“Next year in Jerusalem” takes on a whole new meaning starting May 14th, 1948 (5th day if Iyar). It’s on this day that David Ben Gurion, our first Prime Minister, declares independence.
The events surrounding the declaration were quite dramatic. 6 months earlier, on November 29th, the UN voted for partition, meaning a Jewish state & Arab state side by side. The plan was never implemented due to the Arab countries refusal to accept this plan. This led to a civil war within the land of Israel until the British departure on May 15th. Over the first 4 months (December 47′-March 48′) the Arabs attacked Jewish movement on the roads all over the country. It was only in April that Ben Gurion decides to take the initiative and starts going on the offensive against the Arab irregulars (Arab fighters who came from abroad to fight) and Arab towns. This will lead us into May.
The British are scheduled to leave on May 15th, which is a Shabbat. Realizing that the provisional government can’t declare a Jewish state on Shabbat, and that it’s not a good idea to leave a vacuum situation once the British leave, BG makes the decision. The declaration will be made on Friday, May 14th, at 4 o’clock. The momentous event will take place in a modest building in Tel Aviv. Since Jerusalem is under siege it can’t take place there, so Tel Aviv was the second choice. The chosen building was the former home of late mayor Mayer Dizengoff, then an art museum. It was relatively protected from the outside which was important due to potential aerial bombing.
350 people were invited to the historic event. BG started the meeting on time, at 4 o’clock, and it lasted 32 minutes during which he read the declaration of Independence. The main sentence, which gave this country its name, was “..hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel”. This was followed by the signing of the document, after which BG declared the ceremony over.
This was a defining moment in Jewish history. It brought 3 Jewish aspects back to the place where it had begun millennia ago. The Jewish religion- Judaism, originated in the ancient land of Canaan, was now returning. The Hebrew language- born in the era when the Hebrew tribes were wandering the land, was now being modernized and used as the official modern tongue in the land that it had originated from. And last but not least, the connection of the Jewish people to the land itself. After yearning in prayers for 2000 years saying “next year in Jerusalem”, it was finally happening.
Unfortunately, the second phase of the Independence War started the following day with the invasion of the 5 neighboring Arab armies. It was only by March 1949 that the dust settled, the war ended, and the State of Israel could get busy building itself a new Jewish state.
Nathan Alterman, describing the heartache of the loss of life due to war, yet the excitement of the new country, put it best in his famous poem ‘The Silver Platter’ –
And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers
As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle
As the ceremony draws near, it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy
When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation
Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly
To change garb, to wipe their brow
They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head
Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?” And they will answer quietly, “We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”
Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel
When talking today about modern day Zionism and what got the wheels of history rolling that eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel, the year we choose to start the story in is 1882.
In this year the 1st Aliya begins. As a result of antisemitism, the rise of nationalism & the eternal “next year in Jerusalem” yearning, Jews from Eastern Europe, Russia & Yemen will begin emigrating to the land of Israel which at this time is under Turkish rule. Upon their arrival they buy land from absentee landowners and start settling the land.
What are the characteristics of the members of the 1st Aliya? They are mostly families, religious, with little to no agricultural experience. Their goal though, is to create new towns and work the land. Most of the land that they bought was not good for settling in at the beginning. They were strewn with rocks, or covered in swamps. Despite these hardships, the first pioneers cleared out the rocks and dried the swamps. Many times these came at a horrible price of the loss of life due to disease. The agricultural work was trial by error, or sometimes the local Arab population helped to teach the inexperienced Jews how to work the land.
Some of the first towns that were built in the 1880’s and 90’s have turned into well known cities or towns in Israel today. Reshon Letzion, Holon, Rehovot, Zichron Yaakov, Petach Tikva, Rosh Pina and many more. 32 towns were built during the 1st Aliya years of 1882-1904.
A lot of the financial support for all of this was done by the Baron Edmond Benjamin Rothschild. He supported the infrostructure for many of these towns, and built factories. Wine & silk were just some of the factories that he created in order to support these new towns.
The number of Jews who made Aliya to the land of Israel in this wave of immigration numbered 25,000-35,000. Their work on the ground was what got the things rolling, at the begining, that will eventualy lead to Israel’s independence in 1948.
On the political level, Theodore Herzl, a journalist in Vienna, will start talking about creating a Jewish State. In 1895 he was witness to the French yelling “death to the Jews” in the streets of Paris when Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer, was wrongly accused of spying. Within the next few months he writes a pamphlet called “The Jewish State”, in which he describes his vision of a future Jewish state. Herzl will organize the first Jewish Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Over the next few years he will turn to various world leaders in order to get support for the creation of his vision. The leaders of Turkey, Russia, Germany & Great Britain were who he turned to, but all disappointed him by not helping his cause.
Herzl died in 1904 before he could see his dream come true. Herzl’s political activities will compliment the members of the 1st Aliya’s activities in turning their dream into a reality.
The metaphor of a multi layered sandwich is my favorite way of describing the multi layered history of Jerusalem. From within these layers, though, let’s choose 4 stories with a Jewish connection. They will span over an era of 1,000 plus years, from the 7th century (1,300 years ago) to the 18th century (300 years ago).
