Israel’s 55th birthday this week is a time to step back, if just for a moment, from the whirlwind of daily events — terrorist attacks against Israelis, road map prognostications, internal Palestinian maneuvering, Labor Party changes in Israel — and reflect on the larger picture.
The story of Israel these last 55 years, above all, is the wondrous realization of a 3,500-year link among a land, a faith, a language, a people and a vision. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948; the embrace of democracy and the rule of law, including an independent judiciary, free and fair elections and smooth transfers of power, and the impressive scientific, cultural and economic achievements of Israel are accomplishments beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
All this was accomplished not in the Middle West but in the Middle East, where Israel’s neighbors were determined from the beginning to destroy it and were prepared to use any means available to them — from full-scale wars to wars of attrition; from diplomatic isolation to attempts at international delegitimation; from primary to secondary to even tertiary economic boycotts; from terrorism to the spread of antisemitism, often thinly veiled as anti-Zionism.
No other country has been subjected to such a constant challenge to its existence, or experienced the same degree of international vilification by an automatic majority of nations reflexively following the will of the energy-rich and more numerous Arab states, and, in doing so, throwing truth and fairness to the wind.
Yet Israelis have never succumbed to a fortress mentality, never abandoned their deep yearning for peace or willingness to take unprecedented risks to achieve that peace, and never flinched from their determination to build a thriving state.
To understand the essence of Israel’s meaning, it is enough to ask how the history of the Jewish people might have been different had there been a Jewish state in 1933, in 1938, even in 1941. If Israel had controlled its borders and the right of entry instead of England, if Israel had had embassies and consulates across Europe, how many more Jews might have escaped and found sanctuary from the Nazis?
Instead, Europe’s Jews had to rely on the good will of embassies and consulates of other countries and, with woefully few exceptions, they found neither the “good” nor the “will” to assist.
I have seen firsthand Israel do what no other Western country had ever done before — bring out black Africans, in this case Ethiopian Jews, not in chains for exploitation, but in dignity for freedom.
Awestruck, I have watched firsthand Israel never falter in transporting Soviet Jews to the Jewish homeland, even as Scud missiles launched from Iraq traumatized the nation. It says a lot about the conditions they were leaving behind that these Jews continued to board planes for Tel Aviv even while missiles were exploding in Israeli population centers. And equally, it says a lot about Israel that, amid all the security concerns, it managed without missing a beat to continue to welcome the new immigrants.
And how can I ever forget the surge of pride that enveloped me in 1976 on hearing the news of Israel’s daring rescue of 106 Jewish hostages held by Arab and German terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda, 2,000 miles from Israel?
The unmistakable message of a Jewish state is this: Jews in danger will never again be alone and helpless.
To be sure, nation-building is an infinitely complex process. In Israel’s case, that nation-building took place against a backdrop of tensions with a local Arab population that also laid claim to the same land; as Israel’s population literally doubled during its first three years of existence, putting an unimaginable strain on severely limited resources; as the nation was forced to devote a vast portion of its budget to defense expenditures, and as the country coped with forging a national identity and social consensus among a population that could not have been more geographically, linguistically, socially and culturally heterogeneous.
Israelis, with only 55 years of statehood under their belts, are among the newer practitioners of statecraft. With all its remarkable success, look at the daunting political, social and economic challenges the United States faced during its first 55 years, or even 155 years, after independence — or, for that matter, the challenges it faces today. And let’s not forget that the United States, unlike Israel, is a vast country blessed with abundant natural resources, oceans on two-and-a-half sides, a gentle neighbor to the north and a weaker neighbor to the south.
Like any vibrant democracy, America is a permanent work in progress. So, too, is Israel.
The Israeli record is imperfect, but in just 55 years, Israel has built a thriving democracy; an economy whose per capita gross national product exceeds the combined total of its four contiguous sovereign neighbors — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt; eight universities that contribute to advancing the world’s frontiers of knowledge; a life expectancy that places it among the healthiest nations; a prolific culture utilizing an ancient language rendered contemporary, and an agricultural sector that has shown the world how to conquer an arid land.
In the final analysis, we should consider the sweep of the last five and a half decades. In doing so, we can more readily appreciate the light-years Jews have 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 Zion and Jerusalem — and successfully building a modern, vibrant and democratic state, against all the odds, on that ancient foundation.
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.