Israel's 64th birthday this month (May 14) brings to mind Garrison Keillor's comment about work, "I believe in looking reality straight in the eye ... and denying it." Even the most dedicated visionaries could not have dreamed that such an Israeli state, made up almost entirely of refugees, could emerge from the Nazi genocide: The Holocaust's 6 million victims included some 90 percent of Eastern Europe's Jews.
And what a state! From the very moment of the rebirth of its sovereignty it has had to fight for its survival. The act of recognition, resoundingly willed by the international community, was a restoration of a people's 3,000-year-old connection to the lands from which their forefathers had been driven to centuries of exile and persecution. But the threats never cease. This is one of the reasons that every year the Israelis, on two special days, commemorate the Holocaust, the ultimate price for Jewish powerlessness.
The first, Memorial Day, commemorates the 22,993 Israelis who have fallen in Israel's wars, as well as another 2,477 who have been victims of terrorism and other hostile acts. On that day, sirens ring out throughout the country and everything stops for minutes—people at work, people in cars, people in hospitals and schools. In the universal silence, they commune in mourning for their losses and the next day they commune in their joy to celebrate Independence Day and their multiple achievements.
At the time of its founding, Israel's population was a mere 806,000. Today it is just a shade under 8 million. More and more immigrants come and few leave. Seventy-two percent of the Jews in Israel were born there, as opposed to approximately one third when the state was founded in 1948. Then, there was only one big city, Tel Aviv, with more than 100,000; today there are six with over 200,000: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Ashdod, Rishon LeZion, and Petah Tikva.
They took a language, Hebrew, that almost no one spoke and have given it life. Immigrants, most of whom had never lived in a functioning democracy, established a democracy and they made it viable. Eighty-eight percent of Israelis feel that it is a privilege to live in a state where the Jewish people have accomplished so much. They feel a high identification with the state's core values, in its sense of mutual responsibility and cohesion. They also share to a greater or lesser degree the mystical sense that they have received and indeed revived a unique inheritance that dates back to the first days of the Bible.
Theirs is a thoroughly modern society, their economic triumphs a universal enrichment. Their advances in agriculture and medicine benefit millions around the world. Their most valuable export, worth even more than diamonds, is tomato seed! Without natural resources to speak of until recent natural gas discoveries, they have developed a high-tech economic engine, along with one of the best public healthcare systems in the world (resulting in one of the world's highest life expectancies), and have perhaps the highest percentage of people with quality higher education.
They are at the top of the world in the number of patents they produce per capita, in the number of companies listed on NASDAQ, and the number of Ph.D.'s and published scientific papers that provide the basis for the highest number of start-up companies per capita. They receive more research grants from Europe than any other country, and they manufacture the chips for most of the computers in the world. At a time when much of the Western world is in the throes of the worst downturn in recent history, Israel enjoys significant GDP growth and low unemployment.
Israel quite simply is a "start-up nation." Its citizens have worked hard for 64 years, putting their heart and their soul into their country, and sharing their prosperity with Israeli Arabs, whose illiteracy rates have plummeted.