I saw an Israel
Independence day celebration for the first time in 1958, Israel's tenth anniversary. It was quite a bit different from the slick, choreographed production of today, where soldiers in dress uniform formed impressive patterns that spell out Israel or form a Jewish star or the symbol of the state, and choirs and electric instrument bands played Euro-pop vulgarized versions of Zionist pioneering songs.
The 1958 ceremony was held in the amphitheater at Givat Ram, then in the process of becoming the new campus of the Hebrew University. Soldiers in dusty uniforms stood at attention for hours, some fainting in the sun, waiting for government officials who were, characteristically, several hours late. David Ben Gurion
a Prime Minister in shirt sleeves, represented a government and a people whose attitude was symbolized by the reverse ethnic chic of his slightly beat up four year old Mercury "state car." His remarks may have been significant, but the public address system garbled them beyond recognition.
It was a military parade, displaying Israel's best and finest. The soldiers in their khaki "b" uniforms, those who hadn't fainted, had a determined look, but their drill left something to be desired. The military hardware on display consisted chiefly of refurbished third hand World War II Sherman tanks and French AMX-III anti-tank vehicles, which looked like baby tanks next to the "real" tanks. Only true believer Zionists could believe in the deterrent power of this army, despite the Sinai Campaign
victory of 1956. Only a few of us in the audience knew about the "textile plant" (the French-supplied nuclear reactor) that was already under construction in Dimona, a secret that we kept for many years.
In 1958, Israel had a total population of slightly over two million - less than two million Jews. Then as now, there were plenty of Arabs in the surrounding states, and then as now, most of them did not wish us well. Not a single Arab state had signed a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt had a huge army equipped with modern Soviet weapons. Egyptian President Nasser, the Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of those days, threatened Israel with destruction. Of the major powers, only the French were allies of Israel. The USSR was actively hostile, the British were aloof after the international imbroglio caused by the Sinai campaign, and the Americans continued the pro-Arab policies of the Eisenhower administration. Jerusalem was divided by barbed wire. Jews could not even visit the wailing wall. Diaspora Jews were largely indifferent to the existence of Israel. In the USSR, Jews were barely aware of it. In the United States, most Jews viewed Israel as a convenient repository for those of their brethren who were not fortunate enough or presentable enough to be worthy of American citizenship. Some new immigrants still lived in Maabarot slums, Israeli Arabs lived under a military administration. Israeli industry was virtually non-existent, and commerce consisted mostly of buying items for 4 cents and selling them for 2 cents at a one cent profit, the difference being made up by government subsidies. Just beneath the surface, the Lavon affair was eating away at the Israeli political establishment.
Nonetheless, almost nobody who witnessed that celebration would have expressed the slightest doubt about Israel's viability or Israeli determination. To be sure, there were always those who ridiculed the Zionist project from its inception, and they continued to express their doubts in 1958 and thereafter, as they had done before. An endless stream of Cassandra pronouncements has accompanied the Zionist movement and Israel from their inception: The Zionists could never get the Turks to relinquish Palestine, the Zionists could never get significant numbers of Jews to come to the country, the Jewish community in Palestine would be overwhelmed by the Arabs, the new state would be rent asunder by Ashkenazi-Sephardi divisions, Israel would be bankrupt by 1975... None of these prophecies ever came to pass, but that has never prevented so-called analysts from generating new ones.
Today, on the sixtieth anniversary of Israeli independence, there are, as usual, those who can "prove" that Israel's demise is imminent Arab demography, or low Jewish immigration and birth rates, the rise of radical Islam, Iran and its atomic bomb, corruption in the Israeli political establishment, the downfall of the IDF and indifference of Diaspora Jews can be, and are, cited as causes in the predicted inevitable downfall of Israel. The supposedly objective prediction of what will
happen is usually confounded and confused with the moral judgment of what ought
to happen. The reasons why Israel should not be supported can be adapted to changed circumstances. Fifty or sixty years ago it was argued that Israel should not be supported because it is too weak to survive - an "unviable client state." Now it seems that people like Jeffrey Goldberg, in the Atlantic, want people to infer that Israel should not be supported because it is too strong. It is moral to side with the underdog, you see... The dogs barked, but the caravan moved on. Every one of the negative prognostications proved false. Just because the doomsayers have always been wrong in the past, doesn't mean they won't be right in the future, though somehow it doesn't seem likely.
The doomsayer articles have produced a number of replies that explain why they are wrong, notably the worthy effort of Caroline Glick
, who is, for once, not insisting that the sky is falling. But words on paper will only convince those who want to be convinced. They will not change facts either way. The important articles to write about Israel at 60 are neither self-congratulatory encomiums that list our numerous achievements, nor refutations of the Greek chorus of anti-Zionists that has accompanied the Zionist drama from its inception. The important articles to write are those that soberly examine the challenges and examine what Israel has to be doing in the next decades to survive. In this connection, I recommend, for example, Amnon Rubenstein's How to survive in a sea of rejection
We should also be constantly on the lookout for changes and favorable opportunities. For our sixtieth anniversary, Israel has gotten several little gifts. The first is an astounding, if as yet isolated, reversal of European leftist antipathy to Israel
expressed by German Linkspartei leader Gregor Gysi, who maintains that support for Israel must be an integral part of German policy, and that acquiescence in radical Islam is incompatible with progressive ideology. If this is more than the view of one man, it could signal a return of the historic bond beyond progressive opinion and Zionism. We must do everything possible to reach out to the left, who are our natural allies against Islamist reaction.
A second gift, which went almost unheralded for some reason, is the rejection of divestment initiatives
by the United Methodist Church. Several such motions were rejected unanimously in Legislative Committee and defeated by General Conference delegates voting on a special consent calendar. In the heyday of Intifadah stimulated anti-Zionism, just a few years ago, such divestment decisions, often reversed subsequently, were routine. Perhaps it would be better if these petitions and motions never happened, but every such defeat signals once again that attacks on the legitimacy of Israel are rejected by the US political mainstream.
Another gift is the still unanimous support for Israel that is declared again and again by US Presidential candidates, despite differences in their approach to the Middle East
. Pro-Arab supporters of Barack Obama are beginning to complain that he "sold out" to the "Israel Lobby." Realistically, it doesn't seem likely that any major U.S. politician is going to turn their back on pro-US, democratic Israel, and favor reactionary and dictatorial anti-American Arab and Muslim regimes. That has less to do with the "Israel lobby" and the "Jewish vote" than with common sense and US interest.
None of these little gifts, nor the lavish praise that will be heaped on Israel by foreign dignitaries in honor of our sixtieth anniversary, should hide the real challenges and dangers ahead. But what matters is not what the destructive critics say, or the numbers of our enemies. There are plenty of threats and pitfalls. The important thing, as always, is to find the unexpected opportunities and innovative approaches that will allow us, again and again, to surprise ourselves and confound our critics. The Jewish people has been facing extinction from approximately 73 AD, and the Jewish commonwealth, when it existed, was always a fragile thing beset by enemies and subject to forces beyond its control.
The great advantage of the Zionist movement and the Jewish state is that they provide us with an organization and a physical basis to advance our cause and confront our enemies. As Ben Gurion once admonished, what matters more than what the doomsayers say, what always has mattered, is what we plan and what we do. That has only been true since there was a Zionist organization and an organized Jewish community in our own land. We have always faced "insurmountable" challenges. The doomsayers point out the challenges, but they miss the most important factor: What Israel
gives us, for the first time in 2000 years, is a means of organizing our salvation and overcoming the problems. Ami Isseroff
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