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Holding Israel's Declaration of Independence Up to the Light of Day

Holding Israel's Declaration of Independence Up to the Light of Day

Seven-branched menorah near the Israeli Knesset

Last week I was listening to an NPR discussion of the early days of our republic. The commentator asserted that it is reasonable to be highly suspicious of the motivations behind what came to be known as the American Revolution. As the clouds of war darkened the lives of those British citizens who called themselves patriots, the real beneficiaries of the prolonged conflict might very well have been the wealthy white male slave owners in the southern states.

But there is a proof text that conclusively shows that the leaders of the revolution were motivated by a vision of a better world, a freer world, a more democratic and compassionate world. The Declaration of Independence, though still stained by many of the moral flaws of the day, comfortably contains phrases such as “endowed by their Creator,” “unalienable rights,” “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”

There is nuance and compromise in how each contested word and phrase found its way into the completed text. There was callousness and political profiteering that determined what was omitted. The Civil War was needed to rectify many of those compromises.  But the Declaration of Independence also provided the rationale for revolution, the principles and ideals that continue to inspire Americans, and a blueprint to guide legislators, members of the judiciary, political philosophers, and social revolutionaries to this very day.

In a parallel fashion, I believe it is reasonable to be highly suspicious of the motivations behind Israel’s War of Independence, Milchemet Ha-Shichrur. As that war dragged on – and in some ways has never fully ended – were the real beneficiaries of the war those who wanted to weaponize the Shoah as a means of re-establishing a Jewish State no matter at what cost to those Arabs already living on the land or to entrench the religious right-wing seeking to force the coming of the Messiah?

But once again, there is a proof text that conclusively shows that the leaders of the country’s War of Independence were motivated by the prophetic vision of a better world, a world within which our people not only could right ancient wrongs, but also could build a future within which we rightfully re-enter the world as a free, self-reliant people, eager to become “a light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 49:6)

That proof text is M’gillat HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In that M’gillah are words and phrases such as “ingathering of exiles,” “the benefit of all its inhabitants…irrespective of religion, race or sex,” “guarantee freedom of religion,” and “we appeal to the Arab inhabitants….”

The M’gillah has served as the foundation upon which Israel’s basic laws have been established and has guided the judicial and political echelons in the work of creating that which has never existed before in all of history: a state that is both Jewish and democratic.

But does M’gillat HaAtzmaut still accurately describe the Jewish State today? Is a civil war needed to rectify the compromises that permitted the adoption of the M’gillah? For example, as Professor Rachel Adler writes in a forthcoming book, she is deeply concerned that the reference to gender equality in itself has failed to create such equality. (Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish Americans and Israelis Envision the Jewish-Democratic State. Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Rabbi John Rosove (ed.), New York, CCAR Press, 2020.) The M’gillah is an aspirational text without any power of law.

Professor Adler notes that there are no indications that any women were consulted as to how to frame the seriousness of the expectation of gender equality. And one cannot find prophetic imperatives for such a value, because the prophets lived and taught in a world in which political, financial, and military power resided in the hands of men. Ezekiel, for example, was a misogynist, so how can we use Ezekiel’s teachings as a foundation upon which to construct a gender-just world? So men from every rank of Israeli society today continue to deny women authority over their own bodies.

Professor Adler insists that as we hold the M’gillah up to the light of day, we recognize that the unique needs of Palestinian women have been given no attention at all, and neither has same-sex marriage. The M’gillah simply does not suffice to address true justice, true equality, true freedom.

This article is the first in a monthly series in which some of the most outstanding advocates of social justice in North America and Israel will address the role of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in its society. This endeavor is part of a new initiative to create active partnerships of concern between the two greatest centers of Jewish life. Your comments are most welcome; you can tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, D.D., was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA. A member of the Board of Overseers of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and an honorary life member of NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth organization, he previously held leadership posts with the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the World Zionist Organization. He is a past international president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids
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