What is Yom Ha-Atsma’ut?

Israel has once again celebrated Yom Ha-Atsma’ut, and Palestinians have once again commemorated the Nakba.  These terms are used so often, and uncritically, that we are often not sure what they really mean. In this post I will talk about the first; and in another I will address the second.

Yom Ha-Atsma’ut means “Independence Day,” taken from the 1948 War that Israeli Jews call the state’s war of independence.  It is also called Milhemet Ha-Shichrur – the War of Liberation.  But independence or liberation from whom?

From the British?  They officially withdrew from Palestine the day the state was declared.  The guerrilla war that Zionist militias had been waging against the British was now over.

From the Palestinians?  The Palestinians claimed a state but did not possess one, and by May of 1948 the Palestinian forces had been seriously weakened.

From the Arab states?  Jordan coveted Palestine, and other Arab states had interests and ambitions of their own for the country, but Palestine did not belong to them, and Israel’s war against them was not a war of independence from the Arab world.

So, from whom, then, was Israel seeking independence?  The answer is vague yet vast:  from the diaspora experience itself, from centuries of statelessness, from persecution that had culminated in the genocide of two-thirds of European Jewry.

Unlike other wars of liberation fought around the world in the mid 20th century, Israel’s enemy was not a colonial master or a dominant neighbour but another people and other states that claimed the same land.  Israel is now at peace, albeit a cold one, with two of its front-line neighbours, and the others are either unable or unwilling  to engage Israel in a major conflict.   But the Palestinians remain, in exile and under occupation.  Israel won its war of independence, but its liberation from the often tragic Jewish past will remain incomplete as long as the Israel-Palestine conflict is not resolved.