Everything's coming up roses...

Well, not everything. But the Promised Land is thriving as Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary.

rose 88 (photo credit:)
rose 88
(photo credit: )
On the wall of the Jewish Agency office in London where details of my family's aliya were discussed in the late 1970s was a poster with the stark reminder: "We never promised you a rose garden." Nobody could accuse our shaliah of building up expectations. The phrase came to mind on many occasions over the years spent building a life in the Promised Land. It was no Garden of Eden and our start was particularly inauspicious - we were pickpocketed at the airport and locked out of the absorption center because the emissary who had made no commitments had also, it turned out, made few arrangements and neglected to tell anyone when we would be arriving. It became a family joke that we only stayed because our dalmatian had already left on a separate flight and could not return to poop in England's green pastures without first spending six months in quarantine. (She was on a different plane because El Al would not fly a human body and an animal in the same hold out of respect for the dead and the speedy burial of a Jew in the Holy Land apparently took precedence over the immigration of a Zionist dog, however rare a breed it might have been in Israel in the summer of '79.) So I stayed, served in the army, tried in my way to improve animal welfare in the country, and for nearly 30 years have had a ride on that emotional roller-coaster that makes up Israeli life - plunging from mourning to celebration every year as Remembrance Day rolls into Independence Day. I have spent nearly half the lifetime of the modern state experiencing firsthand both the thorns and the roses. This realization came home when I was recently asked to draw up a list of the 10 greatest achievements in the state's history. Plowing through back pages of the Post, I realized it might be "only" 60 years but they have been action packed. Perhaps the shaliah should have had a poster stating "Never a dull moment." Israel's biggest success is so self-evident I left it off the list. What other country, after all, would consider its very existence as its greatest achievement? Certainly not the US, whose 200th anniversary was utterly outshone by the IDF Entebbe rescue operation of July 4, 1976. SO MY first choice goes instead to an incredible phenomenon: the ingathering of exiles, immigration and absorption. My arrival might have stunk like a dip in manure but the early immigrants were certainly not greeted with a bouquet of flowers either. Many of the olim of the Fifties arrived in the middle of an austerity program to be housed in tents and transit camps. It is heartening to see immigrants arriving today on Nefesh B'Nefesh flights safe in the knowledge that there are apartments (some of them even affordable) and a unique support system for newcomers. Which brings me to my second choice. The revival of the Hebrew language which, even in this country of miracles, is something to marvel at. Israelis walk the walk and talk the talk: We read it, write it, SMS it, and dream in it. The country needed to set up ulpanim to teach Hebrew because it is the language. The sound of it spoken abroad can make me more homesick than the smell of pines and orange blossom from my garden. An English rose might smell as sweet in the language of Shakespeare but with all due respect to the recently departed Charlton Heston, the Bible was not written in Hollywood and Israeli kids above the age of six can pick up The Book in and read it out loud in their mother tongue. I don't mind where you place Hebrew Book Week on the list of achievements, as long as it appears. While we groan that today's children spend more time killing cartoon characters on computers than reading, the annual book fair events across the country are packed. Other notable achievements also relate to our past - distant and more recent. It took the country a while to realize the potential of its archeological sites but over the years huge efforts have been made to turn them into protected places of relevance to our modern lives. Masada might be overrun with visitors but it will never again fall. Yad Vashem is an unrivaled and haunting Israeli achievement and the silence that reigns as the siren is sounded on Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day is uncanny. As my late aunt once pointed out, there might be Holocaust museums elsewhere but only in Jerusalem can you feel comfortable saying Kaddish - the memorial prayer - for those, like her parents, who have no graves. Israel is no rose garden, but obviously we invested our horticultural and agricultural skills elsewhere. It is a leading exporter of flowers to Europe and more importantly an international leader in developing agricultural techniques which allow greater and more efficient food production. As the world tackles the threat of global food shortages, at least some of the solutions might come from our 60-year-old country. We might not have turned swords into plowshares (this is a rough neighborhood) but we have certainly made major contributions even while fighting for our very existence. While the metaphorical plowshares are not yet in sight, shares on NASDAQ are very real and there's good reason to consider much of the country as a Silicon Valley. This has been healthy for the economy (a success story in its own right) and beneficial for world health. It is hard to single out one medical breakthrough but consider this: It might be pleasanter to sniff roses, but an Israeli Christian Arab scientist from the Technion won a European Union grant some 18 months ago for his work developing an "electronic nose" to sniff out cancer. Much attention lately has focused on Israel's advances in the field of alternative energy. In the age of combating climate change, Israel's soldiers turned hi-tech inventors are marching in the lead here, too. WE HAVE come a long way since the days of collecting money in "the little Blue Box" for JNF projects. We made mistakes and sometimes learned from them. The heart breaks for those who drained the Hula Valley only to discover its distinct advantages as a body of water. Soaring high on our achievements list, however, must be the country's advanced work in ornithological studies and bird protection in places like the Hula and Eilat. Which brings me to another major coup: In a time of growing desertification, Israel can be proud of being the only country in the world that started the 21st century with a net gain of trees. A walk in a Mediterranean wood lacks, perhaps, the romance of a stroll through a rose garden but it suits me fine. The emissary erred on the side of caution. In the immortal words of Solomon, we are a rose among the thorns. Our roots go down a long way and no matter how often our enemies pluck the flowers, we will continue to flourish like a bush that has been deadheaded. If only they would drop their guns and stop to smell the roses, they would realize that Israel has the sweet smell of success worth copying, not destroying.