For the Real Meaning of Israel Independence Day

Jews all over the world will celebrate by the Jewish calendar the 62nd anniversary of Israel's independence this year on April 19. It has become traditional on such occasions to focus almost entirely on the events of May 1948, when a nascent Jewish state, authorized by a U.N. two-state partition vote the year before, faced half a dozen Arab armies intent on destroying it. In the ensuing battles, that Jewish state managed to survive and lay the foundation for a return of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.

This year, however, I would argue that while reminiscing about the events of 1948, it would behoove us to focus more on 1967, when Israel again was under siege and marked for extinction by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

Why 1967 more than 1948? Because an exclusive focus on 1948 tends to abet a misleading impression that the events of that year permanently guaranteed Israel's independence. They did not.

Instead, Israel has had to fight for its independence without much respite for the last 62 years -- and at least three times has faced imminent threats of extinction. Such threats, while not imminent today, nevertheless continue into the present , as Iran with its surrogates (Hamas and Hezbollah) now seeks to pick up the mantle of Egyptian President Nasser.

To get a full sense of Israel's repeated and continuing challenges to confront enemies bent on extinguishing its independence, the Six-Day War of 1967 offers a perfect paradigm, if fully and properly recalled. It's all too easy and misleading, when examining 1967, to concentrate only on the totally unexpected and lightning-fast speed of Israel's victory. That's just the triumphant finale. What also needs to be recalled is what Israel actually faced in June 1967, in the days leading up to the Six-Day War.

Arrayed against Israel's independence was a three-nation military alliance of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, determined, in Nasser's words, to "totally annihilate the State of Israel once and for all."

To couple his words with actual deeds, Nasser moved his army and air force into the Sinai, ousted the U.N. peacekeeping forces, blockaded Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat by closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping (an act of war under international law), and put Jordan's army under Egyptian command.

Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's back was against the wall. In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson promised to assemble an international flotilla to break the blockade (which never materialized) and demanded that Israel not fire the first shot. In Moscow, the Kremlin warned of dire consequences if Israel dared to take preemptive action against Nasser.

In Israel, reservists were called up, and civilians prepared shelters and taped windows of their homes. Throughout the state, rabbis were consecrating parks for cemeteries. By some estimates, graves would have to be dug for as many as 40,000 Israelis.

It was in this context that Eshkol assembled a national-unity government, put Moshe Dayan in charge of the defense ministry, and invited opposition leader Menachem Begin to join the government. Having exhausted all peaceful means and left to fend itself to assure its survival, Israel struck at Egyptian airfields, destroying Nasser's air force in a few hours and then going on to capture the Sinai and the Golan Heights.

But the key to survival and victory -- then, as today -- was Jerusalem. Cut in two by the 1949 armistice agreement, with the Old City and its religious shrines under Jordanian occupation, Jerusalem presented perhaps the greatest challenge to Israeli leaders in 1967. With victory assured on the other fronts, should Israeli military invade and capture the Old City, or -- fearing high civilian casualties and damage to Muslim and Christian shrines -- encircle the city and wait for it to fall?

Waiting, however, turned out to be no option. With the U.N. Security Council set to pass a ceasefire resolution that would have kept the Old City away from Israel's grasp, Eshkol accepted Begin's urgings to move without delay. Within three hours, Israeli paratroopers signaled: "The Temple Mount is ours."

On this Independence Day 2010, I would urge one and all to peruse a new book by Yehuda Avner, an aide and adviser to Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Begin, and Shimon Peres, entitled The Prime Ministers -- An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. Given the challenges and threats that Israel faces today -- with Jerusalem again at the top of the list -- I can think of no better reading than Avner's memoir, with its intimate glimpses of how Israeli leaders overcame tremendous threats to ensure Israel's continued independence.

Let me cite just one of a great number of fly-on-the-wall testimonies by Avner that compellingly bring to life -- up close and personal -- the real meaning of what it has taken for Israel to still be around to celebrate its 62nd anniversary: the dedication and commitment of its people and leaders. I bring this up because challenges to Israel's independence -- yesterday, today and tomorrow -- are inextricably intertwined.

The day after Israel captured the Old City, Menachem Begin arrived at the Western Wall, which he had not seen since 1948. He touched the Wall, spread out his arms in embrace, and then drew a lengthy sheet of paper on which he had written a prayer.

Invoking the three patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- he thanked the Lord for Israel's victory and prayed for the speedy return of its soldiers to their families -- "children to their parents, fathers to their children, and husbands to their wives." And Begin added:

For we are but the surviving remnant of a people harried and persecuted, whose blood has been shed like water from generation to generation.

Today we stand before the Western Wall, relic of the House of our Glory, in Jerusalem the redeemed, the city that is now all united together.

That evening, a journalist asked Begin what had gone through his mind as he touched the Wall.

"When I touched the Wall today I cried," said Begin. "I suppose everyone had tears in their eyes. They are men's tears. For the momentous truth is that on this day we Jews, for the first time since the Roman conquest of 70 C.E., have regained ownership of the last remaining remnant of our Temple site, and have won for ourselves free and unfettered access to pray there.

So when we toast Israel's 62nd birthday, it behooves Israel and all its supporters to refresh memories of 1967 because today, like then, Jerusalem beckons as the touchstone of maintaining the independence of Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land.

