There are few sentences that have changed the course of Jewish history. One of them is arguably David Ben-Gurion’s declaration on May 14th, 1948, when he said, “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.”
Jewish history forever changed with the founding of the State of Israel. For the first time in over 2,000 years, the Jewish people had the power to determine their own futures.
There are many powerful messages Ben-Gurion left the Jewish people. One that has resonated with Israelis for decades is Ben-Gurion’s emphasis on Jewish independence, “Our future does not depend on what the Gentiles will say but on what the Jews will do.”
In this one statement, Ben-Gurion taught the Jewish people the meaning of Zionism and the State of Israel. From this point on, the Jewish people would not be dependent on others as they had been for 2,000 years. In a national transformation, the Jewish people were now empowered to rule over themselves and other people. They were independent, with only themselves to rely on for their future.
With the Jewish people’s newfound power came responsibility. The leaders of the Yishuv had to fund a defense force, an intelligence corps, build infrastructure, allow industry to develop, and, most importantly, feed an entire nation. Many of Israel’s citizens at its founding were immigrants and within a few years, a million more immigrants would come to make Israel their home. The responsibility on the new Jewish state’s shoulders was massive.
There is an irony that comes with power. On the one hand, power allows the dreams of a candidate that were always mere fantasies to be able to be put to fruition. When leaders are powerless, they don’t have the tools to actualize their plans, with power they can.
In a democracy power usually comes with a mandate to govern according to a platform of long wished-for ideas. Yet, power also comes with a responsibility to limit ambition to ensure that minorities and their opinions aren’t marginalized. Power isn’t a license to wield authority without limitations, if anything, it first and foremost requires the ruler to think of the minority and how to include them.
When Israel declared independence, its first responsibility was securing the safety of its citizens. Five Arab armies immediately attacked in response to Israel’s declaration of Independence and the new IDF had to fend off the attackers and ensure the territorial integrity of the new Jewish country. After Israel emerged victorious from its War of Independence and secured an extra 20% of land, it had to face Palestinian and Arab terrorism that came from many different borders.z
Responsibility for fairness on the state's founders
WITH ISRAEL’S founders being mostly Ashkenazim, Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrahi populations felt excluded from decision- and policy-making forums. Israel’s prime ministers would all be Ashkenazim and it would be decades before powerful ministries or top military positions would go to Mizrahi Jews. With a new police department, hospitals, fire brigades, schools, and courts, it was the new Israeli leader’s responsibility to make sure Israel was a fair and just nation.
Most importantly, when Israeli leaders are entrusted with power by the nation’s citizens, they must make sure they don’t practice the tyranny of the majority. This harsh characterization describes a democratically elected leadership who governs as if the majority that elected them is the only opinion that counts in policy-making decisions.
In a democracy, a government must take all its citizens' needs and opinions into consideration. It can’t solely rule based on its plans but must compromise and ensure government resources are spent on the minority of citizens that didn’t vote for them and their priorities.
The Zionist movement was organized to give the Jewish people the ability to exercise its right to self-determination. The ability to determine one’s own future requires power, and the Jewish people ensured it acquired and exercised power immediately after founding the state. Founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion cautioned the people and said, “The fate of Israel depends on two things: its strength and its righteousness.” It isn’t enough for the Jewish people to have might and exercise power; it must do so with righteousness.
There was perhaps no more powerful position in Jewish history than the Jewish king. It is the Jewish king who set the model for all Jewish leaders. Maimonides wrote about the king’s need to limit his power, “Just as the Torah has granted the king great honor and obligated everyone to revere him; so, too, has it commanded him to be humble and modest. He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently. He should always conduct himself with great humility. He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints, and anger as a nurse carries an infant.” In Judaism and Zionism, the powerful never abuse their power, they are to exercise it judiciously.
The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.