Shabbat Atzma’ut 5784 – by Noeleen Cohen

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 13 May 2024

I am a Zionist.

I come to my Zionism through the lens of my Judaism and my activism.

I live my Zionism through my commitment to help to build an Israel that is democratic and fair, and in which all its citizens can live in safety and in peace with their neighbours and with each other.

My Zionism is also complicated and messy. It is challenging and nourishing.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Atzma’ut, the celebration of Israel’s declaration of Independence signed in Tel Aviv on 14 May 1948.  On Sunday/Monday, we will move from Yom Hazikaron, when we remember fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, straight into Yom Ha’atzmaut. It is never easy to move from mourning those that we have loved and lost, to celebrating the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people. But we do.

Israelis and Jews around the world have done so for 76 years.

This year, we cannot help but ask:  how can we celebrate following the horrific attack by Hamas terrorists on 7th October; when more than 1200 innocent men, women and children, and babies!!! were assaulted, murdered, raped and kidnapped, resulting in thousands of people from the South of Israel being  displaced?  They are still unable to go home.

How can we celebrate while war rages on in Gaza and when hopes of bringing the remaining the 133 hostages home, are dashed again and again.

There is little to celebrate.

The portion from Deuteronomy Chapter 11 that Daniel read is a special portion for Shabbat Atzma’ut, included by the Reform Movement, in their calendar of Torah readings. The inclusion of this portion is a testament to the centrality of Israel to Progressive Zionism in the UK.

In the portion, we see an idealised vision of the land of Israel – one flowing with milk and honey; a land of hills and valleys that soaks up its water from the rains of heaven, a land on which God always keeps an eye, all year round.

If I’m honest, while preparing for today, I found it difficult to place myself in this vision of a land that seems to be complete, not asking of its people to tend to its soul and to continue the task of building its future.

I allowed myself to be distracted by my newsfeed, by another article about the protests on American and UK college campuses, and the abuse levelled at Jewish students in our schools and universities.  I doom-scrolled through my social media reading updates on plans for just a ‘limited incursion’ into Rafah. And everywhere, about further loss of innocent lives in Gaza.

I turned instead to another special text that last year, for the first time in Alyth’s history, was chanted as the Haftarah.  I turned to the Declaration of Independence, to the text that articulates the vision of the founders of the State of Israel.

Was theirs an idealised, unattainable vision?  Possibly.

Was it the most realistic, viable response to the door that was closing on the reality of a Jewish state for the Jewish people, a 2000 year-old dream that might just be realised?  YES!

The moment required courage and foresight. It needed decisive leaders to weigh-up the odds of the reality of realising the dream of one people, when it meant dispossession for another.

Decisions are difficult. They do not come with guarantees.  Decision-making is a problem solving process based on the assumptions of the valuespreferences and beliefs of the decision-makers around the table at the time!

Having made the decision to declare the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people, the founding fathers and mothers (2 to be precise) of the State of Israel had only 48 hours to make it a reality.

In a 2018, BBC Radio 4 programme entitled “Present at the Creation” journalist Jonathan Freedland spoke to the last two surviving eye-witnesses of the declaration ceremony: Za’ev Sharef, the then 8-year old son of the organiser of the event, and Yael Sharet, the 17 year old daughter of Moshe Sharet who would become Israel’s second Prime Minister. Both young people lived every moment of the 48 hours that their fathers were part of the creation of the State of Israel. Listening to the programme, you can still hear the awe and wonder in their now 80 year-old voices.

Jonathan also spoke to distinguished Israeli author, Amos Oz [Zivra’non livra’cha] who was just 9-years old at the time. He said that “Zionism was like a noisy family, with wildly competing visions of the State they were about to declare. There was no such thing he says, of the founding fathers and mothers agreeing with one another. Some wanted a Marxist paradise, and others were inspired by early Mussolini, some wanted a Scandinavian social democracy, and others wanted a renewal of the kingdom of David and Solomon”.

One thing Amos Oz was absolutely clear about. In the midst of the competing ideologies, factionism and politics, the only way that the dream could be fulfilled was by an incongruent group of Jews, coming together as a collective.

