Pride, contemplation and concern the enduring sentiments as anniversary celebrated
Israel is 60 years old, a milestone the world has been reflecting on all week. As is inevitable when it comes to Israel, these reflections have been a mix of glowing positives and angry condemnations, as friend, foe and the undecided reflect on the historic anniversary. Israel itself has been celebrating while commemorating, and glowing with pride while undertaking profound soulsearching. Across the globe, reaction has been flowing all week. Here in London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown went to the Kinloss Synagogue to give a speech in praise of Israel, calling it “one of the greatest achievements” of the 20th century.
The British PM reminisced about his long standing personal connection to Israel and the Jewish people. “You may ask why it is that a young primary school child, brought up as I was in a mining town in Scotland in the 1950s, came to feel a huge attachment to the trials and the tribulations and the achievements of Israel. And the reason is that my father was brought up and learned Hebrew, supported the attainment of the State of Israel in 1948 and for decades was a member of the Church of Scotland’s ‘Church and Israel Committee’.
“He became a regular visitor to Israel, at least once or twice a year for many decades. And his interest in Israel meant that much of my early life revolved around the history of this ancient and modern land and its people.
“Long before we had a television, we watched film slides on old projectors, often breaking down. We listened to talks and lectures. We read books that my father brought home to us. We listened on many occasions to his latest experiences and the people he met, the stories of dedication and courage of the pioneers who built Israel. “I heard about Israel’s achievements but also its vulnerability. I learnt of the fight for a Jewish homeland, of the Balfour Declaration, of the promises made, some honoured and some broken. And I learned of the ancient dream of the Jewish nation becoming reality in the modern state of Israel. And I was taught too of the sufferings and the struggles and the Holocaust, that greatest crime that was ever committed against humanity.
“So let us tonight give thanks for what has been achieved. Let us all stand ready to help Israel find a truly secure place in a peaceful Middle East. Let us celebrate a nation that can triumph over attempts at isolation, threats of war, and threats of terrorism, and emerge even stronger, tending its young, caring for its sick, cherishing its old.”
“I say to you today that Britain will continue to be a true and constant friend of Israel in good times and in bad. We will never reduce our efforts to secure for Israel a future free from terror, a future where alongside a viable Palestinian state, children and the children of all your neighbours can believe in a brighter future.”
Meanwhile, President Bush, in Israel as part of his wider Middle-East tour, met with Israeli leaders and addressed the Knesset, condemning anti-Semitism and those who question Israel’s right to exist and those “who quietly excuse them”.
“We believe that free people should strive and sacrifice for peace. So we applaud the courageous choices Israeli leaders have made… We also believe that nations have a right to defend themselves and that no nation should ever be forced to negotiate with killers pledged to its destruction,” Bush said, to powerful applause. He reaffirmed his uncompromising position on negotiating with “terrorists and radicals”, drawing comparisons with the beginning of the Second World War, and condemning those who advocate such a course.
“We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement which has been repeatedly discredited by history.” Bush said he looked forward to the day when Muslims “recognise the emptiness of the terrorists’ vision and the injustice of their cause.”
The only reference to Palestinians came in a passage about the future of Israel 60 years from now, and the President’s vision of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic when that day comes. “Israel will be celebrating its 120th anniversary as one of the world’s great democracies, a secure and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people”, he said. “The Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved — a democratic state that is governed by law, respects human rights, and rejects terror.” Equivalent statements from across Europe and the globe were less personal, but equally positive.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote: “France has always been committed to Israel’s security and to the quest for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East, to which the peoples of the region aspire. As in the past, France will continue to stand by you and to work together with you toward this goal, in order to end the suffering of the Israelis and the Palestinians, which has been going on far too long.”
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, meanwhile, said that Israel’s significance for Europeans went “beyond normal forms of cooperation with a close neighbour.
“Both the European Union and the state of Israel were born out of the same great convulsion of the Second World War and the Shoah,” adding, “In its 60 years as an independent state, Israel has had to contend with many challenges. Yet through it all it has continued to adapt, develop and prosper … “We now take almost for granted impressive Israeli achievements in fields such as science and technology, industry, agriculture, education and the arts. In retrospect, we can only wonder at how all this was achieved under such difficult circumstances.”
DIFFERENT VOICES, DIFFERENT SENTIMENTS
Reaction in the Arab and Muslim world was diametrically opposed to these sentiments, of course. Iran’s response for example, you may not be surprised to learn, was slightly different from the European and American sentiments! The Shiite Islamist state’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking on Israel’s Independence Day, called Israel a “stinking corpse” that is on its way to “annihilation”.
