Update from AIJAC
May 9, 2014
Number 05/14 #03
Israel marked its Independence day (Yom Hatzmaut) on Tuesday, and as usual, the occasion sparked some navel gazing about where the Jewish State is today, 66 years after its foundation. This Update features some of the most interesting examples.
First up is Herb Keinon at the Jerusalem Post, who looks at the tendency this time of year to write articles about what has become of the Israel that once was, and whether it can survive in the long term. Noting a history of claims about Israel’s supposed questionable prospects going back decades, he then observes the tendency in recent years to insist that Israel is at risk of failing as a result of “isolation, emigration and hopelessness.” He takes on each element of this claim, noting that actually, Israel is doing very well in all three of these areas, and says Independence Day should be an opportunity to see the forest for the trees, and recognise that Israel can almost certainly continue to cope with its problems as it has proven it can “with astounding success over our first 66 years.” For his complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Keinon mentions a poorly informed piece in the New York Times by Abbas Milani and Israel Waismel-Manor which claims Israel is at risk of turning into a theocracy – good responses to this assertion comes from Rabbi Avi Shafran and Yair Rosenberg.
Next up, the always articulate David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, reminds everyone that no other country is subject to the sort of existential questioning, detailed scrutiny in both international bodies and the media, and outright calls for its destruction as Israel. He notes that the actual story of Israel is one of immense achievement and success, despite the real problems, and its story is actually “a wondrous ‘adventure,'” offering numerous examples from contemporary Israeli society of what he means. And he argues that though Israel’s enemies insist that the whole story can be explained by conspiracy theories, in fact the best explanation is an “age-old connection among a land, a faith, and a people.” For his argument in all its eloquence, CLICK HERE.
Finally, journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner notes that, with the 66th anniversary not representing any particular milestone, it is pleasant to be able to celebrate a routine Independence Day. He asserts that “We are no longer in awe, as we should be, of the fact that [Israel] survives, thrives, and, well, ages” but can just celebrate the day. He then takes on the arguments of those who argue that as Israel develops, it risks alienating American Jewish supporters, noting that this is essentially a threat that American Jews will cut off “their own nose to punish their face” given how important Israel is to Jewish development as a people around the world. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- To mark Israeli Independence day, here is video of the 1948 announcement of Israel’s establishment by David Ben-Gurion. Plus, a story about a 1948 massacre at Gush Etzion which helps explain Israeli attachment to one of the most important settlement blocs.
- American columnist and author James Kirchick looks at what Apartheid in South Africa actually entailed and why warnings that Israel could end up with apartheid if it does not achieve a two-state peace miss the point of the concept.
- The Israeli government puts out a document it says proves that the Palestinian Authority has been planning to abandon the peace talks since early March. More on this in the next Update.
- Two interesting pieces on how conspiracy theories dominate public debate in Egypt, by Michael Totten and Egyptian-born writer Khaled Diab. Plus, Jonathan Spyer on Egyptian strong man Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s de facto war on the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Isi Leibler writes about the controversy in the US over the failure of the American Jewish organisation J-street to be accepted as a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organization. A different view on this controversy comes from Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Glen Falkenstein on what you should understand about the Nigerian Islamist terror group Boko Haram beyond the recent abduction of hundreds of teenage girls.
- Or Avi-Guy on Iran’s appointment, once again, to key human rights roles at the United Nations.
By HERB KEINON
The Jerusalem Post, May 5, 2014
It’s as perennial at this time of year as the madly inconsistent weather, hay-fever and the kids at busy intersections selling small Israeli flags to mount on cars. Open up the papers, watch the television, look on the web and you will see – as Israel approaches another Independence Day – learned reports, essays and articles asking what has become of the Israel that we once loved, and whether the country can survive.
This year the genre took on an odd new twist: Not only essays about whether Israel will still exist in 2048 – the actual title of a very downbeat 2011 essay in The Guardian (albeit in September, not in May) – but also when Israel will morph into Iran.
The New York Times ran the mother of that type of article last month, a ridiculous piece jointly penned by Stanford and Haifa University academics entitled “Are Iran and Israel trading places?”
“Israel’s secular democrats are growing increasingly worried that Israel’s future may bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Iran’s recent past,” wrote Abbas Milani and Israel Waismel-Manor.
They continued: “The Orthodox parties aspire to transform Israel into a theocracy. And with an average birthrate of 6.5 children per family among Orthodox Jews [compared with 2.6 for the rest of the Jewish population], their dream might not be too far away.”
