Can a Homeland Be Built in Shifts?

By Levi Eshkol

In the aftermath of the Six Day War, Israel's third prime minister offered his vision of Jewish volunteerism.

Levi Eshkol, Israels third prime minister, was one of the main political leaders responsible for the upbuilding of the Jewish state in the period prior to independence and through Israel’s first two decades. Born near Kiev in 1895, Eshkol immigrated to Palestine in 1914. He worked as a manual laborer in the Jewish settlements, and was among the founders of the first kibbutz, Degania, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. During the War of Independence, Eshkol served as one of David Ben-Gurions top advisors, and was charged with acquiring vital supplies of food and ammunition for Israeli forces. A year later, in 1949, as head of the Absorption Department, he oversaw the settlement of the waves of immigrants that doubled Israels population within three years.
Eshkol served as finance minister from 1952 to 1963—the decisive decade in Israels development—during which he formulated a sound fiscal policy, constructed permanent immigrant housing, and laid the foundation of Israel’s industrial infrastructure. Following the resignation of Ben-Gurion in 1963, Eshkol became prime minister and defense minister, helping to transform the Israel Defense Forces into a versatile, modern army. He served as prime minister during Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, a position which he held until his death in 1969.
Endowed with a deep sense of Jewish unity, Eshkol spoke often to diaspora communities, urging them to promote Jewish immigration to Israel and to contribute to the Jewish states success. The following speech, presented here for the first time in English translation, was given in Jerusalem on September 25, 1967, to a group of over six thousand volunteer youths who had come to Israel at the time of the Six Day War. In it, he calls on Jewish youth around the world to contribute to building the Jewish state.
My dear young men and women: First of all, I must say that I was not invited to address this gathering, though I do not say this by way of complaint. I received a letter inviting me to send written greetings to your assembly. But this morning, as I sat in my office and was about to sign the letter of greeting, I asked myself whether I could make do with such a letter, even if it were to be well written, and turn down an opportunity to see you, young volunteers from the diaspora, and to speak to you face to face. I have always regretted that we members of the government, and that I personally, have not had enough opportunities to meet with all of the thousands of young men and women who have come to Israel, to speak with you as one would speak with a friend or with a brother. Now that I have the opportunity before me, can I pass it up?
The issue before us is serious, solemn, and dramatic. One of the earlier speakers mentioned the approaching High Holidays—Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I had wondered at first whether the young people here would know enough of Judaism, its customs and prayers, that I could begin with a passage that came to mind from the liturgy. But once the High Holidays were being discussed, I concluded that perhaps I, too, could venture to say what was on my mind. Among the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there is a prayer that begins with the words “Here I stand, poor in deeds,” which is recited by the cantor before he begins the musaf prayer. In it he expresses his wish that he be worthy of leading the prayers of the Jewish people before the Master of the World.
I asked myself: How are we, the few Israelis appearing before you, worthy of explaining to you the solemn, historic importance of these days, days about which you will one day be able to say with special pride, “I was in Israel during the six days of the war?”
As an aside, perhaps we should ask your forgiveness for having done the job too quickly. After all, you have come here. You have added greatly to the honor of the Jewish people, for you have come in person, not contenting yourselves with merely adding to the financial assistance that we received—without which it would have been impossible for us to do what we did—and to the mobilization of political influence and assis­tance. It is of the greatest importance that eight thousand volunteers acted decisively and came here. If the war had gone on longer, even more would undoubtedly have come. This is an awe-inspiring act. You have contributed to the honor of the Jewish people, even as many people have been despairing over what is taking place in Jewish communities throughout the world. And now, these six days have proven that the Jewish spark has kindled a great flame, a sacred flame. Thousands of young women and men have come here at this, of all times, a time of war. You are truly fortunate, and so are we.
I wish to make it clear that I do not—nor does Israel as a whole, to tell the truth—consider volunteerism sufficient. That is not what Israel needs. It is very good when people come to help for three or six months, especially when those who come know how to handle a rifle or to fly an airplane—and I do not know if there are many among you like that. It is also important for people to come and take jobs that free the soldiers from their civilian work. But we stand here today after the six great days of deeds, the most solemn in Israels history, and we ask ourselves—and I would like this question to enter your hearts as well: Can a state, a homeland, be built in shifts? Is it enough for someone to come for three months, and then go home, and after that for someone else to come for another three months? Is this how homelands are built? Is this how South Africa or the United States was built? Is this how the Jews built who left the shtetls of southern Russia? While we came one by one to Israel, they went en masse to the United States, where they built industries. Together with others they built a country, and their role in its creation was tremendous. Did they go there as volunteers, for a few months?
It is incumbent upon us to do whatever it takes to make you understand that a new era has begun in the life of Israel, in the life of the state, and that every one of you should be among the pioneers of this era. Each of you ought to think of this land as if it were empty, as if you were beginning to build it yourselves. There is no government in Israel, and no Jewish Agency. There is only a flame in the heart—if that. There is only the longing for Jewish independence. There is a desire to be whole Jews, as I heard from several of my colleagues who spoke here. And if you look at things in this way, you will also leave aside the fact that there are two and a half million Jews here. Instead, each of you must think of himself as if he went forth from Egypt, and must begin to rebuild the homeland of the Jewish people. Otherwise, why come at all? Why did we fight the war? What were we defending? Why did you come to help us with the war, and what were you looking to defend? If you have come, I say to myself, it means that some spark has been kindled within you, just as a spark was kindled within some of us fifty or seventy years ago.
The first pioneers who came to Israel, as individuals, had no one to whom they could address their complaints. They thought: “The Jewish people needs a homeland of its own. It needs national sovereignty.” And they came here. True, many of them left in the end, but those who remained knew that they were fighting for something, and some among them even dreamed of the future, envisioning the day when we would have a state and a prime minister. If such a spark has been kindled within you as well, and you have come to defend the Jewish state, then know this: It has not yet come to be. Two and a half million Jews are not enough to maintain a state, particularly one that is surrounded by tens of millions of enemies, from Syria and Iraq to Jordan and Egypt, and with other Arab states joining them as well.
We must build the state each day; we must create it anew each day. It is a great privilege to have arrived here at the border between two historical periods. What has happened until now has become part of the past; we are entering a different era, for which we will need more people. We are speaking here about many different things: About the kevutza, the kibbutz, and the moshav;* about members of the professions, about scientists. If I were to sum up in a single sentence, it would be this: We need many Jews, everywhere, in every settlement, in every kind of labor.

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