Rumor has it that mellowness comes with age. Golden agers are who they are. When Brian Mulroney was Canada’s middle-aged Prime Minister during the 1980s, he recalls being more thin-skinned, much less at peace with himself, than his elderly American colleague, President Ronald Reagan.
Alas, as Israel hits 64, it lacks the tranquility that should be accompanying its age. Lately, our national leaders have demonstrated a surprising skittishness. Israel’s Interior Minister feels compelled to ban an aging German blowhard whose great work dates from 1959, after he writes a pathetic propagandistic poem. And the Prime Minister, who never bothered sending an ardent Zionist like me a letter, feels compelled to write a letter chiding troublemakers who tried swooping into Israel on their “Flytilla.”
Of course, I take the forces trying to delegitimize Israel seriously. I share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury at their hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and double-standards. I see the harm they cause at universities, in the media, and among gullible anxious-to-be-loved-by-the-goyim Jews. Singling Israel out, questioning Israel’s right to exist, this continuing assault on Zionism as racism, are all outrages – and constitute strategic threats to Israel, especially because they encourage and reinforce the even greater threats from Israel’s hostile neighbors.
The writer Cynthia Ozick was correct. In the 1970s she said Jews are not paranoid but narapoid. That is when you think people are out to get you -- and they are.
My issue, however, is tactical. Just as I tell friends damaged by difficult childhoods that “living well is the best revenge,” therein lies Israel salvation too. As we celebrate Israel’s birthday, we should ignore Gunther Grass and the mindless anti-Zionist mob. Instead, we should toast 64 miraculous years, focusing on six extraordinary achievements, one for each decade.
First, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland. People mocked Theodor Herzl in 1897 when he predicted the creation of a Jewish state half a century later – he was off by only one year. The “wandering Jews” were considered the ultimate stateless people. Coming home, establishing a state – and keeping it thriving, not just surviving – is one of the twentieth century’s great miracles, now continuing into the twenty-first.
Second, offering a welcoming Jewish home to Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, and other oppressed Jews while preserving civil liberties and free immigration for all. Since 1948, Israel has absorbed over three million immigrants, as its population has grown to nearly eight million. To Israel, today’s refugee is tomorrow’s citizen; Palestinians are the only people who have been able to convince the UN that refugee status can be inherited. And in a clear repudiation of the accusation that Zionism is in any way racist, Israel has accepted black, brown, and white refugees. Skin color is irrelevant, with nearly 80,000 Ethiopian Jews constituting the only welcome migration I know of involving Black Africans to a mostly white country.
Third, returning the Jews to history, transforming Jews'' image from the world''s victim to actors on history''s stage, with rights and responsibilities. The traditional European caricature of the Jew – oppressed, depressed, broken-down, sniveling – has changed. Israelis are known as strong, exuberant, proud and free. With power comes dilemmas. Israel, like all countries, has its weaknesses, makes mistakes. But Israel, like all great democracies, has powerful self-correcting mechanisms, including free elections, a vibrant press, a strong judiciary, free thinking intellectuals, and an open, self-critical culture.
Fourth, building a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor. In 2009, 3,416,587 Israelis voted in the Middle East’s eighteenth free national election -- meaning Israel’s 18th Knesset election -- uniquely involving Muslims, Christian and Jews. Real GDP growth in 2011 was 3.7 percent; America’s growth that year was 1.6 percent. In this year’s social protests, a strong Zionist spirit infused this collective, innovative attempt to tackle central dilemmas about wealth and welfare bedeviling the entire Western world. And because the Jews are a people, when we talk about a Jewish state, it is not a theocracy, but a liberal national democracy, with a uniquely Jewish accent.
This leads to, fifth, the dynamic old-new Jewish culture making Israel a central force in revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life in the Jewish homeland and abroad while serving as a bastion of Western culture too. Israel is a modern Western country with a “very high” quality of life, ranking 17th of 187 in 2011 on the United Nation''s Human Development Index. Jerusalem, in particular, is a living laboratory for modern Judaism, with fascinating intellectual and spiritual expressions bubbling up weekly – and imported throughout the Jewish world. More broadly, surveys estimate that 98 percent of Israeli Jews have a mezuzah on their front door, 85 percent participate in a Pesach seder, and 71 percent light Hanukkah candles, as they live in a Jewish space by Jewish time.
And finally, reviving Hebrew. In 2010, Israeli publishers published 5432 Hebrew books, reflecting Israel’s literacy rate of 97.1 percent, and its world ranking as fortieth in number of books published by a country 97th in population size. The daily experiment of making Hebrew a living language continues. This year, I learned how to spell “You Tube” in Hebrew and to pronounce Google as Israelis do, Goo-gell. And in a quaint genuflection toward our Biblical roots, I learned that the way to say pigs-in-a-blanket (mini hot dogs wrapped in a bun), in Hebrew is “Moshe beTeva,” Moses in a basket.
As the smell of burned flesh wafts over the land –because most Israelis celebrate their national day with barbecues not pigs in blankets -- let us hope for a 65th year of mellow, of peace, with the delegitimizers struck dumb, and Israelis living well, not for revenge but to express our good fortune and great fulfillment.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.