Are you kidding me?
But, never mind. These hyper-ventilating, hyperbolic, dark characterizations of Israeli society have been with us as long as the state itself, and along with them the predictions of Israel’s imminent demise.
At the dawn of independence there were diplomats and pundits the world over predicting that the Zionists’ rag tag army, representing some 600,000 Jews, could not survive the onslaught of the entire Arab world.
In the ’50s they said Israel could not survive economically; in the ’60s, militarily. In the ’70s they said Israeli could not survive the Arab oil weapon, in the ’80s the Lebanon War, in the ’90s internal rifts and post-Zionism.
At the turn of the century it was terrorism and the Second Intifada that the nay-sayers said threatened the country’s ability to survive, and now – in this decade – it is the “Arab Awakening,” enemies all around, “porous borders,” and Iran.
And one theme that has run like a thread throughout all these predictions is a line that appeared in another doomsday piece that appeared in The New York Times in September 2013 by Ian Lustick.
“Once the illusion of a neat and palatable [two-state] solution to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict disappears,” the University of Pennsylvania political science professor predicted, “Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.”
Isolation, emigration and hopelessness. There are some, sworn enemies like Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who threaten our extinction through violent means; and there are others who predict it will come about because of isolation, emigration and hopelessness.
As we turn 66, how truly isolated are we? Yes, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (a bitter bigot), doesn’t like us. Nor does Oxfam the NGO, or Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or much of the Spanish public. But still, isolated?
We have never exported as much, attracted as many investments, or hosted as many tourists as we do now. Not every aging rocker that boycotts us (Elvis Costello), nor every European company that refuses to do business with us (the Dutch water giant Vitens), need send us into paroxysms of self-doubt and morose. There are other rockers out there (the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Rihanna ) and other companies (Google, Apple, Warren Buffet’s firms) that have no problems with us.
Emigration? We’ve heard this now for decades: that life will get so rough, or theocratic, or narrow, or conservative or violent that Israel’s people will flee by the boatload, leaving only the hard core religious zealots.
But the statistics show the opposite trend. Studying this country’s population charts is amazing. I always remember as a kid being told that Israel was a country of some 3 million Jews, and that there were more Jews in New York. Indeed, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel’s population stood at 3.3 million, of whom 2.8 million were Jews.
Today, following hundreds of articles about mass emigration and the specter of a debilitating brain drain, the country’s population stands at 8.2 million people, some 6.3 million Jews. So much for disappearing of our own volition.
And why? Why don’t people leave, and why do people still come?
Because the country is attractive, and vital, and energetic, and alive, and Jewish, and democratic, and promising, and full of meaning for people looking for meaning, and drenched in sunshine and – most important – home. And I don’t mean home in the over idealized way that new immigrants tell visiting relatives returning home after a short visit that “you are home.”
No, I mean it in the sense of home to millions born and raised here, who like the climate, the vistas, the language, the rhythm, their friends, the music, the feel, the tastes, sounds and smells of the country. My children and yours. They just don’t pick up and leave.
The years have shown that Israelis are much more committed to this country – and indeed to Judaism, Jewish destiny and history – than all those predicting Israel’s demise give them credit for. Were they not, they would have left, for the tension here is indeed great, and the exit gates are wide open.
And then there is the claim of “hopelessness.”
Hopelessness, ironically in a country whose nationally anthem is The Hope. Anyone who makes this claim does not know Israel. Do not confuse or conflate constant carping, and continuous kvetching around the Shabbat table about everything, with hopelessness.
Israel is many things and has many faults, but its people are anything but hopeless. That is part of their charm. In fact, for the most part they are inexplicably optimistic. Poll after poll bears that out, oddly – considering our political reality – placing Israelis among the happiest, most optimistic people in the world.
There are many reasons for that happiness and optimism, ranging from sociological explanations to religious ones. One reason, certainly, has to do with Jewish historical experience. One cannot look at where we were as a people in 1945, after the horror of the Holocaust, look where we are now, and not be wildly optimistic.
You want optimism? Look at Israel’s birthrate, among the highest in the developed world. There is nothing in a developed, educated society that bespeaks more of optimism than in wanting to bring more children into the world. And Israelis of all stripes – not just haredim, but also the secular – are doing so.
No, Israel – at as it turns 66 – is not isolated, facing massive emigration, or hopeless. Which does not mean it is universally loved, that all is good, and everyone is content, well and happy. Like any individual that has reached that ripe age, Israel has enemies, has made its share of mistakes, is often crotchety, and has offspring – or offspring of offspring – who have not exactly followed in its footsteps or lived up to its dreams and expectations.
