National Post: At 75, Israel remains a beacon of freedom and democracy
Israel at 75: Thanks to the resiliency of its people, Israel will continue to be a safe haven for the Jewish people and a model of liberalism
As Israel marks the 75th anniversary of its founding this year, the National Post is hosting a five-month celebration of the “startup” nation, telling the remarkable story of its rebirth and resilience against all odds.
Seventy-five years ago, on the fifth day of lyar on the Hebrew lunar calendar, which falls on April 26 this year, on the eve of Great Britain, a diminished superpower, pulling out of Palestine, the region’s Jewish community declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” But the story of modern-day Israel begins nearly 2,000 years earlier, with a superpower unrivalled in world history.
In 70 AD, the Roman Emperor Titus laid siege to the Jewish city of Jerusalem to quell a rebellion in the Roman province of Judea. The troops razed the city and sacked the Temple, the cornerstone of the Jewish faith. According to Josephus, a Roman-Jewish historian who wrote an account of the events at the time, over a million people, mostly Jews, were killed, and tens of thousands enslaved.
Sixty-five years later, at the end of the third Jewish-Roman war, many of Judea’s Jewish communities were massacred and Jews were forbidden from living in their historic capital of Jerusalem. To further humiliate the beleaguered people, a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter was built on the site of the demolished Second Temple (the first of which was destroyed by the Babylonians, according to biblical accounts) and later replaced with an Islamic shrine.
Judaism was fundamentally transformed from a religion centred around Temple worship and the priestly tradition, to a more diffuse faith governed by the rabbinate and the codified laws of the Talmud. The Jewish population scattered throughout the world in search of freedom and safety, but never found it. Since the fall of the Judean state of antiquity, the Jewish people have been the victims of pogroms and oppression virtually everywhere they went, culminating in the darkest chapter of world history, the Holocaust, in which six-million Jews were killed in Hitler’s genocide.
It is from these roots that the Zionist movement was formed to re-establish the Jews’ ancient homeland in the Land of Israel, as a refuge for a people who had faced centuries of persecution. Starting at the end of the 19th century, the World Zionist Organization began building the institutions that would form the basis of an eventual state. Following the Holocaust, Zionism came to be seen not just as a dream, but as a mortal imperative for a people who had just barely escaped being wiped out entirely.
Britain was granted a mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The British, who had previously announced support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people,” were intended to administer the region “until such time as (the territories of Palestine and Transjordan) are able to stand alone.” Yet there was much opposition to British rule, leading to revolts by both the Jewish and Arab populations.
In 1947, the United Nations approved a partition plan intended to establish independent Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem falling under international control. The Jews accepted the plan and declared independence in 1948; the Arabs did not, instead choosing to go to war with the fledgling Jewish state. This ongoing conflict would come to define Israel and its place in the world, but it was another series of decisions that set the State of Israel apart from its neighbours, and established it as a beacon of freedom and democracy in a part of the world characterized by violence, oppression and authoritarianism.
The roots of Israeli democracy and pluralism started growing centuries before Jews began transforming the desert into a lush, arable paradise. Diaspora Jews, especially in eastern Europe, designed systems of self-governance to share power and resolve disputes in communities that lacked formal hierarchies. Throughout the world, Jews gained first-hand experience living in countries that respected liberty and democratic ideals, and learned hard lessons on how monarchical and dictatorial regimes can trample the rights of minority communities.
In his seminal text, “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”), Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, envisioned a country that respected labour rights, women’s rights and the separation of synagogue and state. “Shall we end by having a theocracy? No,” wrote Herzl. “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples … they must not interfere in the administration of the state.”
Herzl was also a firm believer in minority rights, freedom of religion and the rule of law, arguing that, “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief … and if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honourable protection and equality before the law.”
These sentiments were echoed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised that the State of Israel would “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants”; “be based on freedom, justice and peace”; “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”; “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”; and “safeguard the holy places of all religions.”
Those vows later gained quasi-constitutional status when the country’s Basic Laws were amended to state that, “The fundamental human rights in Israel will be honoured … in the spirit of the principles included in the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel.”
Equally as important, the Declaration of Independence pledged the “establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the state.” Israel’s founders modelled its 120-member parliament off the Second Temple-era Knesset ha-Gedola, which was made up of the same number of rabbis — a nod to the country’s democratic values and Jewish tradition. Like in Canada, they modelled their legal and political systems off the United Kingdom, though they implemented a system of proportional representation to represent the broad spectrum of views found throughout Israeli society.
Although the country never developed a formal, written constitution, Israeli laws, and its strong judiciary, have consistently served to protect the rights of its minority populations, including Arab-Israelis and LGBTQ people — making it a bastion of freedom and liberalism in a part of the world that does not have a history of respecting human rights.
It’s the only Middle Eastern country that grants full equality to women. The only one that is welcoming to the gay community and has strong anti-discrimination laws. The only country where Ahmadi Muslims are free to openly practice their faith, with people of all religious backgrounds enjoying equal protection under the law. Indeed, it is the only country that shares our western liberal values.
Despite this, Israel has become the favoured whipping boy of many in the West who claim to be liberals. The hate that is witnessed, on college campuses and in activist circles, and the double standard that is consistently applied to the Jewish state only serves to underscore the need for a Jewish national home that can provide safety and security in a world in which antisemitism is becoming increasingly normalized.
Although there is significant concern, in Israel and the diaspora, over the current government’s attempts to rein in the power of the judiciary, Israel’s strong, stable institutions and history of upholding liberal democratic values gives us faith that the Israeli people will be able to work through this impasse and that an equitable agreement will be reached.
For 75 years, Israel has stood as a beacon of freedom and prosperity in the Middle East. And thanks to the resiliency of its people, who have overcome incredible odds throughout history, it will continue to be a safe haven for the Jewish people and a model of democracy and liberty.
This article was originall posted on the National Post website and can be accessed here.