Israel at 75: A fifty-year retrospective - opinion

We will only be able to solve our major problems if we work together as one united people.

 FLAG-ADORNED spectators watch the air show in the skies of Jerusalem on Independence Day. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
FLAG-ADORNED spectators watch the air show in the skies of Jerusalem on Independence Day.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The State of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948; I moved to Israel in September 1972. Having lived in Israel for two-thirds of its existence, I decided to write a retrospective essay about my 50 years in Israel.

The Miracle of 1948

Rabbi Elazar said (Niddah 31a): “Even a person involved in a miracle does not recognize his miracle”.

The rebirth of the State of Israel is a miracle. It defies all logic. A people that had just lost one-third of its members declares a state after an exile lasting 1,878 years. The US, Russia and the UN approve that state. And after the State was declared, 650,000 Jews with insufficient weapons and few allies withstood the onslaught of seven Arab countries.

The Jews who witnessed the founding of the State understood that it was a miracle.

On May 14, 1948, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote in his diary: “It is simply impossible for me to describe how I feel at this moment. Again and again: Barukh sheheheyanu v’kiyemanu lazman hazeh”.

 FIRST PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948 (credit: GPO) FIRST PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948 (credit: GPO)

Exactly three years later, my father Rabbi Noah Golinkin explained to his nephew Meyer Goldstein why he had purchased the first Israel Bond in his honor:

“Sweet Yisrael Meirke! Tomorrow is your birthday… Tomorrow, you will receive in the mail a Bond from our long-dreamt-of State of Israel. Today is the first day when Bonds of the Jewish State will go on sale throughout the world, and you will be one of the first to receive a holy Bond from the Holy Land, which will connect your young life with the great, fulfilled dream of tens of Jewish generations.”

Rabbis Mordecai Kaplan and Noah Golinkin understood that the State of Israel was a miracle. Do we? 

Where have we succeeded?

I believe that there are eight areas where the State of Israel has succeeded.

The Ingathering of the Exiles – Mizug Galuyot: From 1948 to 1951, Israel’s Jewish population more than doubled, from 650,000 to 1,338,000. Between 1948 and 2022, Israel absorbed approximately 3,400,000 new immigrants. This feat is unparalleled in human history.

The revival of Hebrew as a spoken language: When Eliezer and Devorah ben Yehuda began to speak Hebrew to their son Itamar in 1882, he was probably the only native Hebrew speaker in the world. Today there are some 9,656,000 Hebrew speakers in Israel (including Israeli Arabs). This revival of a “dead” language is also without precedent.

The IDF: The last time the Jewish people had an army was during the  Bar-Kochba Revolt. Since the State was founded, the IDF has become one of the best armies in the world, defending Israel against Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Jewish Time and Space: In Israel, Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national holidays. Government buildings have a hanukkiah on top, and on the day before Passover or Lag Ba’omer, you smell the hametz burning and watch the bonfires glowing. Cheese sales increase by 230% before Shavuot; Israelis consume 250 grams of honey per person during Tishrei; and radio ads before Passover are set to the tune of “Ehad Mee Yodeah.”

Reforestation: Since the JNF was founded in 1901, it has planted over 250,000,000 trees. Israel is the only country in the world that ended the 20th century with more trees than in 1900. In 1948, roughly 2% of Israel was covered in trees; now up to around 8.5%. This too is without precedent.

Water: Some 60% of Israel is desert. Furthermore, the population of Israel has grown twelve-fold since 1948. In 2009, the Kinneret was in danger of drying up. Israel dealt with this crisis in three ways: it has built over 240 reservoirs and dams; close to 95% of wastewater is now recycled for agriculture; and Israel has built five major desalination plants, with two more on the way. As a result, Israel now produces 20% more water than it needs.

Start-Up Nation: As documented by Senor and Singer in 2009, 63 Israeli companies were listed on Nasdaq, more than those of any other foreign country. But it’s not just the number of start-ups. It’s the inventions themselves which have improved the lives of billions: Waze, Mobileye, USB drives, Watergen which produces clean drinking water from the air, ReWalk which enables paraplegics to walk again, and PillCam, a medical camera which can be swallowed.

