Freedom New Mexico
On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel was recognized by the United Nations and almost immediately thereafter by the United States. The infant Jewish state was almost immediately invaded by its Arab neighbors, who figured they would nip this “ancestral homeland” nonsense in the bud, but improbably Israel prevailed. The country has now survived two major wars and innumerable threats and efforts to intimidate, to celebrate 60 years of existence.
In that 60 years Israelis have built a remarkable civil society that has become an economic and military success story, with educational and research facilities that put them among the world leaders in medicine and high-tech industries. Israel is admired and resented for its economic achievements and its sometimes fractious but still functioning democracy stands as a symbol of what is possible in that part of the world. For that reason alone it is understandable that Israel and the United States have a special relationship, although one that is seldom as stable as their leaders proclaim.
At the same time Israel constantly feels beleaguered, surrounded by states who see it as an unwelcome neighbor (even those formally at peace with it), a people whose independence is constantly under siege. Given their history, it is understandable that Jewish people, whether they have chosen to move to Israel or not, see real and potential threats everywhere. Friends and enemies alike wonder whether Israel will survive.
It is important to remember that the idea of modern Israel was not born during the Nazi Holocaust, but long before Hitler was even an obscure corporal. In 19th-century Europe many Jews had assimilated successfully, but they never felt accepted or entirely comfortable. Theodor Herzl’s Zionism was as much a nationalistic movement as a religious one; indeed, many very religious Jews resisted it. As much as the Holocaust is stressed in modern Israeli official historiography, the idea of Israel and emigration to Israel predated the Holocaust. As Gresham Greenberg points out in an article in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, without the Holocaust Israel would likely have been even more successful, given that the Nazis murdered so many of those who were expected to migrate to Israel.
Modern Israel is best seen as a nation-state, with all the tradeoffs such a status entails. Israel the nation-state has been beleaguered, to be sure, and the rest of the Muslim world has been content to leave Palestinians as permanent and permanently disaffected refugees, a constant thorn in Israel’s side, rather than taking them in or offering effective help in building a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. At the same time Israel has not always dealt fairly with the Palestinians, and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank are a constant irritant that makes an amicable settlement less likely.
For all its sense of vulnerability, Israel has established itself as the superpower in the region (despite missteps against Hezbollah a couple of years ago) and is unlikely to be challenged by conventional military forces in the foreseeable future. Suicide bombings, rocket attacks and other forms of terrorism are – as terrorism has ever been – the tactic of the weak against the strong, of the desperate against the dominant.
Israel is likely to survive and thrive, but it faces challenges. Its party system leads to weak governments. The 20 percent of Israelis who are Arabs are second-class citizens and could become more restive. If Israel maintains control over the West Bank it will face the likelihood of Arabs outnumbering Jews and having a case to control the state and change its nature, as former Prime Minister Sharon understood.
Those who value freedom, independence and religious liberty cannot but wish Israel well as it approaches maturity, along with a wish for the wisdom to meet its challenges in a productive fashion. May it always be possible for well-wishers to promise themselves, “Next year in Jerusalem!”