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Independence Day: Land of ‘herut,’ home of the brave

Israeli and American flags. Credit: James Emery.
Israeli and American flags. Credit: James Emery.

This Thursday, July 4, Jewish families all over the United States will join the rest of the country and stare up in wonderment as the sky lights up in an explosion of colors during Independence Day firework displays. But fireworks—like so many things in life—are transient and will inevitably dissipate. Yet for those fleeting moments in which they light up our world, they also shed light on that which is wrong with it.

America’s Declaration of Independence sought to rectify those wrongs. It sought to create a country in which all men are created equal, in which every person has the freedom to pursue his or her inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For its own part, Israel’s Declaration of Independence just more than a century and a half later articulated many of the same aspirations. Israel promised to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens” and “guarantee full freedom of conscience.”

It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pa., the iconic symbol of American independence, is engraved with the biblical passage from Leviticus that introduces the concept of freedom: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Both nations champion freedom. In the modern body politic, freedom became the guiding principle of democracy that is so cherished by both nations.

In Hebrew, freedom is translated in one of two ways—either as hofesh or herut. The first definition, hofesh, denotes freedom from external restraints, or the freedom that a slave acquires when he is released from bondage. The second definition, herut, is liberty’s higher register. As Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, posits, “Freedom in the sense [of Hofesh] can never be the basis for a free society, for an obvious reason. Sooner or later, my freedom will conflict with yours.” Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain that only with the acquisition of herut—a “constitution of liberty” in which the rule of law is operational—can a society enjoy true freedom.

Herut is what the signatories of both America’s and Israel’s Declarations of Independence had in mind for their respective nations. Herutmakes it possible for my freedom to respect yours.

Yet for all their similarities, there is one startling discrepancy between the two declarations.

America set out to define its vision of independence for all its citizens. Israel, on the other hand, included even those who are not its citizens—namely, the rest of the Jewish people. Israel makes an impassioned plea to Jews from all over the world to “rally to our side in the task of development and to stand by us in the great struggle for the fulfillment of the dream of generations—the redemption of Israel.”

As Americans, Independence Day marks the freedom we gained to pursue our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But as American Jews, we feel a sense of freedom not only because we are American, but because a Jewish state exists. In this sense, then, it is possible for both the American dream and the Zionist dream to work in tandem. It is a covenant that Diaspora Jews and Israelis entered into on the 5th of Iyar, 1948, and one that we are still bound by today. It is up to those Jews in America and elsewhere to assist Israel in meeting the impossibly high standards that it set upon itself in its declaration—namely, to ensure that the dream of redeeming Israel is fulfilled.

The redemption of Israel is a shared expression that is not based on where someone happens to live. Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaimed to the world that its dream concerned far more than just a physical location. Even in the United Nations, Israel reiterates time and time again that its responsibility lies not just with Israelis, but to the Jewish nation as a whole. And just as Israel will preserve the liberation, wellbeing and security of a Jew whether he sits in Texas or Tel Aviv, that same Jew shoulders the responsibility to help Israel realize its dream of redemption.

Americans may not have a Diaspora to take care of, but they assume responsibility in other avenues—one being the responsibility towards children. As future inheritors of this planet, Israel shares America’s core values regarding the education of its children. We share the commitment to imbibing our children with the knowledge and capacity to improve that inheritance. Educators from both sides of the ocean must “rally by each other’s side” to realize the vision that was defined by the founding fathers and forefathers, respectively—helping the generations that follow us leave the world a better place.

So come Thursday, when we hold our children in our arms as they gaze up at the dazzling lights of the fireworks, let’s be sure to instill in them that as free Jews and free Americans it is up to them to take an active role in making that fleeting light last.

Simon Klarfeld, formerly a lecturer at Brandeis University with a course on Jewish concepts of freedom and liberty, is the executive director for Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in the United States

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