Israel celebrates 71 years of Independence
By David E. Kaplan
On the Sunday, preceding Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence day) on Thursday, Israelis could not escape the question:
“Will we be celebrating Independence Day, or will we be at war?”
It was a fair question in light of some 700 missiles fired at Israel from Gaza over a period of 48 hours.
Come Wednesday evening however, bands were playing on open-air stages in cities and towns all across Israel and people were joyously dancing in the streets under a night sky ablaze not from missiles but fireworks!
The quick transition from ‘dodging rockets to dancing in streets’ reminded me of a 2014 interview with the late Yehuda Avner who served as speech writer and English secretary to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and personal advisor to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres as well as Israel’s Ambassador to Britain, Ireland and Australia.
Closeted in the very nerve center where life and death decisions were taken, Yehuda was in prime position to record intimately those monumental events and the cerebral machinations that determined the destiny of a nation.
Yet it was Avner’s experience on Israel’s first day – 14th May 1948 – that encapsulated the transition from battle to bliss.
The 14th of May 1948 was a Friday, and unbearably hot. “For three consecutive sun-grilled days and restless nights,” 18-year-old Yehuda Avner from Manchester and his 25 comrades, armed with pickaxes, shovels and a dozen WWI Lee Enfield rifles, had been fortifying a narrow sector of Jerusalem’s Western front, overlooking the Arab village of Ein Karem. They had heard rumors that an Arab offensive would be launched that night from Ein Karem, joined by Iraqi irregulars and a Jordanian brigade but with no communication with the outside world – “no field phone, not even a radio” – they were totally cut off. Needing to find out what was happening – “particularly whether the British had evacuated and whether Ben Gurion had or was going to declare independence or not” – our commander, Elisha Linder, instructed Holocaust survivor, Leopard Mahler to go into town and return “with hard news.”
A grandnephew of the famous composer Gustav Mahler, “Leopard never went anywhere without his grey knapsack from which the neck of his violin protruded.” He had been a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic until the Nuremberg Race Laws dispensed with his services. Surviving Auschwitz, he tried unsuccessfully to obtain visas to join the Chicago Philharmonic and later the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and reluctantly settled for an opening in the Palestine Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. “When he finally got his Australian visa, Jerusalem was already under siege and the poor fellow tried to get out to Tel Aviv on a convoy, but it was ambushed, and he had to return to embattled Jerusalem.”
Being a violinist and the obvious concern about protecting his hands, “we were happy that instead of joining us digging trenches in the rock-hard earth, he should be the one to go into town and fish for information.”
He came back close to midnight shortly after there had been a lengthy exchange of fire, crying “I have news; I have news!” He related that “the British had evacuated the country and that our forces were in control of the centre of the city.”
Substantiating his claim, he opened his coat to display a Union Jack tied to his waste. “He then began pulling from his bulging pockets forgotten luxuries – Kraft cheese, Mars Bars, Cadbury chocolate, and a bottle of wine, all compliments from an abandoned British officer’s mess. And then, from his knapsack, came out cans of peaches, jars of Ovaltine and a bottle of Carmel wine.”
But most important was the news that: “David Ben-Gurion had declared independence that afternoon, and that the Jewish state would come into being at midnight.”
There was dead silence, midnight was only minutes away!
“Hey, Mahler!” shouted Elisha Linder, cutting through the excitement, “Our new state – what’s its name?”
The violinist didn’t have a clue. “I didn’t think to ask,” he said.
“How about Yehuda? suggested someone. “After all, King David’s kingdom was called Yehuda – Judea.”
“Zion,” cried another. “It’s an obvious choice.”
“Israel!” called a third, “What’s wrong with Israel?”
Filling a mug to the brim with the wine, Elisha settled it with, “A l’’chaim to our new State, whatever its name.” But before the wine touched the lips, a Hassid whom we all knew as ‘Reb Nusesen de chazzan’ (he was a cantor by calling), shouted “Wait,” It’s Shabbos. Let’s make Kiddush first.”
“That was a Kiddush I shall never forget,” says Yehuda whimsically, and added, “Next day we were relieved to rest up and we went into town where masses of Jews were dancing the horah in the courtyard of the Jewish Agency building. Someone was playing a banjo and another a harmonica and before not too long Mahler took out his violin and joined in, playing Hava Nagila (Jewish traditional folk song).” Picking up the beat, he began reworking it into a widely spiraling variations, his notes fluttering this way and that, improvisation upon improvisation, as if a man and instrument were rediscovering each other in shared pleasure after a long separation.”
This was the uplifting feeling of independence after 2000 years; “we were discovering ourselves as a People after 2000 years of separation from our Land.”
Now 71 years later, we were again experiencing days of war and music, and while we braced ourselves early in the week against missiles, we now pleasurably ‘brace’ ourselves for the upcoming 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv from the 14th to the 18th May.
Israel’s song in the competition to be performed by Kobi Marimi is “HOME”. Having re-established our national homeland 71 years earlier after 2000 years of exile, the last three words of the song resonate:
“I’m coming home”
It’s a mesmerizing melodious message three weeks after Pesach (Passover) where we celebrate delivery from slavery; two weeks after Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) where we pledge “Never Again”, and a week after Yom Haatzmaut, where we rejoice of our return to national sovereignty in our ancestral homeland.
The final verse speaks of “standing tall”, “not giving in” and “I’m coming home”.
“I am standing tall not giving in
‘Cause I am someone, I am someone
And now I’m done, I’m coming
Now I’m done, I’m coming
Now I’m done, I’m coming home”