Thursday, May 8, 2008

A few weeks after the birth of the State of Israel 60 years ago, journalist Robert St. John interviewed Israel’s first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett. The conversation took place as Egyptian planes were bombing Tel Aviv. Mr. Sharett told Mr. St. John about plans to absorb 1 million immigrants over the coming 10 years (Israel’s Jewish population at that was 800,000 people). The minister’s projection was on the low side and Israel’s population now stands at more than 7 million, 80 percent of it Jewish.

What is even more significant in both historical and moral terms is that the rebirth of the Jewish state, against extreme odds, was perhaps the greatest victory of the human spirit over adversity. After being driven out of their country, Palestine, Jews almost everywhere suffered persecution, discrimination and physical threats — culminating in history’s greatest crime, the Holocaust — in which 6 million Jews, one-third of the Jewish nation, including 1 million children, were murdered. Objectively, Israel’s chances of surviving even the first year of its existence were low. On the very day it declared independence, Israel was invaded by seven Arab armies while it had no regular army, air force or navy — with all the major powers — sadly including the United States, clamping an arms embargo on a people fighting for its life.

In spite of it all, Israel did survive, though it had to fight five more wars; indeed it is still fighting, as its enemies (presently led by a genocidal Iran that is quickly going nuclear) still dream that maybe “next time” they will be successful in exterminating the Jewish state.

No less troubling is that anti-Israel incitement in Arab and Muslim communities is often abetted by anti-Semitic, and leftist, circles in Europe and in parts of American academia which question Israel’s very right to exist. The hatred towards Israel is exacerbated by the fact that it is viewed as America’s close ally — embodying all those values and principles which are anathema to many Arabs and Muslims: democracy and human rights (and especially women’s rights) as well as freedom of speech and respect for the rule of law.

Israel’s triumph should not be seen primarily in terms of victories over its enemies. Instead, it should be considered in light of its achievements. Without natural resources, without any substantial foreign aid during the first 20 years of its existence, and in spite of its ongoing security concerns it has created a thriving economy. Israel is a leader in high technology, medicine and related fields, and is a major cultural center.

As Israeli academic Dan Ben-David recently reminded his readers, “the Jews in Palestine, even before the founding of the State, had a vision — on the top of Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, on the slopes of Mount Carmel and between the orchards of Rehovot, it created the foundations of Israel’s higher education system. Within two decades of the country’s birth, there were already seven research universities.”

Meanwhile, Zionist pioneers turned the land (which, as a result of Arab and Ottoman neglect and deforestation, had become desert and swamps) into the flourishing garden it once was. Israel also successfully absorbed and integrated millions of often-destitute newcomers, including 1 million people from the former Soviet Union and hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries (in contrast to the much smaller number of Arab refugees who left Israel and are still languishing in ramshackle camps in Arab countries).

The state of Israel reborn is seen by most Americans not only as justice done and as the realization of a dream, but also as the embodiment of a country which shares their values and ideals. American Jews in particular have derived from Israel a greater sense of self-assurance and purposefulness; they are more aware of their Jewishness and are better Americans at the same time.

In spite of the many triumphs, not everything is perfect. Peace is still elusive — mainly due to the Arabs’ refusal to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a state in its ancient homeland. Domestically (perhaps as a sign of a midlife crisis), there are some problems, too. There are, for instance, still tensions, though less than before, between the religious and the secular. And there is the growing income gap — intolerable to Zionist ideals — between rich and poor. Education has to be improved. Bureaucracy, a legacy of semi-socialist economic policies, is still excessive. Israel is also unfortunately experiencing what one might euphemistically call “irregularities” in certain places. But all in all, Israel has every right to be proud of its first 60 years — and if not everything has yet been accomplished, some things must, after all, be left for the next 60 years.

Zalman Shoval served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States (1990-93 and 1998-2000) and is president of the Israel America Chamber of Commerce.

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