In the sweep of world history, 65 years is but a blink of an eye. Even the United States will be 237 years old in July. For the Jews who waited for almost 2,000 years for the rebirth of a Jewish state, to see a modern Israel thriving in its own land after centuries of dispersion is a miracle. While Israel faces numerous problems at home and abroad, it is worthwhile to reflect on where things were 65 years ago. Perhaps that is precisely the perspective that one should have this Yom Ha’atzmaut and beyond: a sense of gratitude.
Sixty-five years ago the Jewish people had emerged from the Holocaust and the world was slowly adjusting to the post-World War II reality. Economies were slowly returning to pre-war rhythms — or preparing to outpace them. Thanks to the Marshall Plan and other initiatives, Germany and Japan were beginning their rebuilding efforts.
On a global scale, the Cold War dominated Western geo-political concerns. In the Middle East, Britain wanted out of Palestine as quickly as possible. When the UN voted for partition on Nov. 29, 1947, the Jewish leadership accepted the absurd land separation despite the incalculable problems it might present. The declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, produced a euphoric reaction within the Jewish world, and a declaration of war against the new Jewish entity from all of Israel’s neighbors. Approximately one year later, after a dramatically successful war for its independence, a ceasefire was agreed upon along borders which are still referred to as the Green Line. At the time there were approximately 650,000 Jews living in Palestine amidst a total population of 800,000 (minus the 450,000-800,000 Arab refugees who left during the war).
What followed in the next 64 years is truly extraordinary. Israel became transformed from a country of a few cities with a largely agricultural economy to an economic powerhouse. It possesses today the most developed and sophisticated economy in the entire region, with cutting edge research and development in all the major fields of contemporary exploration and entrepreneurship. It ranks 50th in the world in total GDP and 26th in terms of per capita income. Israel gathered in the Jewish refugees from Europe and the expelled Jews from Arab lands. According to the 2013 census, Israel now has a population of over eight million people (more than 75 percent of whom are Jews), with close to 50 percent of the world’s Jewish population.
No doubt Israel’s extensive security problems and international challenges continue to threaten its very existence. There remain major social and integration problems with its various ethnic Jewish communities as well in Israel’s treatment of its own Arab minorities. Religious tensions in Israel have never been more combative and intense. The constant polarization between the religious community — and within it as well — and the secular community remains a serious social, economic, and political problem; yet more creativity and effort are being devoted to trying to address many of these issues. The social-economic gap is increasing, and the enormous influx of resources from successful Jews in the Diaspora has not always had a positive impact on the fabric of Israel life and society. Much of the worst of conspicuous consumption continues to be brought into Israel from abroad at all levels of society.
Israel must live with unfriendly neighbors, with few signs of serious and sincere leadership on all sides to change the current calculus. As soon as one external threat is resolved, another appears. Meanwhile, Israel remains stigmatized and is attacked by many in the developed world for its perceived unwillingness to resolve its problems with its neighbors (not that any of these kibitzers are particularly even-handed in their assessment of who is doing more or less to change the political landscape in the region).
Yet despite this situation, Israel goes about its life, ever vigilant but fundamentally optimistic. Life in Israel after 65 years has a level of normalcy that is truly remarkable While the real sabras will say “we have no choice,” the truth is that they are largely living wonderful, meaningful lives. Individually, they endure the normal problems that are part of the human experience and nationally they accept the fact that they continue to live on the edge. If Ben-Gurion and the nation’s founders were to return to check on what they wrought, they probably would not be shocked at where the country is after 65 years. They certainly would be pleased at the miracle which they helped to facilitate.