What a place

On Israel’s 68th birthday, an unabashed tribute.

Israelis enjoy an Independence Day barbecue in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher last year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israelis enjoy an Independence Day barbecue in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher last year
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In the mid-1980s, the Paris magazine I was editing published an article titled “50 Reasons to Love the French.” The writer, originally from Philadelphia, had lived in France for 30 years. His piece was a response to the dubious standing of the French in the eyes of many people that continues to this day.
This week, in the spirit of fairness, as it celebrates the 68th anniversary of its hard-fought independence, it’s worth celebrating the unlikely success story of this embattled little country, amid all its imperfections.
Show me another country on the planet that, within such a relatively short time and against such daunting odds, has achieved what Israel has since its inception in 1948. So, in honor of its 68th birthday, here are 68 reasons to respect, if not love, the world’s one and only Jewish country.
1. Israel’s Save A Child’s Heart organization performs life-saving heart operations for children from around the globe (including many Palestinians) free of charge.
2. With its freedom of worship, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the number of Christians is increasing.
3. Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees today than it had 50 years ago.
4. Israeli banknotes have braille on them for the sight-impaired.
5. Israel has more museums per capita than any other country, including the world’s only underwater museum.
6. Israel has its own day-long festival of love, called Tu Be’av 7. Relative to its population, Israel has absorbed more immigrants than any other country, with newcomers from over 100 countries.
8. Voice-mail technology was developed in Israel.
9. The IDF is a leader in saving people trapped by natural and man-made disasters.
On short notice, its search and rescue unit has operated in many countries (including Mexico, Kenya, India, Turkey and the US) following earthquakes, train wrecks, collapsed buildings and terrorist attacks.
10. Israel is home to the world’s only theater company comprised entirely of deaf and blind actors.
11. Life expectancy in Israel is among the highest in the world at 82 years.
12. Coffee and cafés are so good in Israel that it’s the only country where Starbucks failed to break into the local market.
13. On a per capita basis, Israel tops the list of countries when it comes to the annual production of scientific papers.
14. The long-running TV show Eretz Nehederet (“It’s a Wonderful Country”) features Israeli humor and satire at its best, with a no-holds barred view of current affairs and public figures. Skewering sacred cows, it’s hugely popular.
15. Israel has won more Nobel Prizes than all other Middle East countries combined.
16. Israel regularly offers free medical care to Syrians wounded in the Syrian civil war.
At physical risk to its own personnel, the IDF has rescued over 2,000 people (including many fighters who are sworn enemies of Israel) on its northeastern border and transferred them to Israeli hospitals.
17. Israel is the only country that revived an ancient, unspoken language, Hebrew, to be its national tongue.
18. One of the holiest sites and international centers of the Baha’i faith is located in Haifa in northern Israel.
19. In a region where homosexuals are persecuted, Israel is the only country where gays live freely with full civil rights and without fear.
20. In Israeli hospitals, Jewish and Arab doctors work together, treating patients of all faiths who share the same rooms.
21. Over 90 percent of Israeli homes use solar power to heat their water.
22. On Yom Kippur, almost the entire country shuts down for 24 hours. All stores, cafés, restaurants and other places of entertainment close. Traffic is halted, and children take over the streets on their bicycles.
23. The Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind assists all citizens, regardless of race or creed, with 24/7 canine accompaniment, at no cost, to help the sight-impaired gain independence, mobility and self-worth.
24. First launched in Israel in 2011, busstop mini-libraries, offering books free of charge, have inspired similar initiatives in other countries.
25. Israel has the highest proportion of water used for irrigation that comes from recycled wastewater.
26. Two professors at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University created the first cherry tomatoes.
27. UNESCO declared Tel Aviv a heritage site for its 4,000 surviving Bauhaus buildings, erected in the 1930s and ‘40s.
28. Beersheba has the largest number of chess grandmasters per capita of any city in the world.
29. In 2012, Israel became the first country to prohibit the use of underweight models in fashion shows.
30. Security measures (many of them unseen) at Ben Gurion Airport are the best in the world.
31. Such is the strength of family values in Israel that Friday night dinners with extended family are near-sacred and a welcome weekly fixture.
32. An Israeli start-up invented a nontouch, radiation-free device, Babysense, that prevents crib death by monitoring a baby’s breathing and movement during sleep.
33. Israel’s unofficial national sport is a popular paddle ball beach game called matkot. It’s played by men and women of all ages and fitness levels. There are no winners or losers, just two people trying to sustain a rally.
