Independence and responsibility

Israel’s 71st Independence Day comes at a unique time for the country.

May 9, 2019 21:32
3 minute read.
Independence and responsibility

Fireworks in honor of Israel's Independence Day . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Powerful and strong, with a booming economy, the country has also just come through another major escalation with Gaza. With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Iraq, Israel is also cognizant of the ever-growing Iranian threat.

As we got up from mourning the fallen in our wars to celebrate another year of independence, we recognize once again that between mourning and celebrating, we must continue to work to make Israel live up to its dreams.

This year’s Independence Day ceremony included torch lighters from across the spectrum: a Holocaust survivor, filmmaker Avi Nesher, Jeffrey Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, a Sderot teenager, an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, central figures behind SpaceIL and bereaved families.

Several of the torch lighters came as groups, representing the way in which the ceremony honors not just individuals, but broader themes in society.

These themes, as well as the broad diversity of Israeli society and its many challenges, should remind us that being an independent country comes with great responsibilities.

There are more than nine million Israelis today, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Around 20% of Israel’s population are Arabs and there are hundreds of thousands of other members of minorities and non-Jewish Israelis.

From a population of only 800,000 during the first year of independence, the country has grown more than 10-fold. Thirty-one thousand people immigrated to Israel last year and there were a record 4.4 million tourists and visitors.

Israelis regularly describe themselves among the happiest populations in the world, despite a year that saw several bouts of massive rocket fire from terrorist organizations in Gaza.

And Israel is continuing to be one of the greatest arms exporters in the world, another element of national self-sufficiency that has seen the country play a central role in the world economy – a unique position for such a small state.

President Reuven Rivlin’s Independence Day speech captured the spirit of the time when he asked: “Who would have believed 71 years ago that we would build cities from the swamps? That roads and railways would cross the sands? Who could have imagined then the wonder that is the State of Israel?”

He reminded us that Israelis come from the four corners of the world: from Yemen and South America, from Europe and from Jerusalem.

Yet he cautioned us against causing pain, quoting the late Amos Oz.

This is always our struggle, and one where we have both glowing spots to be proud of and some blemishes that we must always seek to remove.

For instance, our technology allowed us to withstand the 700 rockets fired from Gaza and resist calls for inflicting “revenge” or invading the strip of land where so many Israelis have fought and died in the past. Pinpoint accuracy allows weapons to strike terrorists and often not harm civilians.

But civilians in Gaza still suffer because of Hamas rule and the blockade of the enclave. There is no long-term plan on how to end that difficult situation and find a way to live in peace with Gaza.

Similarly, the upcoming US peace plan may cause tensions in the West Bank. After so many years of relative peace with Ramallah, peace plans have a way of unleashing uncertainty.

Israel also must address income disparities that leave some communities behind. Even though average wages appear to have increased, there are many areas in Israel where there is too much poverty.

Tragically, a quarter of Israel’s Holocaust survivors live in poverty. This poverty has been well-known for years and yet, year after year, little is done about it. It is one of the many things the government prefers to push off responsibility for, especially as elections came and went this year.

There are other perennial issues. The struggles over land with poor Bedouin communities in the Negev. The Western Wall crisis that has impacted relations with some Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The attempt to address racism in Israeli society. The need to care for foreign workers and also provide answers for asylum seekers.

As we celebrate independence, we must take the responsibility of an independent state in making the country better this year – on all fronts.

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