Sunday, July 3, 2016

National sovereignty: the very first thing Jews did with it

The Brits just upset everyone by voting to put their sovereignty above their obvious economic well-being. Or maybe it was something else. I admit I don't know what they were thinking with their Brexit vote, and unlike most pundits, I don't have the foggiest notion how the decision will look a year from now, a decade from now, or 25 years from now. (I chose the word foggy advisedly).

It just so happens, however, that over the Brexit weekend I was struck by a thought I hadn't previously had about the time the Jews reclaimed their sovereignty after some 2,000 years without it. Recently I completed the reading of Zeev Shaerf's classic book "Three Days" (written in Hebrew in 1958), describing May 12, 13 and 14 1948.  The book looks at the battlefields of the final three days of the British Mandate in Palestine; at the first engagement of a formal Arab army (Transjordan's British-led Arab Legion) in the campaign to prevent a Jewish State, and the last-minute half-hearted attempts by the international community to stave off a war by preventing the creation of Israel; at the political and administrative efforts of the Yishuv to launch an independent state; and many other things that were crammed into those last three days.

The British Mandate was to terminate at midnight between May 14th and 15th. As the date approached, the Jews realized they had to declare their sovereign nation then, or perhaps never. Then, however, would have been the night between Friday and Saturday. Declaring the state on the Sabbath wasn't an option, so the declaration was brought forward till Friday afternoon, technically eight hours before the end of British rule.

It's hard for us today to remind ourselves how momentous a decision it was. Declaring Jewish sovereignty for the first time in some 2,000 years; and declaring sovereignty at a moment of intense international confusion and tenacious Arab determination to destroy the new State before it managed to find its feet and begin to function, killing as many Jews as it might take.

Yet even before doing all that was the decision to respect the Sabbath by not waiting for the official end of the Mandate. Zionism, a movement of mostly secular Jews who had given up on the religious project of waiting for the Messiah, chose to respect the Sabbath as its very first act of sovereignty.