Yom Ha’atzmaut — observed this week — is a time to review some of Israel’s achievements.
Israel’s greatest achievement is its existence. After 2,000 years of dispersion, the Jewish people (at least some of them), decided to take their future into their own hands, return to the ancient homeland, and build a nation. My grandfathers and perhaps yours too could never have imagined such a thing happening. And in truth, how many Jews at the beginning of the 20th century could have imagined Jews returning to the ancient homeland, getting their hands dirty cultivating the land, and learning the art of self-defense? All this while at the same time creating a new culture with the revived Hebrew language as its foundation.
When Israel asserted its independence in 1948, it not only withstood the attacks of the local Palestinians but also that of five Arab countries bordering on it. While in Turkey several years ago, I was discussing the Middle East with a school teacher. He claimed that the United States must have aided Israel in becoming an independent state. I told him that despite the United States’ being the first country to recognize the new state, the Americans put an embargo on exporting arms to the area. He then asked how many Jews there were in Israel in 1948. Upon hearing that the number was 650,000, he asked how it was possible for 650,000 Jews to withstand the armies of five Arab states. I don’t know how they did it — but they did, albeit at tremendous cost.
Recently I heard Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, a product of West Orange, say that Israel often claims it is the only democracy in the Middle East. He went on to say that he hopes that the “Arab Spring” will yield additional democracies, noting that democracies rarely make war on one another. Israel’s democracy is not perfect. Yet despite its flaws, Israel is a thriving democracy with a free press and an independent judiciary. Egyptians in Tahrir Square were amazed that the former president of Israel was sentenced to jail for sex crimes by a three-person judiciary that included an Arab judge.
Those of us who pray at traditional synagogues are familiar with the prayer “And gather our dispersed from among the nations, and bring them all together from the ends of the Earth.” The 650,000 Jews of 1948 have become more than 5.5 million. Israel took in more than 100,000 black Africans from a continent mired in chaos and bloodshed. Its existence gave hope to Russian refuseniks, a hope that resulted in the exodus of more than 1,000,000 Soviet Jews.
Paradoxically, it also led to a rebirth of Jewish culture among those Jews electing not to immigrate. We can only imagine how many more Jews would have escaped the Shoa had there been an independent Israel just 10 years before the start of World War II.
I recall as a child collecting food from neighborhood groceries to send to the new State of Israel, for the hundreds of thousands of Jews migrating to it from the DP camps and other locations in Europe. Today, Israel is a food exporter and has a foreign aid program to help developing nations. It is particularly adept at responding quickly to disasters, as the Haitians, Bosnians, and Japanese can attest to.
The book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer shows how Israel is in the forefront of the technology revolution, producing more start-up companies than Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Truly remarkable.
In a world in which small nations frequently request United States or United Nations intervention, one small nation has developed one of the most powerful militaries in the world. This comes at tremendous cost in dollars that could be invested in improving the nation’s social and educational services. Again, could my grandfather have conceived of such a Jewish army?
There are still many unmet challenges: the search for peace, the divide between the haredim and the non-Orthodox, and the unconscionable gap between rich and poor, a phenomenon recently criticized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of which Israel is a proud member.
Nevertheless, a recent Gallup Poll rated Israel seventh of the 124 nations reviewed in terms of happiness of its people, rated right along with Denmark and Canada and surpassing most European countries. Not bad for a country subject to missile attack, terrorism, and threats of annihilation.
Therefore, we who are privileged to live in the generation of Israel reborn should join in unison the thanksgiving prayer of the ages, “Sheheheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh.”