Oh, Freedom!

Paul Greenberg

5/12/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

The flags waved, the singers sang, and the dancers danced. Soldiers paraded, rabbis prayed, and dignitaries spoke as Israel celebrated its 60th birthday. But there was a forced air to the celebration. Troops were on alert, security was even tighter than usual, and the commentaries in the newspapers were as introspective and self-critical as ever. Israel seemed distant from its own joy, like a man on guard at a raucous party, his eyes sweeping the celebrants, his concealed weapon always within reach.

Why the mixed emotions, the divided mind? The cheers should have been unreserved. A state that shouldn't have lasted 60 days by any reasonable expectation had now endured for 60 years. And not just endured but grown, prospered, flourished by all the usual measures - cultural, political, military, scientific and technological.

Through it all, and perhaps most impressive, Israel has remained not just a democratic outpost in a sea of authoritarian regimes, but one that is always questioning its own ways - far more profoundly than either its hateful critics or reflexive defenders. Now that's something to celebrate.

Yet the Israelis, though stronger than ever, seem more uncertain than ever. Maybe that's because, though Israel is still there, so is the existential threat.

What a contrast with May 14, 1948 - the 5th of Iyar, 5708, by the Jewish calendar. Even as the Jewish state was declaring its independence in a Tel Aviv art museum, the first bombs were falling on the streets. Egyptian columns were invading from the South, the Syrians from the North, the Iraqis and Jordanians from the East.

At least five Arab armies were converging on the newborn state, not counting the homegrown Arab militias that had been engaging a rivalrous collection of Jewish ones for months now. Jerusalem's old city, King David's citadel, was cut off and would soon be lostŠ.

Yet there was no uncertainty that first independence day. Even those with reservations about declaring independence put them on hold and joined in the celebration. The joy was unbounded. The first Jewish commonwealth in 2000 years had materialized, the dream was fulfilled.

This was the formal moment of triumph for Zionism, which Martin Luther King Jr. once and best defined as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. To listen again to those old broadcasts from Tel Aviv, the songs resounding even while the air raid sirens wail in the background, is to hear joy.

And why not celebrate? The British blockade that had kept the remnant of Europe's Jews from entering was no more; the blockade had ended with the British mandate. There was no longer any need to smuggle in arms and Jews; both could now enter openly. Never again would there be Jewish refugees with no place to go. The survivors of the Holocaust were pouring in, hollow-eyed and ravaged, yet exultant. Here they could fight back.

These people had nothing left to lose, which is the purest definition of freedom. Nothing left to lose, that is, but their lives, and many would lose those soon enough. Untrained, unprepared, they would be thrown into gaps in the lines and cut down at places whose names they scarcely knew. Their corpses would be strewn along the road to Jerusalem, the antique Enfields they'd been handed useless in the heat of battle as John Glubb Pasha's well-trained, well-armed Arab Legion seized the West Bank and old Jerusalem.

Still, this one day there was nothing but celebration. Such is the first, heady taste of freedom for any people when, in the course of human events, it assumes the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, to quote a more familiar declaration of independence.

That, too, was a joyous day. Even dour old John Adams, who always saw the dismal side of things, exulted. Writing to Abigail, he could not contain himself: "You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, the blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and gloryŠ."

Now, more than two eventful centuries later, with many another war and crisis past, and others upon us, and still others yet to come, this republic that Mr. Adams and his fellow revolutionaries bequeathed to future generations also finds itself of two minds - proud yet uncertain. Once again these are the best of times, these are the worst of times.

Yet Americans still hold certain truths self-evident - like all men being created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That's just a myth, the cynics say, but what is a myth but a truth greater than the present facts, uniting past and future? Every people seeks to fulfill its own. Indeed, without myth, can there be a people?

This year another American presidential election looms with its quadrennial bout between those familiar old antagonists every nation lives with - fear and hope. But this still young republic, despite its years and doubts, holds on to the spirit of independence that, wherever and whenever it arises, is the Spirit of '76.