*638- The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. Omer Ibn Hattab, the Muslim caliph, will enter Jerusalem victorious at the head of his Muslim army, thus ending the 700 year Roman Byzantine rule of the city. Omer will request to go and see the sanctuary of David. He will be taken up to the Temple Mount which he finds contaminated by ‘ a dungheap which the Christians had put there to offend the Jews’. At this point Omer asks to be shown the Holy of Holies. One of the men who was accompanying him, a Jewish convert named Kaab el Ahbar, points to the foundation stone, which was also covered in debris. As Muslim soldiers are clearing the debris Kaab el Ahbar turns to Omer and suggests that he make 2 praying areas, one on the foundation stone for Moses, and the other north of that spot for Muhammed. To this he responds to Kaab “you are still leaning towards the Jews”. Omer then built a prayer house on the southern end of the Temple Mount, facing Mecca, in the general area where today’s El Aksa Mosque stands.
*1165- Maimonides (Rambam) visits the land of Israel. Escaping from Spain, he will arrive at the port city of Akko. From there he will set out “On Tuesday, the 4th day of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan (October)…we left Akko to travel to Jerusalem under danger, and I entered the big and Holy House (Temple Mount) and prayed there on Thursday, on the 6th day of Cheshvan. On Sunday, the 9th of the month, I left Jerusalem towards Hebron in order to kiss the grave of my forefathers (The Cave of the Patriarchs, burial site of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rivka & Lea)”. This is the era of Crusader rule in Israel (1099-1187) in which Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem. Maimonides found only 4 Jewish dyers living in the city under royal protection.
*1267- Nachmanides (Ramban) builds a synagogue in Jerusalem. After defending Barcelona’s Jews against Dominican claims of blasphemy, the Dominican’s then tried to have him killed. King James of Aragon was so impressed with him that he gave him 300 golden pieces to help him on his journey escaping those who wanted to take his life. The Ramban, aged 73, will travel to Jerusalem. Upon arrival he will see a city in ruins and will write the following to his son “What shall I tell you about the land, it lays in great waste, the rule is the more holy the site is so too it lays very much in ruins, and Jerusalem is the most ruined of all”. He then comes to Mt Zion (right outside today’s walls of the Old City) and found a “broken down house built with marble columns and a handsome dome. We took it for a prayer house because the city is a shambles and whoever wants to appropriate ruins does so”. The Ramban built a synagogue in Jerusalem at that time, despite the fact that when arriving he discovered only 2 Jewish brothers, dyers, living in the city. Roughly 100 years later (circa 1400) Jews moved into the area that is today known as the Jewish Quarter. They turned a structure with marble columns into a synagogue which today is named the Ramban synagogue (no connection to the original one on Mt Zion).
*1700- Yehuda the Hassid arrives with 1,000 followers in Jerusalem. Starting his journey in eastern Europe 3 years earlier with 1,500 followers, this group goes from town to town & village to village. Each place that they arrive at evokes excitement as people give them prayers and promise to give donations to help them build their community upon arrival in Jerusalem. By the time they arrive in the holy city they number 1,000 members. The group will hit a snag, though, when their leader, Yehuda the Hassid, dies within 5 days of their arrival. Donations that were promised fall through and the community is left penniless. They will then borrow money from the local Muslim community for their synagogue. Unfortunately, they don’t have the ability to return this loan and as a result the Muslims will destroy their synagogue in 1721. This is the first version of what is today known as the Hurva Synagogue, which stands 80 feet high in the middle of the Jewish Quarter and can be seen from many lookout points around Jerusalem.
“Give me Yavne and it’s sages” said the 1st century Jerusalem sage to Vespasian, the Roman Chief of Staff (later emperor), as he layed the siege on Jerusalem that eventually led to the destruction of the 2nd Temple.
This will lead to the evolution of the Oral Torah over the next several centuries. The sages, members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish religious leadership) will break down the commandments of the Torah to small minute details for implementation in daily life.
The man that will finish compiling all the books of the Mishnah is Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. He lived in the second century, and when you visit Israel next I would love to show you where he learned, lived & was later buried. It’s fascinating to walk through these sites. Next to the modern day town of Kiryat Tiv’on (not far from the port city of Haifa) we can visit the study center (Bet Midrash) that he studied in. Next we travel to Tzipori National Park (in the Lower Galilee). There we can visit what may have been the beautiful home that Rabbi (that’s his nickname, I’m serious..) lived in. That’s only one of the many points that we can experience in Tzipori, though. This site has so much to offer. My favorite is to show off its many colorful mosaics, the most beautiful in Israel, in my opinion. One of the central mosaics in Tzipori is its 1,500 year old mosaic that’s in the middle of its synagogue. We’ll get back to synagogues, though, in a little bit. From here we’ll go to Bet She’arim National Park (next to our above mentioned Bet Midrash), with its burial caves that hold many sarcophagus inside of them. This is where Rabbi and his wife were buried upon their passing circa 200 CE.
During these centuries, from the time of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and over the next several centuries, 3rd-7th centuries, is the golden age of the Jews in the northern areas of Israel. The Galilee & Golan Heights. Roughly 100 synagogues have been found in these regions, showing a rich & meaningful life for Jews in these areas. The synagogues are adorned with many artistic motifs, amongst them the 7 branched menorah which adorns our synagogues today. All synagogues faced the direction of Jerusalem, in the spirit of “If I forget Jerusalem may my right hand whither..”.
Some of these synagogues have been rebuilt. They are very impressive physically, not to mention that visiting them can be a very meaningful experience.
Unfortunately, the Jewish golden age in the Galilee came to an end 1,300 years ago (8th century) with the Muslim conquest of the land of Israel. From this point on there will always be a small population of Jews in the land, but not until the 20th century will they constitute a majority once again.