Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: An Unlikely Story

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Colin Rubenstein

 

Seven decades after its founding, Israel - one of the world's most enduring and stable democracies - has also matured into one of the world's most vibrant and dynamic countries.

Its success story must also be considered among the most unlikely. By any measure, Israel's humble beginnings as a war-torn haven for a ragtag collection of ethnically diverse refugees hardly seemed the recipe for future prosperity, political cohesiveness and longevity.

In those early years, massive waves of immigration joined an existing nucleus of 600,000 indefatigable Zionist pioneers seeking to materialise the hope of generations of their forefathers - to restore sovereignty in the land where the Jews became a people over 3,000 years ago. These hearty visionaries had to absorb hundreds of thousands of additional Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Arab lands practically before the ink on the 1949 Armistice agreement had dried.

Israel's Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948 enshrined the country's founding principle of equality for all its citizens. Its Arab population carried the same vote and rights in the eyes of the law as the Jewish majority, although trust issues, disagreements and tensions did, perhaps inevitably, linger.

Yet some way, somehow, the "little country that could", did. Today, Israel is the country the world seeks to emulate in terms of fostering a culture of innovation and creative problem-solving.

The ride wasn't always a smooth one. Israel's economy, which as recently as the 1980s was in free-fall, eventually rallied to become a global head-turner.

The numbers speak for themselves. Inflation and unemployment in Israel are among the world's lowest. The country operates with a trade surplus despite the strong shekel, holds record-high levels of foreign currency reserves, and carries lower public debt than such global heavyweights as Germany, the UK, France and the US.

Its economic growth has outpaced all other Western countries since 2000 - a feat all the more astounding when you consider that Israel faced numerous, prolonged security threats over the same period, including the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War and multiple major military confrontations with Hamas.

Israeli technology is literally driving the world into the future, with Israeli companies such as Mobileye providing the artificial intelligence behind most self-driving automobiles in development and the crowd-sourcing GPS traffic and public transport apps Waze and Moovit getting you there today.

Suffering from water scarcity? Concerned about food security? Dealing with cyberthreats? To borrow a popular phrase from the world of advertising, there are figurative Israeli "apps" for that.

In the military sphere, Israel's Iron Dome and its longer-range relatives - David's Sling and the various Arrows - can substantively curtail the world's growing missile threat.

Much to the chagrin of wrongheaded activists who have tried to isolate and delegitimise Israel through vindictive boycotts, the world isn't distancing itself from Israel. Quite the contrary, deepening trade ties, strategic alliances and collaboration with Israel are increasingly making the Jewish state indispensable to countries in every corner of the globe.

In the past year alone, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have advanced bilateral relations between their countries and Israel during state visits, while the advent of flights from Delhi to Israel that overfly Saudi Arabia and Oman has as much to say about warming contacts between Israel and the Gulf States as it does about Israel-India relations. Meanwhile, Prince William will soon be the first member of the British Royal Family to visit Israel in an official capacity.

Israel is a free and open society, a fulcrum for technological growth in a digitally interconnected world and a role model for cohesion, diversity, equality and tolerance in an intolerant, fragmented and violence-prone region.

Yet, Israel, like all countries, is fallible and grapples with its own idiosyncratic problems in the best way a democratic society can.

Like Australians, Europeans and Americans, Israelis also wrestle with questions regarding asylum-seekers, economic inequality, fringe racism and the dangers posed by Islamist ideology. Like all human societies it is imperfect, with many problems, including economic and social disparities, a challenging, sometimes almost dysfunctional, multiparty political system, educational shortcomings, and difficult dilemmas related to minorities, coexistence between the secular and the Orthodox, changing relationships with the wider Jewish diaspora, and the complexities of mandatory military service.

Yet polls show that Israelis - one of the world's happiest peoples, according to surveys - while conceding problems in their society and institutions, are convinced they can be overcome.

Last year, Jewish philosopher Micah Goodman's lauded bestseller Catch '67 explored the most unique form of "catch-22" facing Israel's centrist consensus - voters caught in a bind over justifiable fears that the absence of a Palestinian state might endanger the future of the Jewish state demographically, but also that the creation of a Palestinian state under current circumstances would endanger Israel's security.

This never-ending search for peace has been a constant goal in Israeli society and been expressed by every Israeli leader since 1948. While great progress has been made, Israel's willingness to extend its hand in peace to all of its neighbours and to make painful concessions in return for a genuine end of conflict that secures Israel's right to self-determination as the homeland of the Jewish people has not been fully achieved, especially with the Palestinians.

Seventy years on, Israel remains a work in progress - but what already exists is an inspiration and an almost incredible success story in numerous ways.

Threats remain, especially the pledge by the Iranian leadership to eliminate Israel, strengthened by its enhanced regional presence and proxies and dangerous, if delayed, nuclear program.

Yet given Israel's impressive achievements, its determination to continue to prevail against all its adversaries, showing the same ingenuity and courage that has characterised its remarkable 70 years so far, will not falter.

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