Why this year’s Independence Day was special for Israel - opinion
Tammy, my wife and I had a mostly wonderful Yom Haatzmaut this year. The weather was perfect, we watched the Air Force put on a fantastic show, and we attended three parties with great friends and incredible food. The wet blanket of COVID had lifted at last and people were finally out celebrating together the miracle of modern Israel’s birth. I say mostly because the celebration was shattered and came to a swift end by the brutal murder of three Jews in Elad by Palestinian terrorists, as the holiday came to a close.
A couple of days later I realized that I had missed the key point of this year’s Israel Independence Day. It was the number of the anniversary: 74. Being in existence 74 years gave modern Israel the record for the longest period that Jews have governed this land from a capital in Jerusalem since Biblical times.
The old record belonged to King David and King Solomon. After ruling for seven years in Hebron, David moved the capital to Jerusalem and united all of Israel under a common kingship. His rule in Jerusalem lasted 33 years.
David was succeeded by his son Solomon, who ruled for 40 years. Once Solomon’s reign ended, the 10 northern tribes of Israel refused to accept the leadership of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, and they seceded from the commonwealth to form the northern Kingdom of Israel. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained together as the Kingdom of Judah, based in Jerusalem.
The United Kingdom of Israel based in Jerusalem thus lasted just 73 years before it split. That split ultimately proved exceptionally painful to the Jewish people: some 200 years later, the Kingdom of Assyria conquered the Kingdom of Israel and deported all of its inhabitants. With that, 10 out of 12 tribes were lost forever – gone the way of the Phoenicians, Akkadians, Hittites and so many other ancient peoples. Only Judah remained in the territory know as Judea – the source of the word Jew.
The Kingdom of Judah was almost defeated by the Assyrians, as well, but it held on for another 200 years, until it was conquered by Babylon. Most inhabitants of Judea were then deported to Babylon.
What happened next was truly miraculous. The Jews in Babylonian exile largely retained their identity and faith. Persia then conquered Babylon about 40 years later and shortly thereafter, King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree for the restoration of Jerusalem. The Jews of Babylon returned to Israel under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, and modern Judaism was born, along with what later became Christianity.
But, the restoration of the Jewish people in Israel under Cyrus was incomplete and very different from the days of David and Solomon. With the distinguishable exceptions of the Hasmonean Dynasty, and the later rebellions at the end of the Second Temple Period and of Bar Kochba, Israel never became a nation governed by Jews from its capital in Jerusalem again, until May 14, 1948. Jews were always residing in Jerusalem throughout history, but never again under real self-rule until 1948 (and more completely in 1967).
With last week’s Independence Day, we reach a time of great thanks that modern Israel has lasted longer than any prior iteration of Jewish self-rule. But, it also is a time that calls for deep reflection. Today, as throughout its history, Israel remains subject to peril, from within and from without. It is no time for complacency.
Now, Israel has the most Jews of any country in the world. But, apart from that quantitative fact, Israel also has become the center of Jewish thought, study and innovation. And perhaps most importantly, Israel has become a unifying source of Jewish pride.
But, with that stature and pride comes awesome responsibility. We must realize the exceptional good fortune we all share to be alive at this transformational time in Jewish history. Having overcome, and flourished in the face of, so many challenges, Israel must grab the mantle of leadership of the entire Jewish world, and elevate its extraordinary responsibility over personal ambitions and grievances. Israel cannot fail and with God’s help, it will not fail, and will continue to prosper and lead.
I pray for the day when my grandchildren will celebrate Israel’s Independence Day with their children and their pride in Israel will even exceed mine.
The author was US ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration.