Winston Churchill famously used this form of left-handed praise in describing democracy as a system of governance. It also seems like an apt way to approach and extol Israel’s virtues because it implicitly recognizes the existence of the widespread problems, challenges and dysfunctions here.
And yet, in the real world of rampant imperfection, we are inevitably grading on a curve. And it is in that relative realm, in surveying the realistic assessment of what Israel is, stands for and provides, that Churchill’s mode of evaluation and appreciation seems very pertinent.
As grateful as I am for our decision to make aliyah, I am not writing to extol the sweetness of living here. I am writing because I am convinced that Israel has figured some critical matters out that have enabled it to avoid some of the worst pitfalls now besetting the West. In doing so, Israel has not only helped itself, but also offers a roadmap and a model for other nations, should they be so inclined, to restore and reclaim the footing that many of them have forfeited.
To put it simply, in some profound way, Israel, to its great credit, has stopped the Western clock that was ticking during the 1950’s. We continue to embody the key values that drove an optimistic post-WWII West, particularly in the United States.
What were those values and traits?
Patriotism borne out of an appreciation of one’s country as a just, humane and worthwhile endeavor; a belief in God and a God-centered universe; and a rock-solid belief in the importance of family, not only the nuclear family, but also the extended one. Above all, and perhaps the product of these values, there was hope, optimism and a belief that the future would be somehow even better than the present.
Perhaps the animating impetus for perpetuating these values in Israel is the continuing awareness of how unusual and unique this place is. The only Jewish state in the world and the only nation to be reborn in a form not unrecognizable from its antecedents after a hiatus of some 1,900 years. A place whose founding cannot be explained logically or rationally, which leaves room for a sense that Divine intervention might have played a role in our creation. The only nation on earth that has been surrounded by adversaries since its inception, yet has managed to persevere, thrive and now, in some cases, even turn that adversity into co-existence.
TO THE extent that we continue to be aware of this reality, it is a logical deduction that we need to continue to maintain our security; but we do not let that need diminish our humanity, nor the desire to bury swords into ploughshares. And the idea of a role played by the Divine means that our millennia-long covenant and connection with the Divine must be alive, well and certainly worth nurturing.
By the way, who was that covenant with? A people, and a people is formed of families. The continuity of a people depends very heavily on the continuity and integrity of the families that constitute it.
One might say, why haven’t we followed in the paths of other Western nations, who also might have had similar beliefs, which they have either sidelined, diminished or outright discarded? The Pilgrims saw themselves as the new Israelites, endowed with a mission, de Tocqueville saw an engaged and thoroughly self-assured society of ordinary people taking responsibility for their often fraught and tenuous lives.
In the 1950’s, we had American exceptionalism. In the rear-view mirror of a damning retrospection, exceptionalism is now regarded as arrogance and superiority. Other than the far-Left and professional anti-Zionists, very few people in Israel will accuse the country of arrogance and superiority.
Which perhaps leads to an understanding of why we are (thankfully) the odd man out in the West. And that is because there is still, with all our achievements, with all our successes and developments, the underlying fear that its all quite tenuous. It can end, as it has in Jewish history before. There is no guarantee of continuity and no assurance of permanence as a state.
The Ever-Dying People has become perhaps the Ever-Endangered Nation.
No one in Denmark is worried that their country does not have the right to exist. No one in Sweden feels that they have to explain that their long-time persecution of their Norwegian neighbors somehow calls into question their bona fides as a nation.
WHAT HAPPENED to the West was too much success. Success that took the what-ifs out of life, that eliminated the possibility of things not working out.
What generations of increasingly affluent Western parents have done to their children is shield them from life’s vicissitudes, making sure that they live in a world of safe spaces, free of microaggressions and of course, always getting a trophy.
A young adult here who knows that he or she is going to be required to serve the country, most likely in an army that still focuses on the likelihood of combat, is not raised nor is thinking that way.
The question is whether this existential uncertainty is a blessing or a curse. I would argue, given what I see here and abroad, that this anxiety, which has become part of the DNA of the Jewish people, has the effect of keeping us in the moment, of not taking things for granted and enabling a healthy appreciation of not only what we have, but also what might otherwise be.
The two prooftexts for my belief are the following: Israel regularly ranks as one of the happiest nations on earth, and that ranking does not even include the ultimate proof text of my conviction: we have by far the highest birth rate among western nations.
The birth rate says it all: we like it enough here to feel that bringing children into the world is a gift – to the people, to their families, and most of all to the newborns themselves. Yes, the new ones will have to be vigilant, but they will grow up in a place that they will be proud of, that will be proud of them, and that will see them as links in a covenantal chain of an amazing, and yes, an eternal People.
All of this points to a conclusion that yes, we have manifest problems, oodles of nuttiness and a conga line of issues. But at the end of the day, we also have something unique, yet replicable: a basic belief that life here is somehow precious and oh so worthwhile. And that sure isn’t so bad, let alone the worst.
The writer is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of B’yadenu and the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at [email protected]