Australia/Israel Review, Featured
Editorial: Israel at 75
Mar 27, 2023 | Colin Rubenstein
Independence Day in Israel is a joyous event on the annual calendar, with large energetic gatherings in the streets and loads of music, dancing and flag-waving, as Israelis revel in the revival of Jewish self-determination in the land where the Jews became a people.
This year, Israel’s 75th Independence Day, which falls on April 26, should be especially boisterous, and we have indeed been seeing seas of Israeli flags out early, amidst crowds measured in the hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, though, these have not been celebrations, but rather demonstrations by large and significant mainstream segments of Israeli society protesting against the controversial judicial reforms being advanced by PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s Government.
This is not the place to discuss the substance of the Government’s plans, or the objections of opponents. Rather, it’s worth instead noting the level of democratic and pluralistic engagement of both detractors and supporters of the plans.
There is no question that this debate has been fraught and angry and divisive, and the sinews of Israeli democracy have been placed under severe strain. Yet paradoxically, many of the admirable qualities which have made that Israeli democracy such a success story have also been on display – patriotism, commitment, engagement and productive political passion have been expressed from virtually every sector. Both sides insist their quest is to uphold Israel’s national charter as laid down in its Declaration of Independence – that Israel should remain a Jewish and democratic state “based on the ideas of liberty, justice, and peace… [that will] uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex.”
Without diminishing at all the seriousness of Israel’s political crisis, it is vitally important not to lose sight of the resilient and positive outlook in the country as a whole – a country whose history, and current overall national life and institutions reflect economic, cultural, defence and technological achievements that are so remarkable as to be almost miraculous.
The Economist ranked Israel as the fourth most successful economy among OECD countries in 2022. Simultaneously, the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network has rated Israel as the world’s fourth happiest country in its 2023 survey.
Another number adds to the picture of a society that is both unique and uniquely successful – that being Israel’s fertility rate. Israeli women have an average of 2.9 children each – by far the highest number in the OECD club of wealthy economies.
While the reasons for this uniquely high birth rate are doubtless complex, they reflect not only values that emphasise family and children, but also Israeli society’s close and supportive networks of family and friends that help make family life more fulfilling. Despite the violence and physical threats Israelis constantly face, despite high costs of living and often small living spaces, despite the fact that Israeli parents know their children will have to enter military service when they turn 18, children are valued and cherished. Children represent life, and Israel is a life-affirming society.
Israel’s high happiness rating is also no doubt the product of an explicit and implicit social contract of tolerance, equal rights and opportunity engraved in Israel’s DNA. It is a small country whose political, social and cultural life is sometimes loud, sometimes tense, sometimes raucous, but still, at bottom, offers a shared space where every tribe and subculture usually feel its voice is heard and way of life respected.
If Israel is a remarkable place today, the 75-year journey to arrive at that place is at least as remarkable. The story of Israel is the story of how a people returned to their ancient homeland, reinvigorated and reinvented their ancient language; integrated the largest per capita immigration in modern history; overcame massive hostility from powerful neighbours and numerous wars to become militarily unchallengeable and widely emulated and envied on the security front; went from a dirt poor third world country to the hub of innovation and entrepreneurship encompassed by the name “start-up nation”; built a uniquely vibrant culture blending Jewish traditions with other values, customs and ideas brought from Europe, the Middle East and beyond; and so much more.
It is hard to think of any other national story over that same period that has been as eventful, amazing and, despite many tragedies, uplifting.
As it reaches the milestone of 75 years of existence, Israel is also both more accepted in its own region and better connected to the rest of the world than ever.
The 2020 Abraham Accords which normalised relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are continuing to bear fruit.
From practically nothing before 2020, Israel’s exports to the UAE alone reached US$635.53 million (A$976m) last year, surpassing even the value of its exports to Australia. Significantly, Oman and Saudi Arabia have tacitly supported the Accords. Everyone expects further progress on this front in the next few years.
Of course, huge challenges remain and must be overcome. The judicial reforms controversy has exposed growing internal divisions that urgently require healing and reconciliation based on tolerance and mutual respect. Israel’s fundamental security and acceptance in its region are still a work in progress, and Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons capabilities represent a huge, even existential challenge to both. And of course, the Palestinian problem still festers – thanks to a Palestinian political culture and leadership which largely reject co-existence and have missed opportunity after opportunity to create a negotiated two-state peace. Israel will have to continue to manage that problem, with all its unfortunate dilemmas and costs, until the situation changes enough for genuine peace to become achievable.
But despite it all, and despite the undoubted intensity and gravity of current domestic controversies, Israel’s 75th birthday should be an occasion to “marvel at everything that has been created,” and “revel” in Israel’s success, as Daniel Gordis says in this edition. Historically and still today, there is too much to marvel at and revel in to do otherwise.