grave and difficult than all those that had gone before.
In 1917 the Balfour Declaration was issued; for the first time since the Destruction of the Temple, the Jews were recognized by a world power as a separate nation, and they were promised the right to return to their land. The League of Nations, established at the end of World War I, gave international confirmation to the Balfour Declaration and recognized the historic connection of the Jewish people with their ancient homeland.
In the same year, the Bolshevik Party gained power in Russia, and the new regime, which promised redemption to the world, dealt a grievous blow to the Jewish people: Russian Jewry, the largest and most vital Jewish community in the world, was forcibly cut off from the rest of the Jewish people and their renascent homeland.
But for some time after the Bolshevik regime had attained absolute power, Russian Jewry contributed the finest of its pioneering youth to the revival of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The achievements of this youth bear witness to the capacities latent in Russian Jewry and the aspirations that live within it, and all the external pressures, physical and spiritual, cannot crush or destroy it. The foundations for the resurgence of the Jewish state were laid mainly by Jews from Russia and eastern Europe, and in May, 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed.
The adherents of Jewish independence refuse to rely on any foreign verdict. They are well aware of the limited numbers and capacity of the Jewish people; they can respect and esteem the great powers which are responsible for the fate of tens of millions of people and whose influence extends beyond the limits of their own territories. But there is one kingdom in which the Jewish people regard themselves as equal in all respects, even in the capacity to influence humanity at large and the generations to come, and that is the kingdom of the spirit and the vision. In this kingdom, neither quantity nor the size of armies has the last word. It is not through numerical strength or political and economic power that Jerusalem and Athens have left their mark on the culture of a large part of the human race.
In pointing out to the world a new way toward freedom, peace, justice, and equality, the advancement and redemption of humanity, and the realization of the dearest hopes of mankind in our day and in all generations—in these spheres the great and powerful nations have no monopoly.
The Jewish people, who after two thousand years of wandering and tribulation in every part of the globe have arrived at the first stage of renewed sovereignty in the land of their origins, will not abandon their historic vision and great spiritual heritage—the aspiration to combine their national redemption with universal redemption for all the peoples of the world. Even the greatest tragedy ever wrought by man against a people—the Hitlerite holocaust, which destroyed one third of the Jewish people—did not dim the profound faith of all Jews, including those who went to their death in the ovens of Europe, in their national redemption and in that of mankind.
The Jewish people will not submit to foreign bondage or surrender to the great and the powerful in determining their future and their road to the vision of the Latter Days. In the state of Israel there is no barrier between the Jew and the man within us. Independence is indivisible.
The rest of the article can be read here.