- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2002

The news from Israel is unremittingly grim. The process by which Israel was to give land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace has turned out to be one in which it has given land only to get war in return. To visit Israel, as I did last week, is to be aware of the real possibility of a terrorist attack. Even so, Israel remains Israel, a place remarkable in countless ways.

It is, of course, old, a fact not immediately obvious if you enter Israel, as I did, through the coastal city of Tel Aviv. If you include its outlying areas, Tel Aviv has 2 million people, a third of the country's population. The city is the center of the nation's industrial, commercial and financial life. But, founded in 1909, Tel Aviv is, as things in Israel go, very new.

You need only go up to Jerusalem ("up to," because it is 2,500 feet above sea level) to visit an old city. Jerusalem has a population of more than 600,000, but until recently, Jerusalem was only what is called, literally, the "Old City."

The Old City is a city within walls built over two millenniums by, among others, King Herod, the Crusaders and Suleiman the Magnificent, the Turkish ruler. If you could place the walls in a straight line, they would measure only 2 miles. Forming a rough square, they enclose narrow streets connecting the city's four quarters Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim.

It would be an understatement to say much has happened inside and right around those walls, and it is the Old City's Jewish and Muslim histories that give rise to the continuing argument (between Israel and the Palestinian Authority) over Jerusalem's governance.

In roughly 1000 B.C., King David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The First and Second Temples were built here. Where they once stood (the Second was burned by the Romans in 70 A.D.) there now is the Temple Mount, a vast paved platform that is for Muslims their third holiest place, after Mecca and Medina. On the Temple Mount stands a gleaming mosque, the famous Dome of the Rock. And the huge wall in front of the Temple Mount is the Western Wall, where Jews, awaiting the Messiah, gather to pray. It is their holiest site.

Just outside the Old City are the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. That is where Jesus spent the night before being tried and crucified in the subsequently named Christian Quarter, probably on land where now stands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, whose foundation dates to the fourth century.

Jerusalem is the capital of modern Israel, founded in 1948. The only democracy in a region allergic to principles of freedom and equality, Israel wouldn't exist but for the insistent belief on the part of Jews scattered throughout the world that they should return to their historical homeland and form their own nation.

Notwithstanding the reality of terrorism, Jews in other lands still continue to migrate to Israel. I saw that firsthand at a site where the "absorption" of Ethiopians proceeds apace. Descendents of Jews who fled to Ethiopia more than 2,500 years ago, the immigrants include a large number of children. They already have begun to speak Hebrew.

Israel's revival of Hebrew is itself a notable accomplishment. The ancient language hadn't kept pace with time. But it has been the intentional work of the state and its people to recover and develop Hebrew, and that they have done spectacularly. It is the official language, and its daily use renews the connection of modern Israel to its biblical past.

By almost any measure you care to choose, Israel ranks high among the nations. But the abiding topic throughout the nation remains its security and indeed its survival.

Today, Israel has enemies at close hand those Palestinian terrorists but also enemies a scud missile away in Iran and Iraq. And the ultimate threat to Israel may not be a weapon, not even one of mass destruction. For while it is one thing to establish a Palestinian state, it is another matter if the 3.5 million Palestinians living outside Israel are able to secure a "right to return" and live in places within the current borders of Israel they claim as rightfully theirs. Should that happen, the current Jewish majority would become a minority. And Israel's system of government and its culture might undergo such dramatic change as to effectively make it a different nation.

The threats to Israel duly noted, it is the nation's endurance, seemingly against the odds, that remains so striking and inspiring.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.

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