34. Israel has the world’s highest per capita rate of university degrees.
35. Bob Dylan’s official 2013 video for his iconic 1965 song “Like A Rolling Stone” was hailed as revolutionary. The interactive clip, which allows viewers to switch through 16 channels on a virtual TV, is the work of a Tel Aviv start-up called Interlude.
36. Israel developed the technology that allowed for the original cell phone.
37. The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is the world’s oldest continuously used cemetery.
38. There’s no capital punishment, even for terrorists who carry out premeditated mass murder of unarmed civilians.
39. Israel has more orchestras per capita than any other country.
40. Two Israelis at Tel Aviv University invented an “anti-date rape straw” which detects the two most common date rape drugs and alerts intended victims.
41. Israel’s most recent victory in the Eurovision song contest was by a transgender pop star.
42. Israel has taken great risks – often in covert, dangerous operations – to rescue Jews in distress around the world, such as in Yemen, Ethiopia and Iraq.
43. Despite a high cost of living, there are relatively few beggars and homeless individuals on Israeli streets.
44. Israel’s dairy cows are unrivaled in their annual production of milk.
45. An Israeli company developed the first ingestible video camera, that helps doctors diagnose cancer and digestive disorders.
46. Israel places such a high value on the lives of its citizens it goes to extraordinary lengths to win their freedom. It has engaged in wildly lopsided deals, exchanging up to 1,500 Palestinian security prisoners (many of them mass murderers) for a few soldiers and to retrieve the bodies of others.
47. Many popular US TV shows originated in Israel. Homeland, In Treatment and Rising Star, among others, were based on Israeli programs.
48. Salim Joubran, an Israeli-Arab judge, became a permanent member of the country’s Supreme Court in 2004. He was the first Arab to chair the Central Elections Committee.
49. Israel has more in-vitro fertilization per capita than any other country, and it’s free.
50. Numerous studies show Israel as one of the best countries in which to raise children.
51. Israelis are famous for being argumentative and yelling at each other in disputes but relatively few throw punches or threaten to sue.
52. There’s only one significant freshwater lake in Israel, known abroad as the Sea of Galilee and locally as Lake Kinneret. It’s the world’s lowest freshwater lake and provides most of the country’s drinking water.
53. Israeli engineers invented a new form of drip irrigation that minimizes the amount of water needed to grow crops.
54. Given its tiny size and small population, Israel sometimes feels like one big family. A collective spirit reigns, like in few other places.
55. A Jerusalem high-tech company specializing in artificial vision has invented a tiny camera to help drivers navigate more safely. The device, called Mobile Eye, is being built into most new cars around the world.
56. The Weizmann Institute has developed treatment that offers new hope for prostate cancer patients in 2016. Targeting tumors without damaging a man’s genitalia, urinary tract or quality of life, the treatment has so far proven effective.
57. You can’t escape the news in Israel.
Everyone talks about it and bus drivers play the radio for all to hear, including the hourly newscasts.
58. A device developed in Israel is providing people suffering from glaucoma with relief and an effective alternative to traditional surgery.
59. Every year, Israelis, wherever they are, stand for two minutes in silence in memory of Holocaust victims as sirens wail on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Likewise on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars Israelis stand for two minutes to honor the country’s fallen soldiers.
60. The popular mobile mapping program, Waze, was developed in Israel. Google purchased the GPS-based navigation app in 2013 for a reported $1.3 billion.
61. Israelis are incurably direct and informal, even with those they don’t know.
Usually with good intentions and a helpful spirit, they have a penchant for offering unsolicited advice on how you can do something better.
62. Sesame-seed paste is a staple of the Israeli diet. Known as tahina or tahini, the country produces it in two dozen flavors, and more than 50 flavors of the tahini-based treat called halva, selling it around the world.
63. It’s harder to be lonely in Israel as strangers strike up conversations with each other in public, and enjoy inviting people for holiday meals.
64. Passengers on Israel’s national airline El Al clap for the pilots when their flights touch down at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.
65. In a country where disaster can strike suddenly, spontaneity often trumps advance planning as part of a live-for-now approach.
66. In 2011, after years of being attacked with rockets from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, Israel unveiled the Iron Dome air defense system which intercepts and destroys short-range missiles and mortars.
67. Israelis show one of their best sides when it comes to lending a helping hand to friends, and strangers.
68. Despite the tough neighborhood they live in, Israelis rank among the happiest people among Western nations in numerous studies.
If all this doesn’t constitute a success story, I don’t know what does. Given the indomitable spirit, boundless ingenuity, resourcefulness and determination of Israel, there’s every reason to believe it will continue. The world should be thankful it does.
This column appeared originally in The Forward. The author is a former editor of The Jerusalem Post Magazine.