“Those who think they can revive the stinking corpse of the usurping and fake Israeli regime by throwing a birthday party are seriously mistaken … Today the reason for the Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and this regime is on its way to annihilation.”
Arab reaction reflected their historical recollection, their defeat to Israel and its success in securing its place in the region still deemed as Nakba, or The Catastrophe. Demonstrations and marches by Palestinian and Arab groups took place around the world, with days of protest taking place — and planned for the coming days too — in Gaza and the West Bank and the massive Palestinian refugee camps and other population centres in Lebanon and Jordan. And today, the Palestinians’ official ‘Catastrophe Day’, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a televised speech that he is determined to end the occupation, labelling it “mankind’s shame”.
“It is time for this occupation to leave our land and blood,” he added. Exactly 21,915 black balloons — one for each day since the establishment of the State of Israel — were released in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel still existing after 60 years, in and of itself, would back in 1948 have been considered an enormous achievement and reason for celebration. Israel has been such a remarkable and quick success, however, that it has long ago got used to the luxury of judging itself by very different standards. Yet huge challenges remain, and can be ignored no longer. Israel has the second largest gap in the world between rich and poor — a gap that is widening — and today has over 1.6 million of its citizens living in poverty, including over 804,000 children. All areas of society are affected, but some more than others — a government report published in February stated that the number of Jewish families under the poverty line rose this year from 14.7% to 15.2%, a large percentage of whom are of Sephardi origin and/or from the ultra-orthodox community, with the percentage of Arab families in poverty rising by 0.8% to a most concerning 54.8%.
The status and treatment of Israeli Arabs remains a major internal and social issue, as the poverty statistic alone demonstrates, and will remain as raw as ever, until it is specifically addressed and progress is made on the peace process with their Palestinian brethren.
Most concerning of all is the demographic issue, a social time bomb that continues to tick. Soon parity between Jew and Arab will be reached between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and while millions of these people are not Israeli citizens, they are mostly under Israel’s control. The potential implications for Israel, its status as a Jewish State, and its moral and ethical confidence, should be all too clear.
Within a generation or two these issues will also begin impacting Israel proper — today the non-Jewish population of Israel is approaching the 25% mark, and with a Jewish birth rate currently at 1.15% and the Arab birth rate almost twice that, at 2.5%, this proportion will only be growing.
And this is by no means the only social and ethnic divide in Israel. Real tensions remain between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between orthodox and secular, between old Israel and the newer ‘Russians’, all exacerbated by the economic strains and disparities that riddle Israeli society. Added to this is the Left and Right divide, as security and peace related matters become ever more divisive.
Most of these issues are not new, but have never been resolved nor fully addressed due to Israel’s constant — and understandable — preoccupation with security and strategic concerns. But they can be swept under the proverbial carpet no more — there isn’t any room left under it.
CHALLENGES. MANAGEABLE CHALLENGES
With the possible exception of the demographic issue, these are very normal, and manageable, challenges. No state in history has become so established and secure so quickly, nor established for itself such a prominent place at the forefront of global innovation, technology, science, culture and business.
So, serious as these challenges may be, in relative terms they are wonderfully mild when compared with those faced by almost any other state historically at equivalent stages in its development.
As Gordon Brown joked this week in his London synagogue address, “While there is a sense that 60 years has been fraught with difficulties and challenges … let me remind you of a British story, that the first 500 years of any institution is always the most difficult!” This said, there should be no doubt that these challenges need — must, indeed — be addressed head-on, and with an urgency that thus far has always been lacking in Israeli policy. But this can be done by a state that is moving confidently forward, and that can be certain of its physical and political place in the region and the world.
Yet one other issue, of course, screams for resolution, that will, it seems, require Solomonian wisdom and Herculean courage to ever be solved : Israeli-Palestinian peace remains elusive,
and should be Israel’s central priority as it enters its second 60 years.
Without peace, there will be no substantive security or stability. This is a salient lesson for Israel’s neighbours too, as they are — late in the day — finally being forced to realise. Leaders will have to step forward, and their populations will have to accept the inevitability of compromise.
Israelis can be confident that their country’s successes to date have ensured that it can survive and prosper from the right compromises. Not making these compromises when the time
comes, and allowing the existing status quo to persist, will pose the gravest threat to Israel’s future standing and stability.