Once Jewish rights to Israel were obvious. Even those who had no connection or sympathy to Zionism knew where Jews came from, about Jewish connection to the Holy Land. To top it off, Jew haters often demanded Jews “go home to Palestine.” Then everyone knew that Palestine was just another name for Zion.
Now, somehow, Jewish rights to Israel are not so obvious. Interestingly, both antisemites and modern liberal Jews find themselves asking the same questions (albeit for different reasons): Is it legitimate to found and maintain a State specifically for the Jewish People?
The antisemite denies the legitimacy of the Jewish State out of hatred for the existence of the Jewish People. Jewish sovereignty is abhorrent because Jewish existence is abhorrent.
The liberal Jew, on the other hand, is taking into consideration the questions of pluralism, equality and an innate aversion to anything that could remotely be considered racism. In a time when political movements are calling for the abolition of borders and nationalism is equated with extremism it can seem difficult to defend the idea of a State for a single people.
Added to this is the additional complexity of the Arab population both within and without Israel, many of whom object to the existence of the Jewish State in its entirety while others say that their objections are about specific laws and policies of the Jewish State.
Many of us find ourselves at a loss to explain Jewish rights to the Jewish land to the modern progressive, post-religion, low information (but loudly opinionated) person. My friend Ryan Bellerose has gone to great lengths to teach us effective terminology, explaining the concept of indigeneity and how this differs from people of longstanding presence in a land. Referencing the Bible, while it being a very powerful motivator to the religious person, is counterproductive in dialogue with the non or anti-religious.
Indigenous status is a whole different ballgame.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), Israel’s Declaration of Independence spells out Jewish rights to the land of Israel in exactly the format Ryan suggests. There is no “Because God said so” while indigeneity is placed above all other explanations. It also addresses the difference between the indigenous people and the inhabitants who are not indigenous, while declaring that in the Jewish State all individuals will have the same, equal rights. This is the precursor to the recently passed Nation State Law which I will address in a separate article (Jewish Rights to Israel: Part 2).
As part of my work at the Israel Forever Foundation I did something few of us bother to do – I read the most basic document regarding the foundation of the Jewish State – the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. It fascinated me to discover that, although the document was written before the questions of this time arose, it addresses them clearly and concisely, spelling out the reasons for the legitimacy of the Jewish Nation State.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
In Hebrew there is no word for indigenous however, the description that opens the Declaration of Independence is the definition of indigeneity: the land in which a nation was born, the place where that nation first formed their culture, built spiritual, cultural and political institutions.
Israel is the land in which the Jewish people were sovereign and the place from which, as a Nation, the Jewish People influenced the world (through the ideas laid out in the Bible).
Indigeneity is the strongest claim any People can have to any specific land: this specific piece of land and no other is the ancestral homeland of my People. While lacking the word for indigenous in Hebrew it was clear that the writers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence had clear understanding of the meaning and the power of this concept.
“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”
This second paragraph reinforces the first with the explanation that the Jewish People were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland and did not leave or abandon the land from their own free will. Despite centuries of exile, the Jewish People never gave up the hope to return and regain sovereignty in their ancestral homeland. This is an extraordinary and unparalleled testament to the deep connection of a People to the land.
“Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, defiant returnees, and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.”
This paragraph takes Jewish hope to the realm of practicality: Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, impelled by Jewish history in the land and the connection that was continued in exile through hope and prayer, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. Jews not only retained esoteric hope but took action, in every generation, to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades (prior to the Declaration of Independence) Jews returned in their masses. Following this is a description mirroring the first paragraph of the document and elaborating the revival of the Jewish People in their indigenous land – reviving the language in which their original culture was articulated, building thriving communities, taking custodianship of the land (making the desert bloom), controlling their own economy and culture.
Here, for the first time, the document refers to “all the country’s inhabitants” – in other words, the Jews and non-Jews (Arabs). This was written after the Arab massacres of their Jewish neighbors:
- In 1920 a number of settlements in the Galilee were attacked (among them Tel Hai where Trumpeldor and seven others were murdered) and in Jerusalem. Some 30 Jews were murdered and hundreds injured.
- In 1921 Jews were attacked in Tel Aviv, Petach Tikva and Mikveh Yisrael and other communities, dozens were murdered and many more injured.
- In August of 1929 Jews in Jerusalem were attacked and entire neighborhoods were destroyed. In Hebron 69 Jews were massacred, many others were severely injured and the community was wiped out. Jews were also attacked in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Gaza, Ramleh, Akko, Beit Shean and more.
- The great Arab revolt of 1936-1939 in which 630 Jews were murdered and some 2000 were injured. At first, Jews hoped that if they kept their heads down, the violence would subside. Then Orde Wingate decided to help the Jews, teaching them self-defense tactics which changed the balance of power (and have since become fundamental elements of the IDF’s doctrine).
