Haaretz claims few drivers in Tel Aviv are buying Israeli flags to put on their cars this week. By contrast, in southern Jerusalem flags are selling as briskly this week as water bottles did last week, when contaminants in the Abu Tor neighborhood leaked into our water system. The minor day-long water service interruption offered two essential lessons about the real Israel that we celebrate this week, rather than the cartoonish Israel so often demonized. The anomalous interruption reminded us how smooth Israeli life is most of the time for most people, and, ultimately, that the fates of Jews and Arabs in this small area are indeed linked.
Critics so often define Israel by its problems that it is easy to forget how well this country of 8.2 million people works. The systems and structures that westerners take for granted can be taken for granted – which is not something we should take for granted. Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, is a day of thanksgiving and wonder.
It offers an opportunity to say “wow,” the place works, the water is drinkable, the roads are passable, the systems are operational. When something goes wrong, like good westerners Israelis are outraged because, thanks to Israel’s nation-builders, we expect Israel to be functional, not dysfunctional.
When I first visited Israel in 1974, few Israelis owned cars, many waited years to get telephones installed, the place seemed charmingly primitive. The first day we arrived, we walked to the “makolet,” the corner store.
My brothers and I watched in amazement as shoppers put full loaves of bread that were neither pre-sliced nor encased in plastic into plastic baskets the shoppers brought from home rather than into the brown paper supermarket bags we used in New York.
Although my family was modest financially, we arrived in Israel laden with tablecloths and linen napkins and pocket calculators to share with our struggling friends living in the impoverished Jewish state. Who could have imagined that only decades later, Israelis would be inventing and modernizing cellphones, computers and various manufacturing processes, let alone being able to consume as fully (and sometimes as foolishly) as other westerners? Israel was also a tougher place then, with less rights for Israeli Arabs, less autonomy and fewer legal avenues of redress for Palestinians, and more social conformity.
Israel then felt extremely vulnerable, not just backward.
Egypt and Syria had just surprised Israel in the Yom Kippur War, killing more than 2,500 Israelis and 10,000 Arabs. We saw – and were unnerved by – many wounded veterans on the street, some disfigured. And the Soviet Empire, which seemed ascendant with the Watergate- and Vietnam-afflicted United States seemingly decaying, joined the Arab world in seeking Israel’s destruction.
Who could have imagined that within three short years Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat would visit Jerusalem, and within decades, Egypt would have a longstanding peace treaty with Israel, Syria would be imploding and the Soviet Union would have disappeared? Remarkably, despite its idiosyncrasies and rough edges, its dangers and fears, Israel was also incredibly appealing. The place was romantic, intimate, intense and ready to blossom. Its unfinished nature invited you in, making you feel that little old you could make a mighty big difference in this very small country with a very full agenda. Its very existence was already a modern miracle – and it was hard to resist the lure of participating in the next wave of miracles somehow, whether or not you moved there permanently.
So today, even when stuck in traffic, let’s wave our flags for the economic advances that allowed so many more Israelis to live comfortable, middle class lifestyles.
And today, even when too many Israelis yammer on cellphones, letting them ring and ping and ding wherever they are, let’s wave our flags for the technological revolutions Israelis are spearheading not just enjoying.
And today, let’s wave our flag to defy the Blame Israel Firsters who are trying to bully Israel into a peace treaty by scaring us with hysterical warnings about more terror and potential boycotts or demonizing us with unfair, inaccurate accusations of racism and colonialism.
Instead, living in one of the great wonders of today’s world, Israelis must think boldly, creatively and courageously about how to make peace. Abu Tor is a mixed neighborhood with Arabs and Jews, whose water system is integrated into the broader water system. The common environment Jews and Arabs share is only one of many overlapping frameworks that bind us together – and should push us to reconcile.
True, the Palestinians must try, too. This week, president Bill Clinton reminded everyone that in the 1990s Yasser Arafat was the Middle East’s Dr. No. Clinton said Arafat “never said yes” to a generous deal that would have provided 96 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, and, I must add, might have allowed the conflict to fade just as the Northern Ireland troubles and the white South African Apartheid regime ended during those revolutionary post-Soviet years.
Some leading leftists – ok, one leading Israeli leftist, Ari Shavit – have acknowledged that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is now the Middle East’s Dr. No, repeatedly rejecting viable peace plans.
So this Yom Ha’atzmaut, let’s wave the flag for Israel as miracle-maker, as game-changer, as solution-finder – even in hip, too-cool-to-show-it Tel Aviv.
Let’s marvel at the progress, delight in the ease of daily life, rejoice in the many accomplishments. Meanwhile, let’s pursue peace as zealously and heroically as we have defended the state and renewed Jewish life the world over, while offering the world a model of a new post-World War II country that can be a thriving democracy with a prosperous economy and a tremendous capacity to turn national fantasies into common realities.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history, including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just published by Oxford University Press.
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