By Barry Rubin
I’m sitting in Israel’s Independence Hall, a 10-minute walk from my home, a small, relatively bare room that was Tel Aviv’s first city hall. Sixty years ago today, it was the place where Israel was declared a country. It was given that honor back on May 14, 1948, because of its thick walls and small windows. As has been the situation so many days since, there was a war on. Within hours of the ceremony, the Egyptians bombed Tel Aviv, hitting a nursing home for senior citizens not far away. About six months earlier, in November, the UN had voted to partition Britain’s Palestine mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, the plan to be implemented on May 15, 1948. The Jews had accepted; the Arabs rejected. Almost immediately after the UN voted, irregular Arab forces launched offensives seeking total victory. The British often tipped them off, as archival documents show, so they could seize local strong points, army bases, and police stations. Instead, they were defeated and lost more than they could have obtained through negotiations, another pattern often repeated since. On midnight on May 14, surrounding Arab state armies crossed the border. The secretary-general of the Arab League, the most important representative of the Arab world, Abd al-Rahman Azzam said, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the [Genghis Khan] massacres and the Crusades.” And most of the world thought that they would win, and had little doubt who would be massacring who. The response of David Ben-Gurion, about to become Israel’s first prime minister was rather different. The Declaration of Independence he read included the following lines, “We extend the hand of peace and good neighborliness to all the states around us and to their peoples….” It was understandable, though, that most experts thought that relatively untrained Jews, not known for being fighters, would have no chance against professional Arab armies. Already, Jerusalem was under siege, with no food or water allowed to get through, a sharp contrast to the present situation where the world expects Israel to provide fuel, electricity, and other supplies to a Gaza regime openly sworn to exterminate its people. The Western world, most notably Britain, declared an arms’ embargo. The Arab armies had already been supplied for years with equipment; the “even-handed” action hurt Israel’s chances further. And the Jordanian army soon to join the siege of Jerusalem and eventually to capture the city’s eastern part was led by British officers seconded from that country’s army. But despite the high odds, Israel basically won the war and established its independence. The cost was also high. One percent of its population died in 1948, the equivalent for the United States today would be more than 3,000,000 people. Fast forward sixty years. Despite facing terrorism every year, being involved in wars for too much of its history, weathering slander and economic boycotts, Israel has made spectacular progress. High politics, boundaries, and conflicts are the stuff of the news but daily reality relates to people and actual lives. As part of the sixtieth anniversary celebration, Israelis are choosing their national bird but they have long since picked the national sport: self-criticism. The great Israeli humorist Ephraim Kishon described his own arrival in the country shortly after independence by joking that as the ship approached the coast it became very hot and we began criticizing the government over the weather. Daily Israel, every conceivable failing (real or imagined) is relentlessly dissected. The negative is usually highlighted, though afterward people feel optimistic at having been able to vent their pessimism. One day walking down the street I ran into a friend. “How’s everything?” he asked. “Great,” I answered. “How can you say that!” he exclaimed. “Don’t you read the newspapers?” This characteristic has a positive effect, by inspiring a ceaseless effort to make things better. In dictatorships and places ruled by extremist ideologies, the stifling of this process has been one of the main reasons for their failings. I know our society could have been, and could be today, far better. Don’t get me started on the teacher’s strike or the low calibre of politicians. The president and prime minister have rightly both faced charges of malfeasance. One cannot help but think that if so much effort didn’t have to go into self-defence, the country would be within shouting distance of utopia. Still, when annual quality of life polls are taken, the positive scores from Israelis are into the 90th percentile. Moreover, although Israel faces very real threats, its security situation is better than the great majority of those sixty years. While there is full, formal peace with only Egypt and Jordan, most Arab states–except for Syria–have in practice made the material, as opposed to verbal, pursuit of the conflict, a low priority. Again, though, these issues are by no means the full story. When I think of Israel it is no abstraction but the people of my neighbourhood, an air force officer and a chef, a museum official and a pianist, a real estate agent and an editor, an artist and a plumber. Some are religious and others secular. They don’t spend all that much time debating the peace process or obsessing what the foreign media says about them as they go about their daily lives. Israel is both a continuation of 4000 years of Jewish history and a distinctive development from 120 years of Zionism, plus 60 years of statehood. It has taken in influences from all over the world, including the most modern, usually