Independence Day: Israel's greatest dangers are internal - opinion

Though I have written and spoken extensively about my vision for Israel’s 100th anniversary, I sometimes wonder whether we’ll reach that exalted goal.

 A VIEW of the lights of Tel Aviv at night, with the Azrieli Towers in the foreground. (photo credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)
A VIEW of the lights of Tel Aviv at night, with the Azrieli Towers in the foreground.
(photo credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)

I can’t forget that rainy night when I stepped off the El Al plane with all that I owned in a backpack and looked out at the lights of Tel Aviv – all three of them. This was the 1970s and Israel was a poor, largely agrarian country. Our major exports were phosphates and oranges. There was no hi-tech to speak of, little central heating or appetizing food (even the falafel was bad), and very few foreign friends.

China and India – half of humanity – were hostile countries, as were the Soviet Union and its six satellite states. Relations with South America were, at best, chilly, and with sub-Saharan Africa virtually nonexistent. We had warm ties with the United States but not a strategic alliance; president Gerald Ford had recently threatened to cut off aid to Israel unless it ceded territory for peace.

Israel’s population at the time numbered just over three million, but an equal number of Jews were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, denied the right to make aliyah or even to study Hebrew. Many languished in Siberian labor camps merely because of their beliefs. The Jews of Ethiopia, meanwhile, appeared cut off from Israel indefinitely. 

Isolated, still reeling from the trauma of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israelis struggled. Peace was nowhere in sight, not with Egypt, Jordan, and certainly not with Morocco, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates. Not even 30 years old at the time, the State of Israel already appeared sclerotic, paralyzed, and all but passé.

Yet, for all the hardships, Israelis were basically, indomitably, optimistic. Through the darkness, they could always point out the lights: first, Maccabi Tel Aviv winning the European Cup championship in 1977, then a victory for Israel’s entry in Eurovision. Most upliftingly, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat landed at Lod Airport (as it was called then), holding out a hope for peace with the largest and most powerful neighbor, and the possibility of ending the Palestinian rockets that struck the Galilee from Lebanon weekly. “Yeyeh beseder,” all will be well, was our national anthem. “Yeyeh tov,” all will be good, went the popular David Broza song.

 A VIEW of the lights of Tel Aviv at night, with the Azrieli Towers in the foreground. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) A VIEW of the lights of Tel Aviv at night, with the Azrieli Towers in the foreground. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It was that spirit that attracted me to Israel. Though raised in an assimilated family, growing up as the only Jew in a working-class neighborhood not especially partial to Jews, taught me to value – and fight for – my identity. So, too, did my father’s World War II experiences battling the Nazis. The 1967 Six Day War, erupting a year before my bar mitzvah, showed me that we Jews would always have to defend ourselves, by ourselves, and were capable of biblical-caliber triumphs. 

But what inspired me most was not a homeland far from the antisemitism I’d experienced as a child, or even the IDF’s extraordinary prowess. Rather, it was my appreciation of Israel’s short, yet dazzling, history.

Here was a country founded almost three years to the date after the end of the Holocaust; a country that arose without allies or natural resources, with scarcely a common culture or even language to unite its largely immigrant population, a country surrounded by enemies who daily proclaimed their determination to destroy it. 

That same country, improbably, revived the Hebrew language, elevated Jewish learning, created world-class universities and a universal healthcare system, fielded a combat-proven citizens’ army, and, along with the US, Canada and Australia, became one of a handful of nations never to have known a moment of non-democratic governance. 

And here was a country that had ingathered Jewish refugees from 70 lands and was assiduously forging them into a nation. That was a country in which I longed to live, to take part in the most thrilling chapter in the last 2,000 years of Jewish history.

NEARLY HALF a century has passed since I exited the plane with my backpack. Over the decades, I have witnessed what any objective observer would deem miraculous. There was the exodus of nearly a million Jews from the former Soviet Bloc, and tens of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia. There was the transformation of Israel from an agricultural backwater to a global tech power, with a per capita GDP that has surpassed that of Britain, France and Germany. 

I’ve seen strong relations established with India, China, and the countries of Eastern Europe, Africa and South America. Israel and America today enjoy a deep and multifaceted strategic alliance that includes intelligence sharing, systems development, and joint maneuvers. I have seen peace achieved with Egypt, Jordan and the Arab signatories to the Abraham Accords. 

Over the course of the last 50 years, Israel has emerged as the world’s largest Jewish community. It is home to cutting-edge music and arts, to internationally famous television series, and 33 Michelin-star restaurants in Tel Aviv alone. Thanks to pioneering processes of desalination and reclamation, water, once dangerously scarce, now flows freely and refreshingly from our faucets. And of all the peoples on Earth, Israelis are among the healthiest and happiest.

I have seen it all, but I have also seen wars, countless terrorist attacks, economic crises, and political upheaval. I have seen deep and bitter divisions between those living in the center of the country and those on the periphery, between Jews from Western and Eastern backgrounds, rich and poor, religious and secular Jews, and, of course, Jews and Arabs. The Palestinian issue and its attendant controversies – settlements, Israel’s defensive policies, the status of Jerusalem – often obscure Israel’s myriad achievements. 

Though never less isolated diplomatically, Israel remains the only country whose legitimacy is routinely denied, especially on American campuses. I’ve seen Israel become a political football in the US Congress and, most painfully, a source of discomfort for many American Jews. The hatred of Jews I encountered growing up has morphed into hatred of the Jewish state.

Israel's greatest threats come from within

TODAY, ON the eve of Israel’s 75th birthday, the country confronts what is arguably its direst threats yet, and they are overwhelmingly internal. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are taking to the streets to demonstrate against a government committed to gutting the Supreme Court of most of its oversight powers and to enhancing the ability of ultra-Orthodox schools to deprive their students of even the most basic modern education. 

Growing numbers of demonstrators are refusing to report for reserve duty and even planning to leave the country. Government leaders, in turn, brand them as anarchists, traitors and worse. Radical right-wing ministers, meanwhile, are contributing to the escalation of violence in Judea and Samaria and poisoning our relations with the US. The specter of internecine violence looms. And while Israelis clash with one another, Iran’s ayatollahs race toward making nuclear bombs capable of wiping us off the map.

The situation casts doubt over Israel’s future. Though I have written and spoken extensively about my vision for Israel’s 100th anniversary, I sometimes wonder whether we’ll reach that exalted goal. It is at precisely those times, though, that I recall what brought me to Israel in the first place: our almost superhuman aptitude for overcoming adversity, for accomplishing the impossible. I remember the many dark times our country has faced and how Israelis have always found and clung to the lights.

I, too, can now see those lights when I look out from my balcony at night. In place of the three I saw while exiting that plane as a new immigrant, there are now many thousands, and far brighter. They blink and shimmer back at me, reminding me of the faith that created this country and has sustained us for 75 years. Those lights can shine for all of us still, I believe, guiding us through the current gloom to an even more luminous centennial. ■

The writer, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a Knesset member and deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the author of Israel 2048 – The Rejuvenated State (Koren, 2023).