The room seems small to a visitor – not the cavernous space it appears in vintage photos – but Independence Hall, just steps from the beach in Tel Aviv, has never shed its giant air of mystery and awe, even 66 years after the founding of the state of Israel.
Only six months from the United Nation’s vote on the “Partition Plan,” which paved the way for the establishment of a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state in Palestine, Zionist leader David Ben Gurion read for those in attendance and a radio audience Israel’s declaration of independence. Ben Gurion read from a typed copy, with Hebrew characters.
The date was Friday, May 14, 1948. Ben Gurion read the declaration at 4 p.m.
Hours later, a statement was issued by President Harry Truman formally recognizing the new state.
Monday, Israel prepares to celebrate its Independence Day, May 5, as always-present threats still loom. The country has accomplished remarkable things and continues to lead in the areas of democratic principles and technology. Israel is also first in line to provide global disaster relief.
Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League, or AIFL, based in New York, is among those who admire the Jewish state for its progress.
“This year Independence Day is right after Memorial Day (Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah in Hebrew). The entire country stops, the sirens ring, people get out of their cars and stand in the streets for a moment of silence in memory of the people who died in the Holocaust. It is a solemn day, remembering those who perished,” he said.
“A week later is Independence Day. A day of celebration, like our Fourth of July, which gives thanks and celebrates the freedom that is preserved from the time in 1948 when a relatively small group announced the independence of Israel.”
This year, Israel celebrates amid circumstances that are similar to those tense days in 1948, when five neighboring Arab armies were poised for invasion. A day after Israel’s declaration of independence, those Arab nations went to war with Israel. An armistice was reached in 1949, with Jerusalem being a divided city under international control.
Nineteen years after independence, Israel found itself in control of the biblical heartland – after defeating the Jordanians – for the first time in two millennia. Many supporters of Israel, particularly in America, see these events as providential.
“Israel’s national rebirth in 1948 is still a cause for great celebration among Christians today,” said David Parsons, media and public relations director for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. “We serve a God who keeps His covenant promises, whether to the Jewish people or to us under the new covenant. If He is faithful to them regarding the land promise, it means He will also be faithful to everything He has promised us in Christ Jesus. So Israel’s return to her homeland and to the family of nations should be reason for all of us to rejoice.”
Parsons has lived in Israel for many years, and he admires the spirit of the Israeli people:
“The Israeli people have a strong collective consciousness, and we see this in the unique way they celebrate their independence immediately after their memorial day for fallen soldiers. They go from mourning straight into dancing and rejoicing, because they know freedom and statehood has come at a great price, and the two are inseparable. It makes for quite an emotional ride, but it only adds to their sense of national identity. And so much of the festivities and traditions are geared for the whole family.”
David Brog, a former Washington attorney, who in 2006 answered the call of Christian pastor John Hagee to helm the newly created Christians United for Israel (now with 1.6 million members), also admires Israel’s ability to manage a dizzying number of threats, while at the same time celebrating statehood.
“Israel Independence Day is a time to celebrate the miracle of Israel. It is also a time to remember that there are those who plot daily to destroy the Jewish state. When our own secretary of state invokes the hate of apartheid to describe Israel and when our young people are being taught that Israel is the source of the region’s problems, we must redouble our efforts to tell the truth about Israel and ensure that this miracle survives.”
Bialkin is a key observer of the relationship between Israel and the U.S. As leader of the AIFL, Bialkin closely monitors the situation each week. He affirms Israel’s remarkable accomplishments while also acknowledging the challenges the country faces.
“Here we are in 2014, and this is a special celebration. Israel is still the only free country in the whole region, in all of the Middle East. It’s the only one that hasn’t seen rebellion, revolution or civil war. On every border, its neighbors are fighting: civil war in Syria; conflicts in Lebanon amongst the various sects; the struggle in almost every country between those who are fighting terrorism and those who are practicing terrorism (sometimes you can’t tell the difference between them). And here is Israel, in the midst of that region, able to keep its independence, freedom, dignity and democracy. It stands there as America’s main ally in the fight against terror.”
Bialkin sees Israel as a key player, of course, in geopolitics, as well as the vigilance needed to combat jihadists.
“The pressure of Iran hangs over the region, and later this year we will learn whether the interim agreement with Iran will be such that Iran gives up the prospect of a nuclear weapon. Israel and the U.S. will have to agree on Iran if they [Iranians] balk on the prospect of giving up a nuclear device.”
For all its 66 years, Israel has enjoyed the support of an overwhelming majority of the American public. Bialkin notes this, while at the same time wondering where American political leadership stands.
“If you look at analysis of public opinion in America, it’s astounding how strong the support for Israel is, notwithstanding the fact that – just to put it delicately – no one really knows where America [politically] stands on these issues in the peace process,” he said.
“America has now called a timeout in the negotiations because the parties were unable to come to an agreement in all these months of brokered negotiations. So we all have to be careful and watchful.”
Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry raised eyebrows when he told a private gathering that if negotiations with the Palestinians fail, Israel risks being seen as an “apartheid state.”
Such rhetoric created a backlash from those who see a double standard applied to Israel, which is continually asked to meet Palestinian demands. Bialkin sees Kerry’s remarks as an indication of a growing dichotomy between Washington and the rest of the country.
“The expressions of the secretary of state create a certain ambiguity of where the administration lies in how long and how strongly it will stand by and support Israel fully,” he said. “But I think the American public and Congress haven’t wavered a bit. And I think we can all take a great deal of comfort in the fact that most people in America love freedom and love Israel.”
Israel’s relationship with American presidents has been strong, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter, who was seen by some as a biased interlocutor. Truman’s support in 1948 was seen as critical, and subsequent crises – such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Richard Nixon supplied weapons to a besieged Israel – have been handled as coordination between friends.
In 2014, though Israel is dependent on stable regional and international relations, the celebration of independence will be relished by the more than six million Jewish citizens.