Zionism emerged in the 19th century at a time when nationalistic feelings were flourishing all over central and Eastern Europe. If you were a member of a minority group living on another people's soil, you probably believed that if you were to have a future as a people you had to have your own land.
To Eastern European Jews, suffering under Czarist persecutions and episodic local peasant uprisings, it was a compelling message. Since they certainly weren't Russians or Poles in anyone's eyes, these Jews were drawn to the notion of living in a safe place they could really call home -- where they could be a nation like every other nation. That was what political Zionism was about.
There were other Jewish nationalists who were not as concerned with the political need for a land. Their nationalist impulses led them to conclude that if Judaism were to survive in modern times, Jews needed a place where they could grow a modern Jewish culture, hence they were cultural rather than political Zionists. Many of them were quite negative about the old religious patterns of Jewish life. According to cultural Zionism, the sufferings of the Diaspora generated what they viewed as the stunted Judaism of Orthodoxy, a Judaism that was out of touch with modernity. The old synagogue might formerly have been useful as an institution that held together a people without a land. For a minority community, Jewish ritual practice might have been necessary to maintain Jewish consciousness in a non-Jewish world, but in your own land, you could develop something different. You could cultivate your own language and literature and create new festivals and celebrations that would articulate the new and modern values of the Jewish people. You no longer needed to speak and write in the languages of people who despised you.
In your own land, if you no longer believed the way your ancestors did, you had a place where you could now grow your own authentic contemporary Jewish culture. At the time, this view offered the only viable option for being both modern and Jewish. It was cultural Zionism's gift to non-Orthodox Eastern European Jews.
This was the intellectual background of the time. The actual historical events, the path to the creation of the State of Israel we know today, was as fantastic as any yellow brick road. The Western European anti-Semitism that surrounded the Dreyfus trial turned Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Viennese Jewish newspaperman into a committed Jew. Up to 1886, when he published his seminal work "The Jewish State," 16 Jewish agricultural settlements had been established in Palestine. To speed up the process of settlement Herzl negotiated with the Turkish government, that controlled the territory, seeking a formal charter to establish a Jewish homeland. Since the Turkish government was opposed to both Jewish and Arab nationalism, he failed politically but in the process Herzl articulated an exciting vision for Eastern European Jews looking for a way to escape their suffering. The new Zionist Congress that he organized continued to carry on the work through the next several decades and helped to fund additional settlements and an infrastructure which made a future state possible.
When the Turkish Empire collapsed after World War I, the British assumed responsibility for the territory of Palestine. Jewish emigration continued at a modest pace. Then came World War II. The destruction of most of the Jewish community in the Holocaust of Europe provided the ultimate argument that the Jews needed a haven. The new Jewish, and by then new Arab, nationalisms both claimed rights to the same territory.
On November 29, 1947, the UN voted to partition the land into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Arabs refused to accept that partition and resisted with violence. The British, whose responsibility it was, were unable or unwilling to keep the peace. On May 14, 1948, at 8:00 am the British pulled out and at 4:00 pm that same day the State of Israel was declared. The Arab armies invaded and at the end of the War of Independence, the Jews finally had a place of their own for the first time since the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70.
What appeared to be a messianic resolution to a long struggle turned out to be illusory. The wars with Arabs have never stopped. The wars of the Jews (conflicts between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox) have been warming up, and all over the world both Jews and non-Jews have been raising the question: Who needs it? The answer, we do.
From the very beginning Zionist theorists argued that Jews would come to Israel for two reasons, push and pull. The push would from the political instability and accompanying anti-Semitism that would drive Jews from the lands of their sojourn. That prophecy came true. The Holocaust was a worse example than anyone could have imagined, but the "push" process continued when the Soviet Union fell apart, and as political unrest in North and South Africa and in South America made the situation of many Jews precarious. Israel is still the country of last resort for Jews in trouble that have been pushed out of intolerable situations.
And then there was the pull, elaborated by the cultural Zionists. That was the appeal of a place where one could be Jewish without Jewish self-consciousness or fear of assimilation. That possibility too Israel continues to provide.
And so, despite the fractiousness of the Israeli political scene, despite how tough the neighborhood is in the Near East, despite how hard it is to turn Jews from a hundred different places into a peaceful pluralistic society, the bottom line still remains. Israel is a place where Jews are provided both physical protection from persecution and the opportunity for cultural and spiritual growth.
It seems to me that these are two fine reasons to celebrate Israel's Independence Day. In our own family we often try to have an Israeli menu for Israel Independence Day, but Israel Independence Day is not like Hanukkah or Passover which are primarily celebrated at home. The establishment of the state has communal importance and the place to celebrate it is with others. Join the observances in your own community and rejoice with fellow Jews. In the midst of personal aches and pains we celebrate our own birthdays. So too, even if Israel is not pain free at this historical moment, there is more than enough reason to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's birthday. It would be hard to imagine a Jewish world without Israel. It has become a pivotal force in Jewish life. Let us celebrate for that, at very least.