BY RUTH WISSE
Professor of Yiddish and Comparative
Literature, Harvard University
November 29, 1997, should have been celebrated as an international milestone. On that date a half century ago, the General Assembly of the newly-founded United Nations, upon the recommendation of a UN special committee, voted for the partition of Palestine (33 for, 13 against, ten abstentions), relieving Britain of its troublesome protectorate and dividing part of the disputed territory between Jews and Arabs. Over three-fourths of Palestine had already been given to the Arabs in 1921 to form the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The UN decision had symbolic as well as practical meaning for those who believed in world government: where the Roman Empire had once destroyed Jewish temples and crucified Jewish teachers, the new international body affirmed its commitment to the equitable treatment of small and large nations alike. Within the same decade that generated the terms "genocide" and "Holocaust" to define the mass slaughter of the Jews of Europe, the United Nations recognized the unexceptional right of the Jewish people to live as they wished. Indeed, when the State of Israel declared its sovereignty six months later, the UN could claim a share in that moral victory. The rule of might was balanced nominally, or at least formally, by the UN Charter's commitment to respect the "self-determination of peoples."
The season of celebration begun last November was to have culminated on May 15, 1998, the fiftieth anniversary of the Jewish state. Although the founding of Israel is primarily the achievement of the Jewish people, its example should inspire pride in anyone who values human effort. Consider the following accomplishments: first, at the end of the last century, a group of intellectuals as diverse and fractious as the Greek gods spearheaded a movement of national auto-emancipation that in 50 years would result in the establishment of Israel. Through Zionism, a people who had existed for twenty centuries without central political authority created the infrastructure of a democratic country. Second, in a unique linguistic revolution, one of the most polyglot people on earth brought patrician Hebrew back into common use because instinct told them they needed a vernacular that united the nation in space and time. Third, though their population was reduced by one-third between 1939 and 1944, the Jews not only persevered in the reclamation of their national sovereignty, but mustered the energy to gather in their far-flung refugees. On July 5, 1950, Israel enacted the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to every Jew. Since everyone who is prepared to accept Jewish discipline can become a Jew, the Law of Return is perhaps the first universal immigration law in history, hospitable without being coercive, like Judaism itself.
Moreover, the socialist experiment was tested voluntarily in Jewish Palestine. Well-suited to the original pioneering needs of young Jews who left familiar and often comfortable homes to cultivate a desolate land, the socialist collectives of Israel realigned their priorities as conditions in the country improved. For example, kibbutzim began to function economically as capitalist units; collective child-rearing yielded to coherent families; personal ambitions were sanctioned, and increasing levels of privacy allowed.
Finally, a people without military experience learned to protect its children. Following their defeat to Rome in 70 and 135 CE, Jews pursued their national existence without a unified territory, central political authority, or means of self-defense. For almost 20 centuries, wherever they settled, Jews subordinated military prowess to economic and intellectual power, hoping to find protection under foreign rule. Clearly, these politics of accommodation failed catastrophically in Europe. The reluctant formation of the Israel Defense Forces in the 1930s, which developed into one of the most successful armies in the world, is the noblest of all Israel's accomplishments because it was the precondition for the rest. …