In his classroom at Virginia Tech on Monday, Prof. Liviu Librescu carried out an instinctive and extraordinary act of heroism. He held the door closed in the face of the rampaging campus gunman, courageously affording his students the opportunity to escape via the window.
The Romanian-born Librescu had lived through the Holocaust only to be gunned down as he saved young lives on, of all days, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As the calendar ticks round from that bleakest of annual memorials, via the day of remembrance for our fallen soldiers and on toward Independence Day, we had better ensure that Librescu's heroic sacrifice not become a metaphor for our modern state.
The pioneers envisaged Israel as a light unto the nations, a beacon of morality and propriety, tolerance and high principle. It was a vaunting ambition, born not in arrogance but in fealty to the faith that lies at the heart of our nationhood - a faith intent on taming the violent excesses of human nature, a faith rooted in respect for one another and for the divine gift of life.
Rarely have such fundamental values so needed restressing and inculcating worldwide. And rarely has the State of Israel been so endangered by their absence.
The spring calendar annually requires renewed recognition, first, of that untamed inclination, as exemplified by the Holocaust, to dominate, to conquer, to destroy. Days later, we again bow our heads, this time to remember those who have given their lives through the decades to maintain our national homeland, the sovereign refuge from such evil.
This year, we pass those days of mourning amid upsurges of staggering violence everywhere from Iraq to Darfur to Virginia, and threatened, most directly, by the genocidal ambitions of Iranian-led extremist Islam - a perverted ideology fundamentally at odds with the sage Hillel's memorable encapsulation of Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."
MUCH OF a hypocritical watching world would scoff at that "light unto the nations" ambition. In a gruesome distortion, we are widely depicted as inhumane aggressors, territorially voracious, heartlessly denying our Palestinian neighbors their basic right to independence. This when even the most cursory of inspections shows us to have been repeatedly plunged into conflict by the unprovoked actions of our neighbors, to have relinquished land captured in wars we would have wished to avoid, and to have reduced our preconditions for a Palestinian state to the sole caveat that it not be established at the expense of our own.
Last week it was the turn of Britain's National Union of Journalists to turn reality on its head, voting to boycott Israel as punishment for our various aggressions. It took the step even as its members here felt as free as ever to go about their professional business, while their BBC colleague Alan Johnston was still being held hostage in a Gaza that is governed by a terrorist organization.
This marginal act of UK protest reflects worst of all, of course, on the union and its members - in a profession, remember, whose very ethos revolves around the values of free speech, fair-mindedness and intellectual honesty.
What is truly dismal is how emblematic the NUJ's risible anti-Israel motion is of wider public opinion in Britain and beyond, and how it parallels the routine delegitimization of Israel in votes, rulings and declarations at more august and weighty forums, led by the UN.
Sadly, this year, here at home, we can hardly advance the notion of Israel as a light unto the nations, either - but for quite different reasons, many of them sadly highlighted in just the last few days and weeks, and all of them correctible.
New rounds of investigation and outbreaks of scandal among top financial and political figures have emphasized the lack of personal and financial propriety displayed by a lengthening list of those who represent and thrive among us. The resonant tales of Holocaust survivors reduced to abject poverty underline the widening inequalities that beset the modern state.
And no matter who is to blame for the crisis in education, it is shameful for the self-professed "People of the Book" that day after precious day of schooling is being lost to a labor dispute that surely could have been resolved before the students had to bear the consequences.
Our principal saving grace on this 59th birthday is the resilience, good sense and moral clarity of much of our people. We have not fled sustained terrorism. We endured 34 days of mismanaged war, and were more than ready to endure many more in the cause of a decisive result whose importance the public recognized much more clearly than its leaders did. We now wait skeptically but patiently and without hysteria for the results of the investigation into that mismanagement, even as new recruits and reservists prepare dutifully for feared further rounds of conflict.
Simultaneously, the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces, jolted into action by the shock of last summer's failings, is now embarked upon a drastic back-to-fitness program, with an appropriate return to the basics of adequate equipment, effective coordination and a crucially renewed emphasis on training, training and more training.
Israelis by and large, it still seems, fully believe in the legitimacy of our presence here and reject the international misrepresentations. Understandably unimpressed by the prospects for the well-being of the Jewish nation without a Jewish state, we are evidently prepared to pay the highest of prices to protect it.
Too much of the international community, meanwhile, is not merely unfair and unbalanced when it comes to Israel, it is also short-sighted and self-defeating when it comes to the dangers of extremist Islam.
For instance Britain, hit already by home-grown Islamic terror and a rallying base for extremists who then set out to murder overseas, remains stubbornly obtuse.
The Arab world is gradually acknowledging the danger. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is not losing sleep about Israel. He's worried about the Muslim Brotherhood at home, determinedly destabilizing his regime, with Iran as the instigator in chief. The pattern repeats itself in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Yet because of insistent foot-dragging by the major Western powers, willfully blind to the approaching danger as they provide billions of dollars in government loan guarantees for this or that marginal trade deal, Iran has yet to feel the real bite of concerted international economic sanction. Moving steadily toward the manufacture of 3,000 centrifuges by year's end, with a first bomb to follow nine months after that (according to former Clinton Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross), Iran's leaders can afford to dismiss the notion that their pursuit of a nuclear capability will prove untenably costly to their regime. An American retreat from Iraq would only reinforce that conclusion, until or unless there was concrete action to counter it.
WHICH BRINGS us back to the heroic Prof. Librescu.
People with such diverse views as Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu and former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy have told me in interviews published in these columns in the past year that they have no doubt that in the end the extremists in Iran will be defeated and ousted. Indeed, both men invoked the Nazis as a precedent.
"The whole structure of the international community is such that this [Iranian approach] will not be stomached," Halevy declared when we spoke. "It is not possible. [Stopping] it may take more time. The Nazi threat took six years to overcome in a bloody war. But ultimately sanity prevailed. Righteousness prevailed in the very basic sense of the term."
Said Netanyahu: "I have no doubt that, just as in the case of Nazism, militant Islam will eventually be defeated by the forces of freedom, the forces of moderation, both in the world and within Islamic societies. It is an untenable thing, to twist reality and society to agree with your creed. It just doesn't last. The question is what happens in the interim. In the case of Nazism, it went down after it took with it a third of the Jewish people. In the case of militant Islam, it plans to take down immediately that half of the Jewish people who have converged on Israel."
This is the challenge that faces Israel as it turns 59: As the first but by no means the only target of Iran's murderous ambitions, we cannot afford to stand heroically in the line of Teheran's fire, so as to give the rest of the world breathing space to belatedly regroup and take action. We need to do everything we can to help galvanize the necessary international will to avert the threat before it is too late.
It is an uphill struggle, maybe even a lost cause, given our lack of international credibility and standing - but Israel needs to shine the light nonetheless, to work the diplomatic channels to ratchet up economic pressure on Teheran, to champion the campaign for Ahmadinejad's indictment, to use every available forum to detail the dangers posed by the apocalyptic Iranian regime.
And if all else fails, we need to stand firm, behind a leadership of real moral clarity, and protect ourselves.