But those who look at the objective forces bearing down on Israel and predict the country’s demise under that pressure, miss the fundamental change that the creation of the State of Israel has brought upon the Jewish people. The establishment of Israel ensured that Jews would no longer be just a passive actor in history that others acted upon, but that rather now – backed by strong state power – it could assert itself into history.
It is not as if everyone else is getting stronger, only the Jews are remaining static and weak; that everyone else is developing and moving forward, only the Jews are staying in place and dependent; that many others are planning our demise, and that we are just sitting on our hands.
Is Hamas acquiring more missiles? Yes, but we are obtaining ways to deal with them. Is Iran developing nuclear weapons? Yes, but we are not just watching idly as they do so. Is the region around us getting increasingly dangerous? Yes, but we – too – are figuring out how to protect ourselves from those dangers.
On this, the country’s birthday, we who live here can look with great satisfaction at two things: First, how far we have traveled; and second, how much skill and energy and innovation and creativity and talent is deposited within us, giving us the ability to face our enormous challenges.
Are there problems? Yes, and they are myriad. Can we cope with them? Yes, as we have proven with astounding success over our first 66 years.
We spend an abundant amount of time throughout the year focusing on the trees – not necessarily the healthy ones, but the rotting trees, the threatening trees, the broken trees, the decaying trees – that we miss the forest.
The beauty of Independence Day is that it allows us to step back for one lazy day and see the forest. And viewing that lush forest from a vantage point that also sees the charred ground from which the Jewish people emerged, can only but give one enormous hope.
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For many nations, a 66th birthday may not generate much excitement. But if the country happens to be Israel, which celebrates its birthday this week, it’s another story.
Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only UN member state whose right to exist is regularly challenged, whose elimination from the world map is the aim of at least one other UN member state (Iran), and whose population centers are deemed fair game by Hamas-controlled Gaza and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.
None of the countries that are serial human-rights violators–not Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Sudan, or any of the others–gets anything near the relentless, obsessive, guilty-till-proven-innocent scrutiny that democratic Israel receives from UN bodies, with their built-in, anti-Israel majorities, in New York and Geneva.
Indeed, Israel is the only nation in the world which has a permanent, separate agenda item at the UN Human Rights Council. All other countries in the world are lumped together under another agenda item.
No other country is the target of such non-stop, well-funded, and highly-organized campaigns to discredit, delegitimize, and demonize a sovereign state.
No other country faces systematic attempts to launch boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions against it, not to mention flotillas and flytillas. All the while those behind the efforts, claiming to speak in the lofty name of human rights, studiously ignore places like Syria, where more than 100,000 have been killed in the past three years alone and numberless more wounded, homeless, exiled, and detained. Why this lack of interest in Syria? Presumably because no Israeli connection can be claimed.
No other country has its right to self-defense challenged as Israel does, even though it acts no differently than any other nation would if confronted by periodic terrorist assaults and deadly missile and rocket attacks.
And no other country is as microscopically examined in the media, from the BBC to the Financial Times, from CNN International to the wire services, leading to such typical whoppers as a New York Times headline – “Tensions Rise as Israel and Gaza Swap Strikes.”
Rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel, Israel responded to defend its citizens, and to the newspaper of record, it’s an antiseptically 50-50 equation between the attacker and the attacked.
I have enormous admiration for Israel – for its resolve, resilience, courage, and ingenuity.
What it has achieved in the past 66 years is breathtaking: the rebirth of a state with a rock-solid democratic foundation; the ingathering of millions of refugees and immigrants from just about every corner of the world; the creation of a world-class economy; the building of a first-rate army; and a determination to overcome one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another.
Other nations might have succumbed, after 66 years of uninterrupted hostility, to enemies trying everything under the sun to destroy them, and short of that, to demoralize and isolate them. But Israel has not flinched. It refuses to cave. It keeps confounding its foes.
Its commitment to a two-state accord with the Palestinians, polls repeatedly reveal, remains unshakeable, even as many Israelis can’t help but wonder if the Palestinians, given one chance after another for sovereignty, truly share Israel’s aim of Jewish and Palestinian states living side by side in peace and harmony.
Moreover, in global surveys Israel comes out among the “happiest” countries in the world; Tel Aviv ranks as one of the top “go-to” destinations for young people; and Israelis’ life expectancy exceeds that of Americans’.
