Australia/Israel Review


The Last Word: Defying the Pessimists

May 3, 2023 | Gil Troy

Israel: 75 years of confounding expectations (Image: Shutterstock)
Israel: 75 years of confounding expectations (Image: Shutterstock)

It’s become fashionable again to question whether Israeli democracy will survive or even whether Israel itself will survive. Actually, Israel’s 75th-anniversary celebration marks 75 years of pessimists, inside and out, predicting Israel’s demise. 

Consider Israel’s rise from the ashes of Auschwitz. Zionism, the Jewish national movement to establish a Jewish state and now perfect it, preceded Hitler by decades. Remarkably, in 1945, as Jews realised the Nazis had murdered six million of our people, Zionists refused to despair. Three years later, they established a democratic Jewish state, ending centuries of homelessness and persecution.

Before Israel’s declaration of its independence on May 14, 1948 (which fell on April 26 this year according to the Hebrew calendar), then-US Secretary of State George C. Marshall was sure Israel would not last. Marshall threatened to resign if President Harry Truman infuriated the Arab world by backing the Zionists. When David Ben-Gurion, himself flouting the experts, confidently proclaimed independence and Truman followed, recognising the state 11 minutes later, Marshall didn’t resign.

The new state had no money, weapons, bullets or oil, only, as Ben-Gurion supposedly retorted, Hativkah (“hope”), the Jewish national anthem. Six Arab armies immediately attacked, triggering Israel’s War of Independence. Ultimately, 6,000 of 600,000 Israelis were killed.

Israel survived and started absorbing the world’s unwanted Jews, including Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab and Muslim lands. The population doubled within two years, then again by 1963. 

During Israel’s first 25 years, the young nation kept defeating Arab armies and defying the doubters. Especially before Israel’s Six Day War victory in 1967, with Egyptians and Syrians vowing to push the Jews into the sea, Israelis specialised in gallows humour: the last Israeli leaving should shut the lights at the airport.

When the Egyptians and Syrians surprised Israelis on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, in October 1973, Israel’s legendary eye-patched defence minister, Moshe Dayan, feared Israel’s destruction.

Israel counter-attacked so effectively that, since 1973, no major Arab army has dared attack. In its second quarter-century, Israel evolved from a perennial underdog to a regional superpower. Israel again shocked the experts by making peace with its largest adversary, Egypt, in 1979, then Jordan, in 1994. In the 1990s, Israel also tried making peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo framework.

The Oslo Accords triggered such massive anti-Oslo demonstrations and hysteria that an Israeli fanatic assassinated PM Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Again, doom-and-gloomers insisted that Israel would never survive this rupture, especially when the Palestinians unleashed a vicious wave of suicide bombings in 2000.

Over the last 25 years, Israel’s economy has soared. The eternally-given-up-on-nation became the ‘‘Start-up Nation”, ranking disproportionately high in global levels of income, hi-tech investment, human development and that lovely expression of sunniness: birth rates. 

This year, little, embattled, supposedly stressed-out Israel scored fourth on the World Happiness Index because tradition, community and a sense of purpose matter in people’s lives more than money, materialism and shopping malls.

Healthy nationalism frees individuals to thrive while understanding that together we are stronger, better and more adept at managing whatever burdens come our way. Israelis have repeatedly demonstrated the greater meaning and personal satisfaction generated by overcoming challenges communally while being rooted in a rich identity and history.

Moreover, liberal democracy teaches us not to be defined by our tears – be they festering problems, our own failures or external attacks. 

By bearing burdens communally, by progressing out of sins and wounds, strangers become patriotic citizens without always agreeing. That’s why Israel’s protesters keep waving their blue-and-white flags while remaining angry yet peaceful.

Gil Troy is an American historian and most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings. © Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. 

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