A dream come true?

Israel's 60th anniversary is a good time to weigh the achievements of the Jewish state against expectations on which it was founded.

aliya 298 nefesh benefes (photo credit: Nefesh Benefesh)
aliya 298 nefesh benefes
(photo credit: Nefesh Benefesh)
As Israel celebrates its 60th Independence Day, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's radical Islamic regime is developing a nuclear weapons capability to fulfill his dream of being able to wipe it off the map - unless we first face what he calls an "inevitable collapse." Meanwhile, Kassam rockets are daily fired into Sderot from Gaza, where Hamas still holds Cpl. Gilad Schalit hostage for nearly two years; in the North, Hizbullah remains a potential threat, and peace prospects with Syria look as dim as ever; and negotiations with those Palestinians who at least claim they want to live in peace alongside Israel move at a glacial pace. On the domestic front, there is growing unease both within and without the Israeli Arab community about its minority role in a Jewish society, while the unresolved relationship between religion and state remains a continuing source of tension between the secular and Orthodox Jewish populations. Economic gaps between wealthy and less well-off Israelis are widening, and the middle class in between feels increasingly pressed, a situation that brings with it a variety of social ills. Perhaps worst of all, solutions to all these problems feel further away than ever, thanks in large part to a dysfunctional political system that stubbornly resists reform, even as corruption spreads and doubts grow about the basic competence of government and the military at its highest levels. One could very easily go on and on with a laundry list of such dire outlooks and complaints. All would be true; yet how accurate a portrait of the country's overall condition would it leave us as it enters its seventh decade? There is another way of measuring the state of the state - not in simply the problems it has yet to solve and tasks it has not yet accomplished, but in balancing all that against what it has achieved in relation to the plans and aspirations of its founders, and whether it continues to move in the right direction. "If you compare Israel to the magnitude of its dreams, it is a disappointment," the country's most celebrated author, Amos Oz, recently told the press. "But this is not about the nature of Israel; it's about the nature of dreams. Israel is a dream come true, and as such it is destined to taste sour - because it is fulfilled." One can hardly accuse Oz, whose life work constitutes an almost continuous critical examination of his homeland, of viewing the national condition through rose-colored glasses. Is he right though: Is this country, on its 60th anniversary, truly a mission fulfilled, a dream come true? Is the Zionist mandate in essence complete - and the problems Israeli society must deal with today no longer a sign of growing pains, but the aches of a mature national home coping with many of the same dilemmas faced by other comparable societies? It's easy to imagine a response along these lines: How can anyone even make that claim, when the country now faces an existential nuclear threat from without and must deal with such extreme internal divisions from within, not least the most basic argument over where to draw its borders? Well, this writer, who grew up in the United States during the 1960s, vividly remembers taking part in nuclear-attack drills in grade school, while political, cultural and racial turmoil boiled over in the streets, and the nation was bitterly divided over a controversial war claiming thousands of lives every year. National decline, and worse, was widely predicted. America, of course, with all those ills, was still the strongest nation on Earth, not a relatively small country in a largely hostile region, much of whose population denies the right of its very existence. BUT THE PROPER measurement of Israel cannot be made simply against other countries of comparable size and population, be they Belgium or El Salvador. Its origin, as a nation founded by a scattered people returning to its ancestral homeland to reestablish sovereignty after 2,000 years of exile, is unique among modern states. Israel's first and final judgment must be as a place where the Jewish people, persecuted over the centuries and devastated in the previous one, are able to survive and flourish as citizens of a modern nation-state. This is the reason Israel was established - not to fulfill biblical prophecies that it serve as either "a light to the nations" or as the vessel to restore a divinely-ordained Davidic kingship, or to create a socialist paradise on Earth. There are innumerable ways of judging Israel's success (or failure) as the Jewish national home, many highly subjective. There is no shortage of statistics one could cite, from surveys measuring self-proclaimed personal satisfaction among respondents, to the latest levels of income and investment in the economy. Again though, the most relevant numbers to the purpose of assessing Israel are those relating to the Jewish population here and abroad. Here is one that speaks volumes: In 2007, according to most demographers who deal with such issues, Israel became for the first time in its existence home to the world's largest Jewish population. Statistically this was a relatively small step, passing the US by about a percentage point, with both almost evenly dividing between them a little more than 80 percent of the world's Jews. But this represents a giant leap since the beginning of the state, since in 1948 Israel contained barely 10% of global Jewry. This shift largely comes about from the absorption over the years of large waves of "aliya by necessity," in which parts of, or even entire, Jewish communities fled anti-Semitism and hardship in their Diaspora lands to find refuge and a better life in this relatively young nation. How have they fared, in general? Take a look at this paragraph from "The Jewish People Policy Planning Annual Assessment 2007," a document of far more significance than has been generally acknowledged. In noting the steady growth of the Jewish population