Israel at 70: Putting the country in perspective

Anniversaries like this one obligate us all to step back from the daily arguments and violence and complaints and scandals and whatnot that plague Israel, and take a longer look.

Israeli flag (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli flag
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Everything needs context.
Nothing can be judged fairly if it is seen standing alone, isolated, disconnected from the past, from its surroundings. Nothing. Not a person, definitely not a state.
Birthdays and anniversaries are inevitably a time of taking stock. Where have we been? Where are we going? What have we accomplished? Are we living up to expectations? Round-number birthdays, like the years 50, 60 or 70, are a time of stock-taking on steroids.
And as this country celebrates 70 years of independence, the question that can justifiably be asked is whether this is what the Jewish people prayed for and dreamed of throughout the ages.
Is this is it? Is this really all that there is? When answering that question, what is desperately needed is perspective, context. But that perspective and context are often lost in the day-to-day. We get so caught up in the daily news – the terrorism, the wars, the corruption – that we lose sight of the bigger picture. And that is what is so important about this particular time of the calendar: it forces one to step back and, if only for a minute, take a wider view.
ISRAEL, OBVIOUSLY, is not that same pristine vision everyone dreamed of 70 years ago. A lot has happened in the intervening seven decades. Sovereignty, independence, running a country, developing an economy, fielding an army and fighting war after war is a messy business. A very messy business.
We face a harsh, tough and bitter reality, a reality that sometimes forces us to compromise some of our values. Perhaps we haven’t lived up to our own lofty expectations, but at the ripe age of 70, it is fair to say that – despite what the naysayers may be saying – the sky is not falling.
It’s not falling despite Iran making inroads in Syria, despite the stalemate with the Palestinians, despite Islamic State in Sinai, despite Hamas and Hezbollah and our own internal rifts, and the country’s crime and corruption.
Nevertheless, let’s face it: Israel today is not the idealized version many of us once had in our minds. Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014 wasn’t exactly the Six Day War; there was no Entebbe raid to free Gilad Schalit; the debate about deporting African migrants has replaced pictures of Israel taking in Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s; and Israeli corruption – both a former president and a former prime minister went to jail, and the current prime minister is now engaged in the battle of his political life over allegations of criminal wrongdoing – makes the news today much more than Israeli valor, although there is much Israeli valor.
Some, both in Israel and abroad, simply ask: What has happened to Israel, to the Israel we took pride in? Is this the land we prayed for? The answer is yes, this is the land we prayed for. Is it perfect? Of course not; no state is perfect. Yet it is a remarkable testament to Jewish resilience, faith and hope; a thriving state that has maintained its balance and composure and principles in the most inhospitable neighborhood on the planet.
Perspective. We need to put the country in perspective.
And the best place to go when seeking perspective is to look where the Jewish people were 73 years ago coming out of the Holocaust, and look where we are today – with all the difficulties and problems and scoundrels and broken dreams. What we have created during this short period is nothing short of a miracle, with all the warts and imperfections.
That perspective was clearly provided a few years back, in February 2011, when Benny Gantz was sworn in as the IDF’s chief of staff. His mother, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out at Gantz’s swearing-in ceremony, was a Holocaust survivor.
“When your mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, she weighed just 28 kilograms,” Netanyahu said. “I am certain that at the time, she never dreamed that 66 years later her son, yet to be born, would be the 20th chief of general staff of the army of the State of Israel, the Jewish state. Perhaps she did not dream of such a thing, but it has come true before our eyes.”
That family story – the journey from Bergen-Belsen to chief of staff of the Israeli army – attests to the dramatic change the Jewish people has undergone in the span of what can be considered a single lifetime: the morphing from a weak, exiled and defenseless people into a thriving, independent, confident and bustling nation with one of the world’s most powerful armies.
Two Israeli attributes should give one optimism about the next 70 years: the country’s resilience and its uncanny ability to find short-term solutions to problems.
The resilience – the type of resilience embodied in the Gantz family history – is seen and felt here all the time, both at the personal level and at the national level: every time the country bounces back from a war, every time a family carries on with life after a terrorist attack. There is an optimism and hope here deeply ingrained in the Jewish people that pushes the nation forward, despite the pain, despite the suffering, despite the loss. It is not a people that wallows in victimhood but rather takes whatever hand it is dealt and makes the most of it, tries to improve on it, builds off it.
The second attribute that makes one optimistic about the country is its uncanny ability to find shortterm solutions to problems – not long-term problems, but short-term problems. Israel has not proven itself particularly adept at long-term planning, but when it comes to the short term, nobody does it better.
Examples abound.
War in the Middle East changed fundamentally in 1991 with the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles into Israel. From that moment onward, every military confrontation with our enemies was no longer their tanks against our tanks on the Golan Heights or in the Sinai Peninsula, but rather their rockets on our kindergartens, their missiles on our population centers.
This country did not have the luxury to say there was nothing it could do about such threats. So it began developing a three-tiered anti-missile system to deal with the challenge: the Arrow against intercontinental missiles from Iran; David’s Sling, to deal with missiles from Lebanon; and Iron Dome to knock out Kassams from the Gaza Strip. Does it hermetically seal the country? No. But it does provide both deterrence and a degree of strategic space.
Looking for a more recent example of this problem-solving aptitude? Just consider the technology Israel has developed to snuff out and destroy terror tunnels coming from Gaza. Again, if there is a problem, don’t throw up your hands and say “I can’t deal with it.” Find a solution.
IT ALL comes back to perspective.
Former Yeshiva University president Richard Joel provided a good dose of this perspective years back when he related a tale about bringing a group of Birthright students for their first time to the Western Wall. These were kids with little or no connection to Israel or Judaism and he wanted to fire them up, psych them up, so that when they stood in front of the Wall, they saw more than just old stones.
“Your great-great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents almost certainly did not know each other,” he told the students. “They probably came from different settlements in the Pale of Settlement, from North Africa or from other distant lands. They spoke either different languages or dialects of the same language. They probably had different levels of education and different levels of religious observance and commitments. And they eked out their living in different ways.”
But he said to them: “Your great-great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents shared two things in common. They all spent their lives yearning to touch a stone of the Kotel, and they all knew that they never would.”
That we ourselves are able to do that, that we can go at will to touch the stones of the Kotel in a land in which for the first time in 2,000 years we make the decisions, the good ones and the bad; in which we determine our fate; in which we run our lives by the rhythm of the Jewish calendar; in which we speak to our children in a language that was dead as a living language 120 years ago; and in which we defend and protect ourselves by ourselves, is not something to be taken for granted, even if it is an imperfect place.
Anniversaries like this one, 70 years since the birth of the state, obligate us all to step back from the daily arguments and violence and complaints and scandals and whatnot that plague Israel, and take a longer look. And when one does that, what emerges is a wonder – even today, especially today, in light of everything the country has faced and will continue to face.