giving them a twist of its own. It is simultaneously Mediterranean and Eastern European and Middle Eastern and more in a mixture all of its own that has become a cohesive national ethos. Sometimes these things are unique syntheses, as when the children of Holocaust survivors–one from Greece, the other from Poland –come together to make a remarkable rock album on the Holocaust. At other times, they seem mere copies of Western fads. Yet if you view the Israeli versions of shows about surviving in wilderness, rival chefs, or competing singers, each have been coloured by Israeliness. And that also applies, albeit in a very distinctive way, to the 20 percent Arab minority. It’s true that the old comradeship of decades ago has declined, as have the institutions created to build the state. As in other countries, privatization has replaced statism. I can remember when a telephone installation took a month. Now it takes a day. Television stations have gone from a single choice to dozens. The national airport has been upgraded from a place barely fit for a small provincial town to a large, thoroughly modern one. This tiny state of now seven million people is a world leader in science, medicine, and hi-tech among other things, yet still has some of the globe’s best-tasting fruit and vegetables as well as internationally exported flowers. And nothing more symbolizes Israeli daily life than the driver behind you setting off his horn to beat the speed of light from the changing traffic signal. Yet civility, too, is creeping in gradually. With all of its problems–at times because of its problems–it is a great place to live. Oh yes we are human beings, a fact that often seems forgotten in the hate-filled propaganda that pervades too many institutions, the slanderous misrepresentation of latest fact and longer-term history which is heard far too much. A friend told me today that he was seriously informed on an international television broadcast that former prime minister Ariel Sharon drank a glass of Palestinian blood every day. As the twentieth century began, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Jewish nationalism, recorded an amazing fact. Despite advances in technology, transportation, and communication, one thing remained as it was when the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantium, Columbus set sail, and oxcarts were the main means of travel. That one thing was antisemitism. Indeed, Herzl mournfully pointed out, “After a short breathing space…bad times have come again…not only in the backward countries…but also in those that are called civilized.” It’s often explained that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism as such but increasingly the extreme, crazed attacks precisely duplicate that hateful standpoint. More important is this: historic antisemitism’s claims and assumptions have simply been adapted to Israel; the word “Zionism” simply substituted for “Judaism” and “Israel” for “Jews.” We are the only people in the world continually called on to apologize because we survived, even after 85 percent of European Jews were murdered and about 90 percent of Middle Eastern Jews were expelled or had to flee the countries where they were born. In contrast to the false accusations, we will be delighted to agree, cooperate, and celebrate the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state willing to live in peace alongside Israel. Unfortunately, that prospect seems distant. Equally unfortunately, that movement’s Islamist and much of its nationalist leadership prefers to continue the conflict–and intensify their own, and our, people’s suffering–rather than accept anything less than Israel, in the words of Iran’s president, being wiped off the map. A thousand years ago, Chasdai Ibn Shaprut wrote from Spain: “Dishonoured and humiliated by our dispersion, we have to listen in silence to those who say: `every nation has its own land and you alone possess not even the shadow of a country on this earth.'” But if there really was a place, Shaprut said, “where harassed Israel can rule itself, where it is subject to nobody…I would not hesitate to forsake all honours, resign my high office…and travel over mountains and plains, over land and water,” to reach it. Well, now it exists and will keep on doing so, very probably long after seemingly more established states or at least societies vanish in its neighborhood or elsewhere. Nahum Lenkin, one of my few relatives who escaped with his life from wartime Poland, wrote how his parents there often “went without food” to pay for the town’s Zionist school where he and others could be prepared “to one day go as pioneers to Eretz Israel.” Virtually all that town’s survivors, and their children, live in Israel. In fact, some of us had a barbecue today to celebrate 60 years of national existence.
The nascent Jewish people had just crossed the Reed Sea. They had just seen the Hand of God split the sea and deliver ten plagues against the Egyptians. And the first thing they did was complain, they hated the food, there was not enough water, on and on. No wonder the Torah keeps talking about us as a stiff-necked people. That was almost 3,500 hundred years ago and we never stopped complaining. Its kind of the national pastime of the Jewish people (along with worrying and guilt). Israelis have turned this pastime into an art. If you listed no many Israelis, the country is going to hell in a hand but the fact is when annual quality of life polls are taken, the positive scores from Israelis are into the 90th percentile. You see, for all of its faults, Life in Israel is pretty amazing: