A street named for a date was pretty unusual in the neighborhood in which I grew up. In fact, it was unheard of. We had street names like Pimlico Road, Greenspring Avenue and Woodvalley Drive, but nothing that I can recall that contained a date.
Not far from our apartment in Jerusalem, though, and adjacent to the school our boys attend, there’s a street named “the 29th of November.” No year in the name, because there doesn’t need to be. Everyone here knows, or at least used to know, what “kaf tet be-November” represents. 1947. The date of the UN vote to divide British-ruled Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The date that made this enterprise possible.
It was the day of the vote, but of images, too. Of the Jews huddled around radios world-over, holding their breath, waiting to see if perhaps, the twentieth century might also bear some better tidings for the Jews. Of the cheering and the crying when the vote was over. Of the dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv when the roll call had been completed. Of the sense, both in what was then Palestine and in Jewish homes throughout the world, that something had changed, that the tide had shifted. Of the hope that out of the ashes of Europe, something positive might still arise.
It’s been 59 years since the vote. Fifty-nine years and a little over one month, to be precise. But if you missed the anniversary, don’t feel too bad. No one here noticed it either. I kept waiting to hear someone mention it. But nothing. Not that day in the paper or at work, and not the next.
Less than six decades after the Jewish world sat holding its breath and waiting to see if history might be changed, no one remembered. No one said anything. How’s that possible, for a people that’s raised memory to an art form, in a country in which every hiccup seems to elicit some national ceremony? How did it all disappear?
The truth is that I’m not sure. But I have a theory. My theory is that no one talked about November 29 this year because it’s simply too painful. Because the optimism of that day, just sixty years ago, has largely disappeared. Because people had hope then, and leaders. And a plan. And because all that’s changed.
Because November 1947 was the date on which the world said publicly that we had a right to be, but today, the world’s changed its mind. A lot has changed since November 1947. If in November 1947 the world voted and agreed (though certainly not unanimously) that this tiny little country had a right to be, today the UN has effectively decided that it was wrong. One member of the United Nations (Iran) publicly declares that another member (Israel) has no right to exist, and suggests that it ought to be destroyed, and the world basically says nothing. Imagine the outcry if France had said that about Belgium, for example.
But Iran can spout its venom, Jimmy Carter can write a book equating Israel with Apartheid (which rises to the very top of Amazon’s list) and can then insist in interviews that no, Israel’s Apartheid is actually worse than South Africa’s, and very few people get terribly worked up. The world’s clearly tired of Israel’s conflicts … and of Israel.
No wonder no one here got terribly excited about November 29.
Or maybe it’s because in our minds November 1947 was the beginning of the growth of Israel, in every way, including its borders. From the absurd lines of the Partition Plan of 1947, the country expanded to the somewhat better situation at the end of the war in 1949, and then to the dramatic expansion in the early days of June 1967. Those were the days in which challenges were met with resilience.
But the days of growth are over, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse, depending on whom you ask. Now, this is a shrinking country. Out of Lebanon in 2000, which was probably a good thing. But we fled, which was not such a good thing. And that flight, and the notion that “you kill enough of them and they eventually flee” led to the outbreak of the second Intifada in October 2000. And that led to getting out of Gaza, which only confirmed the notion that when the going gets tough, we now get running. Which led to Hamas. And then to Olmert’s plan to get out of the West Bank. Backpedaling constantly, in the hope that some line will satisfy the lust to see us gone, we’re running backwards so fast it’s hard even to remember the days when we doggedly inched forward.
These days, of course, no one’s terribly worked up about our immediate borders. The Palestinians are the least of our problems. Iran is the issue. A lot of people here believe Ahmadinejad when he says it’s time for Israel to disappear. Even if we struck first, which is a huge question mark, how much of what’s here would survive his military response? Saddam, and even Hezbollah, are looking like child’s play compared to what might be coming around the bend.
And what’s our educational response? The Ministry of Education announces that Israeli textbooks will once again show the green line, the border right before the 1967 war. Despite the fact that Israel’s formally annexed parts of those lands. Despite the fact that no one, left or right, believes we’re going back to that line. As if those borders are the real issue today. Or as if returning to them would resolve the conflict, and make Hezbollah or Ahmadinejad go away and suddenly accept a Zionist entity in the heart of the Muslim Middle-East.
The educational objective? Not clear. The response? Predictable. Many on the right insist that they will never use these new textbooks or permit them in their schools. And others, from further on the right, suggested that the catastrophic medical ailment that Sharon suffered (because he dared to give back Gaza) will now also happen to the Minister of Education. The theological sophistication and pedagogical nuance of this country can leave one breathless.
Is it any surprise that we’re finding it hard to get worked up about a date in November?
Or maybe it’s because the memory of November 1947 evokes the image of Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of Israel’s independence, just months later. Or of Menachem Begin insisting that the Altalena, the boat bearing arms for his fighters in besieged Jerusalem, which he was determined to save, would not be surrendered. Or the young commander, Yitzchak Rabin, who was ordered to sink the Altalena, and did. And also broke through the siege on Jerusalem.
Those were days of broken sieges. Of leaders larger than life. Of courage and resolve in the face of aggression, and savoir-faire in the face of complexity. And now … November 1947 seems like a different country, doesn’t it?
Or maybe it’s because in 1947 Jews understood that they were going to have to fight for what little territory they had. This country’s filled with graves of survivors of Europe’s atrocities who were saved from Europe, brought here by boat, and upon disembarking, given a rifle and sent to the front. Lots of them survived, but many didn’t. And some were killed before anyone here even knew who they were. So they’re buried in cemeteries across the country, un-named, with nothing on their tombstone but the day that they were killed, and in the name of the battle in which they lost their lives.
The late 40’s and the early 50’s were years in which Israel’s borders were notoriously porous, the IDF largely unable to stop the attacks of the Fedayeen. But no one ran. Kibbutzim guarded. And the IDF, still in its infancy, retaliated as best it could. And eventually, the attacks stopped. Because back then, there was no moving us.
Today, when Kassams rain across the border into Sderot and the other town surrounding the Gaza border, the response is muted. A response here, a response there, always aimed at the (largely) innocent Palestinians from whose neighborhoods the Kassams are being fired, and not at the leadership of Hamas in Gaza City who ordered the firing in the first place. So, eventually, tragedies like Beit Hanun will happen, and when they do, and when Israel is the recipient of the world’s opprobrium, the IDF silences its canons. And Hamas learns its lesson – there’s no cost to shelling Israeli towns that are in undisputed Israeli territory (unless you’re Hamas and the whole thing is disputed). Israel has lost its resoluteness.
Israelis are tired of fighting, Hamas has figured out. Time is on Hamas’ side. A few more years of this, a bit more of that, and the Israelis will move again. Out of Lebanon. Out of Gaza. Where will they abandon next? Sderot? Ashkelon? This time, they fled Sderot for Eilat for a few days. But for how long, next time? Sure, they’ll respond here and there, but the fire in the belly is gone. Just keep it up, they’ve decided. It’s just a matter of time. Is it possible that Ahmadinejad isn’t as wacko as we’d like to think when he says that Zionism is almost over?
Remember all the years when Kiryat Shmona was under Katyusha attack from the North? When kibbutzim were attacked from Syria, Jordan and Egypt? Who ran? Who fled? Who waited for a Russian billionaire to send them to Eilat for a few days?
But who, by the way, can blame the parents and the kids who wanted out? For from their perspective, why should they remain at home like sitting ducks, when the army can’t do anything won’t do anything?? to protect them? What’s the point of being a hero, they probably ask themselves, when the rest of the country’s gone soft?
They’ve read the same articles about which soldiers died in Lebanon II and which didn’t. They know that the settlements from the West Bank and religious nationalists, and the Kibbutzim were disproportionately represented among the IDF’s 119 dead, because those are the ideological backbones that still remain in this country. The big cities? Those are the places where more and more, kids have figured out how not to go to the army. So why sit in Sderot and just wait for the next Kassam to kill somebody?
The people who watched what happened here in the weeks following November 29 probably wouldn’t believe what they see here now, would they? Maybe it’s better that we’re letting the memory fade. The comparison could make you dizzy.
Some people’s memory doesn’t fade, of course. On November 30, the day after, Elisheva (my wife) was up at Atlit, a “detention camp” that the British created for Jews who were caught trying to land on the shores of Palestine after the British had declared that immigration illegal. The camp is still there, and evokes without much imagination other “camps” where Jews were detained, for even more nefarious purposes. Anyway, when Elisheva went there with a friend, the day after the forgotten day, she saw that in the central square of the former detention camp, chairs had been set up for an “event.” What’s going on?, she wanted to know.
A birthday party, she was told. Exactly sixty years ago, on November 30, 1946, a boat carrying immigrants to Israel landed. Its name was Knesset Yisrael, or “The Assembly of Israel.” On the boat, it turns out, 11 babies had been born. One died on board. Ten survived. One died years later. The other nine are all alive, all still living in Israel, and on November 30, each year, they get together at Atlit to celebrate their birthdays.
When Elisheva returned home, she couldn’t stop talking about the idea of this party. A party which means that someone still remembers. A party that evokes the sense of purpose that used to pervade this place. A party of grownup babies whose parents were sent from Europe to Cyprus to Palestine to detention, but who persevered, and whose children and grandchildren are still largely here. A party that stirs the embers of the hope that people here used to feel.
We could use a few more of those parties, it seems to me.
Which is why it’s good that we just celebrated another one. Not a party exactly, of course, but a day worth remembering. Not November 29, and not November 30. But the 25th of Kislev, or Hanukkah, as it’s more commonly known. A holiday that we often think of in terms of a miracle of oil, but which is actually a holiday about something much more basic. It’s about the days when the foe seemed insurmountable, when Jews in this very place were giving in, but when, even when the odds appeared overwhelming, a new leadership sprung up and decided to take matters into their own hands. A new leadership that got rid of the Syrian Greeks from much of the land, that restored Jewish sovereignty, and that refused to accept that it was all over. A leadership that believed that sometimes when you can identify the problem, you have to take it out. No matter what the risks.
Which makes Hanukkah worth remembering, doesn’t it? We could use the reminder that leadership can reappear. That sticktuitiveness can re-emerge. That it’s possible to rekindle the fire in the belly. That the doldrums into which this country’s leadership has allowed it to sink need not be permanent. We did it in the past. Maybe we could do it again.
It would be nice to think so, no? I, for one, lit those candles and hoped, and prayed. That the victories of the past can be repeated. That the will to survive has not been depleted. That the desire to stay here has not been exhausted. And that maybe, just maybe, one more miracle is on its way.
© Daniel Gordis, reprinted with permission of the author. Daniel Gordis is Vice President of the Mandel Foundation – Israel, and the author, most recently, of Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). Visit his website at www.danielgordis.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.