This week marks the 67th anniversary of Israeli independence.
On this milestone, worthy of celebration by Israeli citizens and admirers of the Jewish state, as well as by all advocates of democracy around the world, we gratefully marvel at the longevity of the State of Israel, now well into its seventh decade of sovereignty. Notwithstanding profound challenges and shortcomings besetting it, the miraculous quality attending its founding is compounded with each passing year.
At the same time, we properly are filled with wonder and concern at the relative youth of the State of Israel. In the history of nations – and all the more so in the history of the Jewish people – a span of 67 years is but the blink of an eye. The American “experiment” – dating to our own independence in 1776 – soon will celebrate a venerable 239 years.
In order more fully to appreciate the challenges facing the Jewish State at 67, it is instructive for Americans to reflect on the conditions that confronted the United States at the same age.
America celebrated 67 years of independence in 1843. A vital, charismatic John Tyler occupied the Oval Office. Having succeeded to the presidency upon the untimely death of William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, Tyler’s elevation as the nation’s chief executive represented an unprecedented test of the Constitution and our national character. Tyler, consequently, was widely referred to by a skeptical public as “His Accidency.”
In 1843, the very year in which Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” died, the American flag, marking the growth of the nation, bore but 26 stars. Party Politics were alive and well in 1843 America. Governors of the 26 states included leaders affiliated with the Democratic, Whig (including William Pennington of New Jersey), and Law and Order parties.
Among the political issues to be addressed by the new leader of this young republic was that of disputed territory. Mexican President Antonio LÃ³pez de Santa Anna warned the United States that he would consider American annexation of Texas to be an act of war. Settler activity also included the departure of the first wagon train from Independence, Missouri, for the Oregon Territory. More than 1,000 pioneering Americans thereby initiated the Oregon Trail.
To a great extent, the United States was an armed campâ€¦ and not just in the Southwest. The storm of rancorous internal dissension that would lead to civil war already was gathering. In 1843 a young Ulysses S. Grant was graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He ranked an unremarkable 21 in a class of 39.
With grave concern, American Jews watched signs of mounting anti-Semitism in Europe in 1843. Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, decreed that Jews were forbidden to live outside their Italian ghettos. It is perhaps no coincidence that in the same year, B’nai B’rith was founded in New York City.
In 1843, Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” and Edgar Allan Poe published the macabre short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
A seemingly distant memory, America of 1843 may bear little resemblance to the United States we know today. The conditions endured by our own 67-year-old republic, however, offer valuable insight into the challenges confronting the State of Israel 67 years after its founding. The Jewish state is an armed camp, besieged by hostile neighbors who not merely dispute its territorial claims, but deny its very right to exist. Concerns about intensifying anti-Semitism in Europe not only occupy leaders of the Jewish state, but animate Jewish organizational life and communal agendas in the United States as well. Multilateral elections in Israel – robust, genuine, free, and democratic – reveal a divided and skeptical electorate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the ninth Israeli to lead his nation – still struggles to form a government, simultaneously testing and reflecting Israel’s national character. Like his American counterpart of 1843, Bibi faces the daunting challenge of balancing the aspirations of a vocal settler movement (and a sympathetic nationalist sentiment among his political base) with his responsibility to maintain democracy, secure fluid borders, and pursue the ever-elusive prospect of regional peace and “domestic tranquility.”
A retrospective of 1843 – a thoughtful visit with “the Ghost of America Past” – if in some ways unsettling, should offer a measure of comfort, and the perspective and wisdom that comes with age, to those who today celebrate Israeli independence with full (if not tell-tale) hearts. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans haltingly – and by all measures, imperfectly – navigated the considerable challenges they faced to bequeath to their 21st-century successors a truly exceptional nation: a military and economic superpower, a champion of democracy, an exemplar of freedom and opportunity.
The State of Israel, blessed with military, technological, and political advantages that Americans could not have imagined in 1843, can both learn from (and, God willing, avoid the worst of) our considerable historic mistakes and – far more importantly – be fortified by the precedent of our astounding successes to persevere in achieving its own unique – and manifest – destiny.
“True!” wrote Poe in 1843, “nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and amâ€¦” but I gratefully embrace a defining faith in the lessons of history and in the God of history. The striking similarities between 1843 America and 2015 Israel are no “accidency.” The State of Israel, too, has a bright and long future, filled with blessing. I pray that this faith increasingly will be shared by the citizenry of the Jewish state, and by their American supporters and admirers – good people of many faiths.
In that effort, as in 1843â€¦ “God bless us. Every one.”