This week, while celebrating its 65th anniversary, Israel should be the toast of the world. A model “new nation,” the Jewish State may be the most successful of the post-colonial states that emerged in the twentieth-century’s wave of nation-building as the great nineteenth-century empires collapsed. Starting with little, Israel quickly developed a thriving democracy, a booming economy, and a list of impressive technological and pharmacological achievements that have made life worldwide easier, safer, happier, and longer lasting. Yet, for all its accomplishments, the start-up nation has also been the embattled state, built on contested territory, surrounded by hostile enemies many of whom seek to destroy it.
The duality of this high-tech Athens yet tough Sparta helps explain the intense, polarizing, sometimes-hysterical emotions the country often stirs. And this defining paradox also results in two different ways of periodizing its history, telling its tale. The conventional approach tells Israel’s story as the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict—going from war to war, and peace prospect to peace prospect, starting with the 1948 Independence War through 1967 and 1973, bringing in Palestinian terrorism and the Egyptian peace treaty, then reaching today’s no-real-peace-no-real-war stalemate. That narrative of war-making and peace-processing must be complemented with a happier story, showing how the society grew from the austere 1940s and 1950s to the lush and plush 2000s and 2010s.
Beyond the conflict, and despite the conflict, Israel has thrived. During the 1950s, Israel was overwhelmed with the task of absorbing 850,000 Jews from Arab countries, turning these refugees into citizens overnight—but taking much longer to help them become Israelis. By the 1960s, Israel’s economy had more than doubled in size and stabilized—by Israel’s 15th birthday in 1963, 97 percent of Israelis had running water, 93 percent had electricity—a remarkable accomplishment few of its neighbors matched. Israel was also the toast of the international community, with its communal farming settlement, the kibbutz, seen as its defining institution. Moreover, fulfilling the vision of Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, who dreamed of helping to liberate Africa once the Jewish State was established, Israelis were working on development projects in dozens of new African countries—an initiative squelched in Israel’s 25th year, when Libya and Saudi Arabia used petrodollars to bribe poor African countries into boycotting Israel.
In 1977, Israel experienced an electoral revolution, as Menachem Begin’s Likud replaced the Labor Party, which had ruled since the state’s establishment. Despite being Polish-born, Begin appealed to the Sephardim, the Jews from Arab countries who were more religiously traditional and socially marginal. Begin also favored a more capitalist approach, which ultimately would reorient Israel’s agriculturally-based economy, resulting in the high tech miracle-maker of today.
Today, more than being the world’s beaten-up nation, Israel has become the start-up nation, an incubator for new companies and new inventions, new technologies in computers and cell phones, new medicines and new surgical techniques. “Born in Israel Used Everywhere” is a popular post, circulated online, showing examples of wizardry from the Microsoft Windows NT Operating System to drip irrigation for farmers.
As Israel celebrates, some things have not changed. Israel’s Declaration of Independence rooted the Jewish State’s story in its Biblical heritage, while also promising all its inhabitants civic equality and dignity; 65 years later, Israel still juggles its unique mission as the only Jewish State with its more universalist aspiration to be a civic democracy like the United States or Canada. Twenty-one parties, each with their own newspaper, competed in the first Knesset election; 65 years later, Israel’s democracy remains dynamic and chaotic. Within Israel’s first three years, 690,000 immigrants doubled the country’s population; 65 years later, Israel is integrating new immigrants, this time from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union as it collapsed ten years ago. And, alas, Israel still seeks peace with its neighbors.
Like India and China, Israel has built a modern country rooted in its ancient civilization. You hear it in the medley of liturgical tunes wafting through various windows in so many neighborhoods on the Sabbath—especially with the usual perpetual background rumbling of cars minimized or absent. You see it in the 21st-century traffic and glittering lights of modern Jerusalem set against the backdrop of the Old City’s wall or the beautiful mosques of Jaffa juxtaposed against the Tel Aviv skyline. You feel it in the chaos of the food markets that are as crowded as the sleek supermarkets. And you express it in Hebrew, the Jewish people’s resurrected old-new language, used by all Israelis, including Christian and Muslim Arabs, in a day-to-day arrangement that could always be improved but is far more functional than hysterical headlines and venomous propagandists suggest.
Israel remains this extraordinary time capsule. The Bible relates that nearly four thousand years ago, the Lord promised this land to Abraham. More than one hundred years ago, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, imagined a modern, cutting-edge Jewish state. Today, some believe Zionism is over, having achieved its goal in establishing the country. But many others recognize that the real work of perfecting the state, of making it live up to its founding hopes, is only just beginning.
This is a shorter version of an essay that appeared in the History News Network.