It is within this context that the Declaration of Independence explains that the Jewish community while, loving peace knows how to defend itself and will bring the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants.
“In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.
This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.”
Here the document moves from the explanation of indigenous rights to the discussion of Jewish rights under international law – from the first Zionist Congress to the Balfour Declaration, it’s reaffirmation by the League of Nations which recognized the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.
“The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.”
The Holocaust as an example, not a reason – in this paragraph the Declaration mentions the Holocaust, explaining that this is a clear demonstration of the need to solve the problem of homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State. It is important to note that the Holocaust is not brought as a reason or justification for the establishment of Israel but as an example of what can happen when the Jewish People have no Israel and are not seen by the community of nations as equal and with full privileges.
Survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.
Here too as an example – also after the Holocaust, survivors and other Jews continued to make aliyah undaunted by difficulties and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland. It was not because of the Holocaust survivors that the State of Israel was established but they, whose dignity had been stripped from them, joined those already struggling to establish a life of Jewish freedom and were followed by additional Jews who all came together in their national homeland.
“In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.”
This paragraph is an interesting assertion of rights of Israel’s Jewish community, not because they are freely given (as one might expect) but as something earned due to behaving like other peace-loving nations and through the blood of its soldiers.
“On the 29th November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.”
The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel but this was not something the nations swooped in and did for the Jewish People; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution – which they did. Was the statement of legal fact, that the recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable, a premonition of future questions regarding the legitimacy of the Jewish State?
“This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”
The right to be master of your own fate is a natural right. The Jewish People, like all other nations, have the right to their own sovereign State.
Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.
In accordance with all the reasons given above, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, on the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz Israel the representatives of the Jewish Community of Israel (not the Jewish world community) and of the Zionist Movement (the National Movement for Jewish self-determination) declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel. This was an important determination that the Jewish historic name of the land would be the name by which the new State would be called.
“We declare that, with effect from the moment of the termination of the Mandate being tonight, the eve of Sabbath, the 6th Iyar, 5708 (15th May, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948, the People’s Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People’s Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish State, to be called “Israel.”
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.
Here the document declares the State of Israel open to immigration of all Jews, the basis for what is now called the “Law of Return”.
While the document clearly discusses Jewish rights, it is important that here, we see for the second time, mention of “all inhabitants.” The addition of these two little words explains a crucial concept – the Jewish People are recognized as indigenous and have the rights of an indigenous people returning to their ancestral homeland. The other inhabitants, while not indigenous, are recognized as having rights do to their residence within the land and thus, in accordance with the visions of the prophets of Israel who described what the Jewish State needs to look like and in accordance to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations the State of Israel will provide for the benefit of all, not just the Jews but for Jews and Arabs alike: the development of the country, freedom, justice and peace, 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.
These rights were later established in Israeli law but it is important to note that those were a realization of this declaration which was based on the ancient visions of what a Jewish State needs to be.
“The State of Israel is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.
We appeal to the United Nations to assist the Jewish people in the building-up of its State and to receive the State of Israel into the community of nations.”
The declaration expresses the willingness of the new State to cooperate with international bodies and requests that the United Nations assist the Jewish People and receive the State of Israel into the community of nations.
“We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
Here, for the first time, the Arab inhabitants of Israel are addressed directly, in the context of the previous pogroms against the Jews of Israel and the winds of war that were recognized by the declarers – with the request to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
“We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
The declaration does not stop with the Arab inhabitants of Israel but extends a hand of peace to all neighboring Arab countries and an offer of collaboration – that they assist with the settling Jews in the sovereign Jewish State (a request that includes the Jews living at the time in Arab lands) and a promise that the State of Israel will do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
“We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.”
The last request is to Jews around the world to assist with the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and stand by the Jews of Israel in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.
Placing our trust in the Almighty [the first and only time God is mentioned in the document], we affix our signatures to this proclamation at this session of the provisional Council of State, on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel-Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the 5th day of Iyar, 5708 (14th May, 1948).
Daniel Auster Mordekhai Bentov Yitzchak Ben Zvi Eliyahu Berligne Fritz Bernstein Rabbi Wolf Gold Meir Grabovsky Yitzchak Gruenbaum Dr. Abraham Granovsky Eliyahu Dobkin Meir Wilner-Kovner Zerach Wahrhaftig Herzl Vardi Rachel Cohen Rabbi Kalman Kahana Saadia Kobashi Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin Meir David Loewenstein Zvi Luria Golda Myerson Nachum Nir Zvi Segal Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Fishman David Zvi Pinkas Aharon Zisling Moshe Kolodny Eliezer Kaplan Abraham Katznelson Felix Rosenblueth David Remez Berl Repetur Mordekhai Shattner Ben Zion Sternberg Bekhor Shitreet Moshe Shapira Moshe Shertok