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.
Those "sons of monkeys and pigs," as radical Muslim preachers openly refer to the Jews, have never succumbed to the uninterrupted hostility in the region. They have defeated far more populous Arab foes arrayed against them. They have had to cope, as David Harris of the American Jewish Committee recently noted, with nonstop, well-funded, and highly organized campaigns to discredit, delegitimize, and demonize their state. Theirs is the only U.N. member state whose right to exist is regularly challenged and whose elimination is the aim of at least one other U.N. member, Iran. Their civilian population is deemed a target by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah, which is dominant in Lebanon. No other country's right to self-defense is challenged as often, even though Israel does no more than any other nation-state would do in the face of rocket attacks and terrorist assaults. This is in the context of relentless and obsessive guilty-till-proven-innocent scrutiny that a democratic Israel receives from U.N. bodies made up of built-in, anti-Israel majorities, not to mention ongoing attempts to launch boycotts, disinvestment campaigns, and sanctions. But all the while, the Israelis refuse to cave and remain strong, confident, and optimistic. They have organized to defend themselves in the remarkable citizen army, a testament in itself to their shared values.
By a huge margin the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, has become the symbol of the nation, for that is the institution that has kept it together for 64 years through wars, disasters, threats, economic crises, and impossible politics. This citizen army is justly renowned, famous for its bravery and its disciplined restraint. It is dedicated to defending the only democratic state in the Middle East, a bastion of democracy and justice under law, human rights, and freedom of the press.
The Jews of Israel feel safe and have confidence in their future because in fact the Jews have a state. That is the meaning of their slogan, "Never again," for the state means that their existence will not be dependent on the whims of others. Their spirit is captured, as Harris has written, by the scrawling on a Tel Aviv wall shortly after 21 Israelis were killed in a 2001 terrorist bombing at a discotheque, "They won't stop us from dancing."
Yet, after all they have accomplished, they now have to agonize over an existential nuclear threat from Iran. The Israelis yearn for peace but they are left to evaluate the pros and cons of a pre-emptive military strike against an Islamic republic run by apocalyptic mullahs who have explicitly and repeatedly voiced their desire to wipe Israel off the map. They know that Tehran's radical regime has not been persuaded to shift course, even as it gets closer and closer to having the capacity to create nuclear weaponry. A nuclear Iran is an unacceptable and unthinkable prospect. It would be used to protect terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas and further pressure Israel's neighbors. At last there is now consolidation within the Western world to apply crippling sanctions, but this time Israel can take comfort in having the ability, if necessary, to fight single-handedly for its survival.
The other great political issue the Israelis face is their relationship with the Palestinians. The Israelis broadly understand that the only solution is one of two states, with Israel as a state for the Jewish people and Palestine as a state for the Palestinian people. Virtually every prime minister understands and has repeated that this will come only through "painful compromise." They understand that otherwise Israeli control of the West Bank will inevitably produce escalating terrorism and provide incentives for war by neighboring Arab states. The Israelis do not assume that a state of Palestine would be a benign neighbor. Therefore they seek arrangements in order to end up with a Palestinian state that is more tolerable than the current alternative.
That means a Palestine must be structured so that the risks that emanate from it would not be even worse than the risk Israel faces today. That is why they want to ensure that the state would not be occupied by other Arab armies and other assorted insurgents of ill intent; that the land not become a platform to launch ballistic missiles with the chemical warheads that now exist in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, etc. Palestinian statehood must provide more security than the current alternative. The radicalism in many countries in the region compounds the challenge of reaching agreement.
If the past is prologue, the Jewish people will earn and deserve the sustained support of the Western democracies that midwifed its birth. But to bring about this other miracle of regional peace and secure their future, they will have to go forward with unremitting generosity of spirit and unyielding vigilance.