The creation of the State of Israel was, and remains, a shared endeavour.

People from across the social and political spectrum were called in by David Ben Gurion to draft the Declaration.  Every time someone put their pen to the paper, what they wrote was infused with their politics. The next person changed what had been written, believing that their contribution was right. It was very political.  Words mattered then, as they do today.

The document was handed to David Ben Gurion at 3:59pm.

On Friday, 14 May 1948, at 4:00pm, with Shabbat just a couple of hours away, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, read from the hot-off-the-press, Declaration of Independence:  This is the second, and central paragraph of the Declaration.

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The few hundred people crammed into the Tel Aviv Museum of Art listened intently to David Ben Gurion reading for 17 minutes, to hear a proclamation that would change the course of history.

And alter the fate of two people, both with deep and historical connections to, and competing over, a single, much promised land.

The Declaration of Independence is not on display anywhere in Israel.

Historian Yoram Shachar, who only saw the actual document for the first time in 2018 was overwhelmed. He said it looked semi-sacred, like a scroll.

Shachar spoke of the Declaration of Independence as a text of questions. Issues that had to be addressed at the time of the birth of the new nation AND in the future. How much God? How much democracy? Where are the borders?

The Declaration of Independence was created as a foundational and formative document. It was, and remains a document filled with expectations.

Whist being, as Amos Oz explained, enlightened, tolerant, genuinely democratic and reconciling the aspirations of Zionism with the best post World War 2 ideals of Western Democracy, the Declaration of Independence challenges us, as Jews and Zionists, to commit ourselves to the dream of the founders of Israel, to embrace the values of freedom, justice, equality and peace, and to work as a collective, to bring together the ideals of the communists, Revisionist Zionists, religious and secular who, in the shadow of the Shoah, and in the middle of another war (that would last another year), realised the dream of a homeland for the Jewish People.

I want to return here to the Zionism I spoke about at the beginning of this sermon. That messy, nourishing, complicated Zionism that I live through my Judaism, and the work that underpins my commitment to building an Israel that is democratic and equal, in which all its citizens are can live in safety and in peace with their neighbours and with each other.

It is where hope lies.

I have the privilege, and particularly over these last seven months, the challenge and the gift of chairing the New Israel Fund, the UK affiliate of an Israel-based, human rights charity that for more than 40 years has fought for a democratic, just, and secure Israel for everyone who lives there.

Much of the work of the New Israel Fund happens on the ground through our 180 inspiring grantees and partners, and NIF’s own capacity building arm SHATIL. The New Israel Fund supports extraordinary people and organisations to strengthen civil society and defend Israel’s democracy (particularly today, as the eyes of the country are looking away from the West Bank and internal governance matters).

For more than 40 years the New Israel Fund has been at the heart of human rights and democracy in Israel.  On October 7th we pivoted to working with our grantees and partners to provide educational, psychological and essential support to the tens of thousands of displaced people from the South and also from the north of Israel.  We are a key partner in the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, the beating heart of holding and supporting the families, and fighting for the return of the 133 remaining hostages. We continue to support people n in the unrecognised Bedouin villages in the South who receive no state funding or protection.

Our grantees are working to ensure that Jews and Arabs continue to live peacefully in Israel’s mixed cities and are helping to provide much needed humanitarian aid to innocent civilians in Gaza.

Colleagues, friends and leaders in Israel and here in the UK – Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs are working together through their own pain, heartbreak and horror, to embrace the equanimity required to hold more than one truth.

To be holy through our humanity.

To make difficult decisions,

and to envision ‘A day after’ for the people of Israel and Gaza and all who live in this noisy neighbourhood.

I am proud to be part of this collective, admittedly less incongruent than those who drafted the Declaration of Independence, working together to answer the foundational questions asked by the them in 1948, and still being asked of us today.  They had high expectations for themselves and for Israel, and for us.

We can’t look away now. Hard as it at the moment,

It is in the tolerance, enlightenment and democracy embedded in the Declaration of independence that we must find strength and HOPE.

Shabbat Shalom.

Noeleen Cohen is the chair of the New Israel Fund in the UK