here in contrast to its accelerating shrinkage elsewhere, it notes: "Level and changes in the Human Development Index (HDI) provide an apt background to these demographic trends. Based on the latest available data, Israel kept its 23rd place out of 177 in the global ranking of countries by HDI, but it recorded the fastest improvement versus each of the countries with major Jewish population. Israel was ninth best in terms of health, 23rd in income per capita (but only 62nd in income distribution equality), 29th in educational enrollment, and 34th in public corruption (a worsening of six places compared to previous ranking)... "In Israel a comparatively young age composition and a persisting preference for nuclear families with children stand behind an annual natural population increase of about 70,000. The highest number of Jewish births ever recorded in this country (104,000 in 2005) strengthened the claim that Israel has become the largest Jewish community worldwide, with 5,393,000." Jewish births increased to 112,455 last year, and despite popular perception, this is not due solely to haredi birthrates; so-called secular Israeli Jews also marry younger and have more children than do their Diaspora counterparts. Obviously not all the news in that JPPPI survey is good, as is evident by the statistics on income-gap and corruption. But the overall point is worth noting: The HDI for Israeli Jews is getting better faster than it is for those in major Jewish population centers elsewhere - a list that includes the United States, France and the United Kingdom. (That the same can't be said of Israel's non-Jewish minority populations remains a severe problem that needs to be addressed.) HOW TO SQUARE those figures with yet another of 2007's significant statistics - the drop in aliya to a 20-year low of 18,129, lower than the estimated number of Israelis who at least temporarily left to live abroad last year? Two reasons, one obvious, the other less so. The age of major new waves of "aliya by necessity" is over, unless conditions change dramatically for the worse in such nations as Russia, Ukraine or Argentina. Israel has truly fulfilled its task as a refuge for distressed Jewish communities, so much so it is now dealing with the consequences of that success. As for "aliya by choice," with all the progress cited above, Israel still has a way to go before it reaches the level of living standards and economic opportunity available in North America and Europe, as well as being able to give its citizens the same measure of national security. And even if it did, one can argue whether it is realistic to expect significant numbers of Jews to ever leave their homes in New York, London and Paris to migrate to this part of the world, unless it is truly important enough for them to live fully Jewish lives secure in the knowledge that their grandchildren will also likely remain Jewish. Israel was not created to negate the Diaspora by attracting to it each and every individual Jew, but to ensure that if Jewish communities were threatened from without or assimilated to the point of extinction from within, the Jewish people would still have a place to survive and thrive - or at least have a sporting chance to do so. That is clearly the dream that has come true. Israel at 60 still hasn't resolved its central questions - where to draw its borders, and how to specifically define itself as a Jewish state. But it has unquestionably provided a sovereign setting where the Jewish people can grow in some measure of comfort and security. It has no shortage of formidable enemies who dream of its destruction, but it also has no lack of resources and will to defend itself. It may be afflicted by social and political ills, but it has most of the same mechanisms in place as other democratic nations to correct those problems. Israel was never promised to be a rose garden, but its founders would surely be surprised by the speed of its economic development the last few years, even under far less than ideal conditions. Indeed, during 2007 another phenomenon developed that points out the remarkable progress this country has made in recent decades. For the first time, the government realized the need to build a secure barrier along the country's border with Egypt. This was to keep out not only hostile intruders, but even more so the growing wave of African refugees who are trying to stream into this country in search of a better life. It turns out that today's Israel is not only a dream for the Jewish people; the economic opportunities and personal liberties it provides for its citizens make it a dream for a growing number of non-Jews, too, such as the thousands of children of foreign workers who in 2007 were also granted the right to become citizens. That's a problem Israel's Zionist founders surely never anticipated - nor the fact that even as we talk of how to attract more aliya, this society must deal with increasing environmental problems caused in part by the challenge of sustaining a total population of more than seven million in a land of limited space and resources. These are issues posed by the fact that just as in many ways this nation has fallen short of its ideals, it has also exceeded expectations. Enough to make it a dream come true? On this Independence Day, it is pointless to deny that "sour taste" of curdled hopes that Oz notes are still with us, and will likely always be so. This is not only the nature of dreams, but the reality we all live with here on a day-to-day basis. What is needed to appreciate what we do have is a broader perspective, perhaps of the sort provided by a quote from James Joyce's Ulysses, in which the character of Stephen Daedalus memorably declares: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." That surely was the condition of the Jewish people in the first half of the 20th century. Six decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, life may indeed be far from a fantasy for most of us here. Yet the reality is so much further still from the nightmare of history in which the Jews once found themselves, that it can rightly be said that we live here today, on Israel's 60th anniversary, in the stuff that dreams are made of.