Happy Independence Day!
Jews all over the world will celebrate by the Jewish calendar the 62nd anniversary of Israel's independence this year on April 19. It has become traditional on such occasions to focus almost entirely on the events of May 1948, when a nascent Jewish state, authorized by a U.N. two-state partition vote the year before, faced half a dozen Arab armies intent on destroying it. In the ensuing battles, that Jewish state managed to survive and lay the foundation for a return of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.

This year, however, I would argue that while reminiscing about the events of 1948, it would behoove us to focus more on 1967, when Israel again was under siege and marked for extinction by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

Why 1967 more than 1948? Because an exclusive focus on 1948 tends to abet a misleading impression that the events of that year permanently guaranteed Israel's independence. They did not.

Instead, Israel has had to fight for its independence without much respite for the last 62 years -- and at least three times has faced imminent threats of extinction. Such threats, while not imminent today, nevertheless continue into the present , as Iran with its surrogates (Hamas and Hezbollah) now seeks to pick up the mantle of Egyptian President Nasser.

To get a full sense of Israel's repeated and continuing challenges to confront enemies bent on extinguishing its independence, the Six-Day War of 1967 offers a perfect paradigm, if fully and properly recalled. It's all too easy and misleading, when examining 1967, to concentrate only on the totally unexpected and lightning-fast speed of Israel's victory. That's just the triumphant finale. What also needs to be recalled is what Israel actually faced in June 1967, in the days leading up to the Six-Day War.

Arrayed against Israel's independence was a three-nation military alliance of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, determined, in Nasser's words, to "totally annihilate the State of Israel once and for all."

To couple his words with actual deeds, Nasser moved his army and air force into the Sinai, ousted the U.N. peacekeeping forces, blockaded Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat by closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping (an act of war under international law), and put Jordan's army under Egyptian command.

Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's back was against the wall. In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson promised to assemble an international flotilla to break the blockade (which never materialized) and demanded that Israel not fire the first shot. In Moscow, the Kremlin warned of dire consequences if Israel dared to take preemptive action against Nasser.

In Israel, reservists were called up, and civilians prepared shelters and taped windows of their homes. Throughout the state, rabbis were consecrating parks for cemeteries. By some estimates, graves would have to be dug for as many as 40,000 Israelis.

It was in this context that Eshkol assembled a national-unity government, put Moshe Dayan in charge of the defense ministry, and invited opposition leader Menachem Begin to join the government. Having exhausted all peaceful means and left to fend itself to assure its survival, Israel struck at Egyptian airfields, destroying Nasser's air force in a few hours and then going on to capture the Sinai and the Golan Heights.

But the key to survival and victory -- then, as today -- was Jerusalem. Cut in two by the 1949 armistice agreement, with the Old City and its religious shrines under Jordanian occupation, Jerusalem presented perhaps the greatest challenge to Israeli leaders in 1967. With victory assured on the other fronts, should Israeli military invade and capture the Old City, or -- fearing high civilian casualties and damage to Muslim and Christian shrines -- encircle the city and wait for it to fall?

Waiting, however, turned out to be no option. With the U.N. Security Council set to pass a ceasefire resolution that would have kept the Old City away from Israel's grasp, Eshkol accepted Begin's urgings to move without delay. Within three hours, Israeli paratroopers signaled: "The Temple Mount is ours."

On this Independence Day 2010, I would urge one and all to peruse a new book by Yehuda Avner, an aide and adviser to Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Begin, and Shimon Peres, entitled The Prime Ministers -- An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. Given the challenges and threats that Israel faces today -- with Jerusalem again at the top of the list -- I can think of no better reading than Avner's memoir, with its intimate glimpses of how Israeli leaders overcame tremendous threats to ensure Israel's continued independence.

Let me cite just one of a great number of fly-on-the-wall testimonies by Avner that compellingly bring to life -- up close and personal -- the real meaning of what it has taken for Israel to still be around to celebrate its 62nd anniversary: the dedication and commitment of its people and leaders. I bring this up because challenges to Israel's independence -- yesterday, today and tomorrow -- are inextricably intertwined.

The day after Israel captured the Old City, Menachem Begin arrived at the Western Wall, which he had not seen since 1948. He touched the Wall, spread out his arms in embrace, and then drew a lengthy sheet of paper on which he had written a prayer.

Invoking the three patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- he thanked the Lord for Israel's victory and prayed for the speedy return of its soldiers to their families -- "children to their parents, fathers to their children, and husbands to their wives." And Begin added:

For we are but the surviving remnant of a people harried and persecuted, whose blood has been shed like water from generation to generation.

Today we stand before the Western Wall, relic of the House of our Glory, in Jerusalem the redeemed, the city that is now all united together.

That evening, a journalist asked Begin what had gone through his mind as he touched the Wall.

"When I touched the Wall today I cried," said Begin. "I suppose everyone had tears in their eyes. They are men's tears. For the momentous truth is that on this day we Jews, for the first time since the Roman conquest of 70 C.E., have regained ownership of the last remaining remnant of our Temple site, and have won for ourselves free and unfettered access to pray there.

So when we toast Israel's 62nd birthday, it behooves Israel and all its supporters to refresh memories of 1967 because today, like then, Jerusalem beckons as the touchstone of maintaining the independence of Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land.

Happy Independence Day!