How can it be, Israel’s adversaries ask, that these “sons of monkeys and pigs,” as radical Muslim preachers openly refer to the Jews (and as ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared four years ago, while a Muslim Brotherhood leader), manage to stand tall, strong, and, yes, optimistic? How can it be that this nation of just eight million, grown from only 650,000 at its birth in 1948, repeatedly defeats far more populous Arab foes that have arrayed themselves against it? How can it be that these Jews, seemingly led to slaughter like sheep by the Third Reich, suddenly learned how to defend themselves and vanquish larger Arab armies, within three years of V-E Day? And how can it be that Israel, with no natural resources to speak of until recent natural gas findings, could achieve a first-world economy, catapulting it into the OECD; double-digit winners of Nobel Prizes; top-three ranking in new NASDAQ listings; and global recognition as a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship?
Too often, Israel’s adversaries have come up with misguided if self-satisfying answers, usually elaborate conspiracy theories inspired by anti-Semitic tropes.
In reality, though, the answer is much simpler. It derives from an age-old connection among a land, a faith, and a people. Many have tried to sever the link. All have failed.
Consider the words of Ezekiel, expressed some 2,700 years ago:
Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel… And the desolate land shall be tilled… And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the Garden of Eden.
Or, to fast forward from the ancient prophet Ezekiel to the prophetic Winston Churchill:
The coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.
Churchill added that the state’s establishment was “one of the most hopeful and encouraging adventures of the 20th century.”
Indeed, so it continues to be in the 21st century.
To be sure, Israel, like all democratic societies, is a permanent work in progress. Much remains to be done.
From grappling with a less-than-ideal electoral system to dealing with religious zealots who invoke a “higher authority” than the state, from addressing a yawning gap between rich and poor to balancing the Jewish and democratic nature of the country, from the decades-long pursuit of peace with its neighbors to the defense of the country in an ever more turbulent region, Israel has no shortage of challenges.
But, above all, Israel is a wondrous “adventure.” I feel privileged daily to see the fulfillment of the prayers of generations longing for a return to Zion from forced exile.
Witnessing Soviet Jews arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport even as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles came raining down, while Israel did not miss a beat in welcoming the newcomers, reveals the country’s character.
So, too, being in Rambam Hospital in Haifa during Hezbollah missile attacks. One minute, a siren would sound and everyone would calmly go, or be moved, to the bomb shelters. The next minute, after the all-clear signal, the scientists would return to their labs to continue cutting-edge research in cancer, diabetes, and stem-cell therapy.
Or visiting Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, where victims of Hamas strikes against Israel were taken for medical care, and seeing Palestinian patients from Gaza in rooms adjoining the Jewish wounded.
Or getting to know Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli program that provides life-saving pediatric heart surgery. Many of the children come from Arab countries that deny Israel’s very existence.
Or seeing the scrawling on a Tel Aviv wall shortly after 21 young Israelis were killed at a discotheque — “They won’t stop us from dancing.”
Or watching an Israeli Arab Supreme Court justice — who, incidentally, refuses to sing Israel’s national anthem — sit on a panel that upheld the conviction of an Israeli ex-president on charges of rape.
Or imagining the role Israel could one day play in the region in helping advance food security, water security, energy security, environmental security, public health security, and knowledge security, all of which will be towering issues in the 21st century.
No, this Israel may not now feature prominently in the media, I’m sorry to say, but it is the Israel that pulsates daily with a love of life, of freedom, and of the land.
Happy 66th Birthday, Israel!
*This essay is an adaptation of an earlier version written by the author.
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Lost in battles of miniscule importance, surrounded by the constant noise of the daily news, mired in debates over policy and politics and symbolism, we often forget how lucky we are. How lucky we are to be a part of a generation that can battle over this or that policy of a Jewish State. How lucky we are to celebrate an Independence Day of a Jewish State. How lucky we are to celebrate the 66th Independence Day.
What’s so special about the 66th birthday, you might ask.
The answer would be: nothing. Nothing is special about 66 – and that’s what is special about it. It is most pleasing to celebrate the routine of Independence Day. Another year, another day.
We are no longer in awe, as we should be, of the fact that there is a Jewish state in the land of Israel. We are no longer in awe, as we should be, of the fact that it survives, thrives, and, well, ages. We have nothing unique to say about the year 66: Israel is not marking a milestone. It is not crossing a threshold. A couple of years ago, when Israel was 50 and then, again, when it was 60, we had to suffer through a string of “will it live to a 100?” articles. The 66 celebration is not yet an answer to this question, and 67, if there’s no catastrophe in store for the country, will also not provide us with an answer to this question, nor will 68 or 69. Of course, when Israel becomes 70, and then when it will be 75, it will probably be subjected to yet another round of such articles. But at some point, maybe at 113, the discussion about Israel’s “future” will become old. One hopes it will.