Happiness: In 2023, Israel was ranked number four in the World Happiness Index, alongside Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Israel, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. Indeed, every year Israel is among the top 15, despite being at war since 1948. How so? Some of it stems from the list above. Or perhaps it’s our emphasis on family and children and the feeling that “all Jews are responsible for one another”.

Where have we yet to succeed?

Yet, there are seven important areas where the State of Israel has not yet succeeded.

The Palestinians: Much of the world blames Israel for the fact that Palestinians are still living in refugee camps instead of in their own State. These claims are not borne out by the facts.

Abba Eban famously said in December 1973: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. This is true. In 1947, Israel accepted the UN partition plan while the Arab League rejected it. After the Six Day War, many Israelis wanted to return territories for the sake of peace. The Arab League responded with the “Three Nos”: “No peace with Israel, no negotiation with Israel, no recognition of Israel”.

In 1993, Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords, yet by 2000, almost 300 Israelis had been killed in horrific terrorist attacks.

In July 2000, former prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat 92% of the territories; Arafat refused and then started the Second Intifada which lasted for five years and claimed the lives of some 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians.

In August 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza; the Palestinians immediately burned down all of the synagogues and greenhouses of Gush Katif. Since 2001, Hamas and others have shot more than 20,000 missiles at Israel, forcing Israel to wage 11 military campaigns against Gaza.

Some claim that the Palestinian leaders are the problem; their people really want peace. This too is not correct. An in-depth analysis of 330 surveys conducted by four major Palestinian research institutes revealed that from 1993-2000, 42% of Palestinians favored armed attacks against Israeli civilians. From 2000-2015, a solid majority supported such attacks and, on occasion, specific suicide attacks on civilians were approved by 74-84% of Palestinians.

Many believe that every problem has a solution. Yet we know from the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that you cannot impose democracy on societies which have never had a democracy. I do not know the solution, but the overwhelming majority of Israelis believe that if Israel withdraws from more territories it will endanger the very existence of the State without leading to any solution.

The haredi dilemma: When Israel was founded, Ben-Gurion gave some 400 haredi yeshiva students an exemption from army service. Since 1977, under the Likud, the number has grown to over 60,000. The result is that Israel itself created a situation where some 13% of the population do not study the required core subjects in school, do not serve in the IDF, and do not start working, if at all, before the age of 30. This behavior is diametrically opposed to Jewish law and is not sustainable.

The Religious Zionists: Until the early 2000s, the Mafdal party consisted of modern Orthodox Jews who combined work, IDF service and Torah study and did their utmost to co-exist with secular and traditional Jews. Sadly, the Religious Zionist parties today are almost the diametric opposite of classical religious Zionism. Their leaders dislike Arabs, Conservative and Reform Jews, and gay people; they want Israel to be governed by Halacha; and they want Israel to annex the entire West Bank.

Jewish Education: Despite the beauty of Jewish time and space in Israel, Jewish education is one of Israel’s greatest failures. Most Jews who attend the secular public schools in Israel have never studied Mishna, Talmud or the Siddur, and their knowledge of Judaism is extremely superficial. This problem, however, has a simple solution: make sure that every Israeli receives a Jewish education. Indeed, that is the goal of the Schechter Institutes, which now teach over 125,000 Israeli children and adults every year.

Religious Pluralism: The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is a coercive bureaucracy without a constituency, primarily controlled by haredi rabbis. They make life difficult for those who wish to make aliyah, convert, get married or receive kashrut supervision. As a result, approximately 25% of young couples now get married abroad. This problem too has a solution – religious pluralism. Either the State should fund no rabbis or it should fund all rabbis.

Judicial Reform: I have written elsewhere about the need to maintain checks and balances between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. Our current crisis stems, to a large extent, from the fact that Israel has no constitution. It’s not possible to write one at this time, but I hope and pray that President Isaac Herzog’s mediation efforts will bear fruit and lead to a true compromise.

Jewish Unity: Midrash Tanhuma states that “the Jewish People will only be redeemed if they become one bundle...”. The secret of redemption is for us to stop fighting with each other, and start working with each other.

Of all the unfinished problems of the State of Israel, the last is the most crucial. We will only be able to solve our major problems if we work together as one united people.

The writer, a rabbi and professor, is president of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.