An Independence Day riddle for readers: What democratic country beginning with the letter “I” has ancient cultural traditions; saw the birth of more than one major religion; was freed from British colonial rule at the end of the 1940s as the result of a partition plan; has known war and still feels threatened by its increasingly Islamist neighbors; had a wellknown woman prime minister; has a well-developed hi-tech industry; and is admired for its economic progress over the last six decades?
I’ll give you a clue: Nobody ever calls its existence into question and the UN is not mandated to single it out for scrutiny several times a year. So that rules out Israel.
There are, I admit, a lot of differences between Israel and India – not least of them the size: India is the seventh- largest country in the world and the second-most populous, while Israel has a population of about eight million and could fit into India so many times that my head hurts at even the thought of doing the math. But that’s not the reason the world doesn’t focus on India’s border issues, query its right to determine its own capital, grant the refugees created in the turmoil surrounding its establishment and subsequent wars permanent refugee status, and act as if solving its problems with its nuclear neighbor, Pakistan, could solve all the problems of war and peace around the globe.
Why Israel – the Jewish state – has this peculiar honor is probably related to different ancient traditions: the fact that Jews have always maintained their separateness – even while contributing to whichever country they reside in – and the way that the world has traditionally reacted to that distinctiveness. There is a growing understanding here that the delegitimization of Israel is simply the continuation of anti-Semitism in a different guise.
We’re not perfect. Nobody is. But neither are we the world’s worst offenders – by far – when it comes to human rights, civil liberties and freedom. And despite the predictions of US Secretary of State John (“Poof!” “If I could rewind the tape”) Kerry, Israel is not about to turn into an apartheid state – not in the original South African sense of the word and not in the distorted sense it has come to mean when applied to Israel.
As Yediot Aharonot columnist Yoaz Hendel put it this week: “Contrary to Secretary of State John Kerry’s threats, Israel will not become an apartheid state because there is no peace just like the US did not become a failed democracy because it failed to spread democracy around the world. Sometimes an ideal runs into an iron wall; it may be unpleasant, but it is reality.”
Kerry was obviously disappointed that his peace initiative failed (like those before it and for many of the same reasons). But few here were surprised. Israelis took it in their stride – just as we cope with the escalation in terror attacks that accompanies every attempt at peacemaking in this region, just as we cope with everything that’s thrown at us, particularly missiles from Gaza.
Last week, the PLO and Hamas announced a reconciliation agreement (so never let it be said that Kerry didn’t achieve some kind of peace as a result of all his diplomatic and not so diplomatic efforts). On the same day, Israelis were largely absorbed watching Maccabi Tel Aviv thrashing Milano at the climax of a dramatic 3-1 series granting the Israeli basketball team entry to the Euroleague Final Four.
Listening to neighbors in different apartments collectively roaring their approval – an unmistakable sound that travels easily through open windows on a warm Jerusalem evening – I realized that this might serve as a reflection of one of those very Israeli moments. The utter collectiveness of the experience. Knowing that in buildings throughout the country there were groups of people glued to TV screens, spitting out sunflower seeds, attributing success to Divine help as much as player prowess and enjoying themselves regardless of all that is going on in the outside world.
The post-game interviews with Maccabi coach David Blatt, who speaks in American-accented Hebrew, reminded me of Maccabi legend Tal Brody, who was willing to forgo an NBA career to take the “yellow-andblue” team to its greatest successes. His statement “Anahnu al hamapa ve’anahnu nisharim al hamapa” (“We’re on the map and we’re staying on the map”) after beating CSKA Moscow to reach the final in the 1977 Euroleague has long since turned into a catchphrase.
And there seems like no better time than our 66th Independence Day celebrations to repeat it.
A visitor recently remarked that she was surprised that although Israelis are such political creatures and most meet around the dinner table with friends and family for Friday night meals and a general chance to complain about everything, we do not obsess over the peace process. Some might interpret this as a lack of caring, others as a sign of despair, she half-warned, half-scolded à la Kerry.
It is neither.
Of course we care: We all know soldiers, every single one of us is a potential terror victim, and I don’t think there are many Israelis who haven’t experienced that stomach-lurching sound of a missile warning at some time or other. Neither do we despair: A country that has “Hatikva” – The Hope – as its national anthem and a religion that includes prayers for peace three times a day is not the despairing sort.
It’s just that we have learned to live with our particular reality and even turn the bitter lemons into defense systems.
The ship isn’t sinking and there’s no reason to drown in despair. We wouldn’t have got very far, and certainly not far enough to earn the nickname “Start-up Nation,” if we’d waited for peace before aiming for prosperity.
We are like any normal country, normal in our own way.
That’s why one of the biggest local news stories this week was about a very particular end of an era: Not Kerry temporarily quitting shuttle diplomacy, but the resignation of star impersonator and satirist Tal Friedman, who is leaving the Eretz Nehederet (“A Wonderful Country”) show after 11 years during which he created different characters, including Luba, the immortal new-immigrant supermarket cashier, and poked fun at politicians across the political spectrum. The politicians didn’t mind – appearing in some form on the satire show gave them a certain status. Last Independence Day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu happily laughed at himself – or at least at his Eretz Nehederet counterpart – in an end-of-season show.
“Eretz Nehederet is the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club of the screen,” wrote Yediot TV reviewer Einav Schiff, the day after the news of Friedman’s defection broke.
A country that can freely laugh with and at its leaders in a TV satire show is a rarity in the Middle East. And it’s another reason I know we don’t have to worry about our future. We’re not on our way to being an apartheid state.
We have a wonderful country. An eretz nehederet unlike any other.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.