There is something simple and quite wonderful about having an Independence Day routine, a routine that is not ignorant of the many problems Israel faces, but is also far from being hysterical about its future prospects.
Of course, there are good reasons to worry about Israel’s future – and Israelis are justifiably worried. At the mature age of 66, though, proportion and perspective should be in place: The fact that the last round of Israeli-Palestinian talks was not successful is not the “end of Zionism”, as some pundits have claimed. The fact that Israel has a growing ultra-orthodox population is not reason for doomsday predictions (for once, because Haredis aren’t the enemies of Israel; and also because Haredi society can adjust; and also because trends can reverse). The fact that we haven’t yet found an exact, agreed upon definition of what “Jewish and democratic” means is not a sign that Israel isn’t “Jewish” or “democratic”, as some Israelis have cried. The fact that J Street was not accepted to the Conference of Presidents is not the end of Jewish American support for Israel, as some Americans have threatened.
Surely, Israel of tomorrow might not be the Israel of yesterday – for good and for bad. Surely, some of Israel’s citizens and supporters might not be satisfied with the looming alterations to its character. In fact, there are many things with which I’m not at all satisfied. Tough luck: some people weren’t satisfied with the previous characteristics of Israel’s, and they had to live with them, or fight for their agenda, and those who aren’t satisfied now have the same choice to make. Of course, they could also abandon Israel. If they do, it would be Israel’s loss – but also theirs.
I was forced to think about this issue as I was reading an article by Prof. Yochai Bankler at The New Republic. He is, no doubt, one of the smart Israelis that have made a career for themselves abroad. His article is critical of the decision not to accept J Street to the Presidents Conference – the type of criticism that we have heard before and that is certainly reasonable. There are reasons to exclude J Street and reasons to include J Street – good reasons on both sides. Bankler believes that the reasons for inclusion are the stronger ones, and lays them out. He doesn’t bother to also lay out the reasons to not include J Street, either because he doesn’t understand that there are such reasons, or because he doesn’t think they deserve to be heard, or because he doesn’t have space for everything and had to cut the arguments that do not support his own belief.
I might write again about the J Street saga in the coming days, but today – Remembrance Day, and the eve of Independence Day – my interest with Bankler’s article is not because of the J Street vote but rather because of this one paragraph: “an American Jewish community that will support Israel even if it chooses to lose its democratic character rather than its Jewish character will ultimately lose the next generations of American Jews, who will simply turn away in disgust from a state that represents a Judaism that cannot be squared with the rest of their identity”.
Of course, this is not my first encounter with the threat of “turning away in disgust” from Israel. We occasionally hear such threats whenever Israel chooses a policy that is not to the liking of Peace-Now crusaders or those of Greater-Holy-Land extremists. And there’s always this wonder: where will these Jews turn when they “turn away” from the one Jewish state?
Israel is not a product for which there is a substitute. You cannot drop this ketchup, and by another brand, or even take mustard instead (sorry, was just watching the Mad Men Heinz episode). There is no substitute for Israel at the moment, so turning away from it means turning away from having a national political Jewish expression. Turning away from it would be a great loss – possibly for Israel, if it loses valuable supporters, but no less so (in fact, much more so) for those who decide to abandon it. In other words, the threat is not exactly a threat. Bankler warns us – well, I’m not even sure to which address this warning is mailed – that US Jews might end up cutting their own nose to punish their face.
I’m quite certain that Israel isn’t following Bankler’s script – in fact, to be fair, even Bankler is careful enough to say that Israel might still be able to save itself from the horror he has in mind (in a nutshell: an Orthodox undemocratic state). I also don’t think that the possible punishment of abandonment and rejection Bankler prescribes is good for one’s health and wellbeing – and thus I don’t think American Jews are going to follow this script.
Thus, such threats over an issue as minor as a vote – faulty or not – concerning the seating of this or that organization near this or that table – are of course exaggerated and uncalled for. But they are the inevitable result of the Israeli miracle becoming a routine. They are the unavoidable consequence of it becoming strong enough to withstand such threats, and other, more serious ones. That is to say that at 66, it is probably time to celebrate the routine of Independence and to calmly accept its downside.