The founders and living memory
This season, the Israel Story podcast tells the story of the people who signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Last Sunday, Yochai Maital, one of Israel’s Story’s founders and producers, ran a small program at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. That was pretty much a one-off — most likely he’ll do it again, but he’s not clear on where or when — but the podcasts are available, as we are told “wherever you get your podcasts.”
The fact driving the podcast is how young Israel is. It’s turning 75; if it were a person, it would not a be a spring chicken (which I have to admit I just typed because it’s such a marvelous, funny phrase. Think about it for a minute. Imagine your friends, whatever their ages, as chickens. Young ones. Old, wattled ones. Clucking ones. But then, I’ve always believed that one of life’s best surprises is how much fun it can be to amuse yourself, even if your listeners remain stony. But, as always, I digress).
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So. A 75-year-old person is no spring chicken, but a 75-year-old country is barely out of its egg.
The people who signed Israel’s declaration are within living memory. There are descendants today who remember the sounds of their voices, the way it felt to kiss them, how their own parents related to them. They know family stories.
Our Declaration of Independence is different, of course. Its signers passed out of living memory long ago.
But the Founding Fathers, like the founders of the State of Israel, were real people once.
I often recommend a visit to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It’s a place of marvels, but the exhibit that sticks with me most is the Signers Hall. There, we visitors roam around a large room populated by life-size bronzes of those men.
What strikes me most about these men is that many of them are so very small. Some tower; most, probably because of the state of medicine and nutrition and other sciences back then, are tiny. That matters because it makes it clear how vulnerable they were.
We talk about liberty and independence now as if they were only abstractions. Of course they are abstract ideas; there is no form or body to them. Liberty does not get on the subway. Independence doesn’t worry about what it’ll have for dinner tonight.
But the people who fought for those abstractions were actual human beings, who didn’t take the subway because they predate it, and who most likely didn’t worry about their menus because their wives took care of it. But they did have to worry about being targeted for their advocacy of liberty and independence.
One of the many things that the signers of the American Declaration of Independence share with the Israeli version (aside from the concept and some of the language, as the podcast explains) is the courage it took to sign it. Not only intellectual courage, but raw physical courage. Those declarations were signed during difficult times. The Americans risked arrest and execution. The Israelis were heading into war, and they knew it, and the act of signing the declaration was almost like signing an acceptance of the violence sure to come.
But the signers of both documents were steadfast. In the United States, they knew, as Abraham Lincoln years later said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Certainly there were Tories and traitors, but as founding father John Dickinson warned, “United we stand, divided we fall,” and they stayed united and upright.
Right now, in both countries, we seem to be hurtling toward a breakdown of the truths to which those documents attest. Particularly in Israel, people feel compelled to go to the streets — amazingly, wonderfully non-violently, wrapped in the flag that they do not want to concede to their opponents — to protest what they see as a dangerous move away from the founders’ ideals. On the other side, their opponents push back strongly.
President Lincoln oversaw such a conflict. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” he said at Gettysburg in 1863.
The United States has endured since 1776; Israel has endured since 1948. We hope that in both countries, the indominable strength, courage, and good sense of the founders will reappear, and “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”