Celebrating Israel at 70
Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary this month. Let me put my cards on the table — I’m not dispassionate when it comes to Israel.
For centuries, Jews around the world prayed for a return to Zion. We are the lucky ones who have seen those prayers answered: The establishment of the state in 1948; the fulfillment of its envisioned role as home and haven for Jews from anywhere and everywhere; its wholehearted embrace of democracy and the rule of law; and its impressive scientific, cultural, and economic achievements are extraordinary accomplishments.
And when one adds that Israel’s neighbors tried from day one to annihilate it, the story of Israel’s first 70 years becomes all the more remarkable.
No other country has faced such overwhelming odds against its very survival, or experienced the same degree of never-ending international demonization by too many nations ready to throw integrity and morality to the wind.
Yet Israelis have never succumbed to a fortress mentality, never abandoned their deep yearning for peace or their willingness to take unprecedented risks to achieve that peace. This was the case with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and one day, let’s hope, a deal with the Palestinians — if and when their leadership finally accepts the reality of Israel and the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination.
To be sure, nation-building is an infinitely complex process. In Israel’s case, it began against a backdrop of tensions with a local Arab population that laid claim to the very same land and tragically refused a UN proposal in 1947 to divide it into Arab and Jewish states (the original two-state solution). This also took place as the Arab world sought to isolate, demoralize, and ultimately destroy the state. At the same time, Israel was forced to devote a vast portion of its limited national budget to defense expenditures, even as it coped with forging a national identity and social consensus among a geographically, linguistically, socially, and culturally diverse population.
Like any vibrant democracy, Israel is a permanent work in progress. To be sure, it has its shortcomings, including the excessive and unholy intrusion of religion into politics, the inexcusable marginalization of non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams, and the unfinished, if undeniably complex, task of integrating Israeli Arabs into the mainstream.
But such challenges, important as they are, cannot be allowed to overshadow Israel’s remarkable achievements.
In just 70 years, Israel has established a thriving democracy unique in the region. This includes a Supreme Court prepared to overrule the prime minister or the military establishment, a feisty parliament that includes every imaginable viewpoint, a robust civil society, and a vigorous press.
Israel has built an enviable economy, increasingly based on mind-blowing innovation and cutting-edge technology, whose per capita GNP far exceeds the combined total of its four contiguous sovereign neighbors — Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. It has joined the OECD, become a global hub of research and development, and is a magnet for foreign direct investment.
It is home to universities and research centers that have contributed to advancing the world’s frontiers of knowledge in countless ways and won a slew of Nobel Prizes in the process.
It has created one of the world’s most powerful militaries — always under civilian control — to ensure its survival in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood. At the same time, it strives to adhere to a strict code of military conduct that has few rivals in the democratic world, much less elsewhere, even as its enemies send children to the front lines and seek cover in mosques, schools, and hospitals.
It is ranked among the world’s healthiest nations, with a life expectancy higher than that of the US — not to mention a consistent top ranking in the annual world “happiness index.”
It has forged a thriving culture admired far beyond Israel’s borders, and has lovingly taken an ancient language — Hebrew, the language of the prophets — and rendered it modern to accommodate the vocabulary of the contemporary world.
Notwithstanding a few extremist voices, it has built a climate of respect for other faith groups, including Baha’i, Christianity, and Islam, and their places of worship. Can any other nation in the area even begin to make the same claim?
It has built an agricultural sector that has had much to teach developing nations about turning an arid soil into bountiful fields of fruits, vegetables, cotton, and flowers.
Step back from the twists and turns of the daily information overload and consider the sweep of the last seven decades. Look at the light-years traveled since the darkness of the Holocaust, and marvel at the miracle of a decimated people returning to a tiny sliver of land — the land of our ancestors — and successfully building a modern, vibrant state against all the odds.
In the final analysis, the story of Israel is the wondrous realization of a 3,500-year combination of a land, a faith, a language, a people, and a vision. It is an unparalleled story of tenacity and determination, of courage and renewal. And it is ultimately a metaphor for the triumph of enduring hope over the temptation of despair.
David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).