A birthday reflection on the Jewish State

David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. He served as national coordinator for Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry, Dec. 6, 1987.

By David Harris

What’s so special about a country’s 64th birthday? 

Well, in the case of most nations, perhaps not all that much, unless the country happens to be Israel, which celebrates its birthday this year on April 25 and 26. Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only U.N. member state whose right to exist is regularly challenged, whose elimination from the world map is the aim of at least one other U.N. member state, Iran, and whose population centers are deemed fair game by Hamas-controlled Gaza and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon. Thus, Israel’s sheer act of survival from year to year is itself noteworthy.

None of the countries that are serial human-rights violators—not Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Sudan, or any of the others–gets anything near the relentless, obsessive, guilty-till-proven-innocent scrutiny that democratic Israel receives from U.N. bodies, with their built-in, anti-Israel majorities, in New York and Geneva. No other country is the target of such non-stop, well-funded and highly-organized campaigns to discredit, delegitimize, and demonize a sovereign state. No other country faces such systematic attempts to launch boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions against it, not to mention flotillas and flytillas, and all the while those behind the efforts, claiming to speak for human rights, blithely ignore places like Syria, where thousands were killed in the past year alone, because they can’t claim an Israeli connection. And no other country has its right to self-defense challenged as Israel does, even though it does no more than any other nation would do if confronted by periodic terrorist assaults and deadly missile and rocket attacks.

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I have enormous admiration for Israel—for its resolve, resilience, courage, and ingenuity. Other nations might have succumbed after 64 years of uninterrupted hostility to the enemies trying everything under the sun to destroy them and, short of that, to demoralize and isolate them. But Israel has not flinched.

How can it be, its adversaries ask, that this nation of just under eight million, grown from only 650,000 at its birth in 1948, repeatedly defeats far more populous Arab foes that have been arrayed against it? How can it be, its adversaries ask, that these Jews, seemingly led to slaughter like sheep by the Third Reich, suddenly learned how to defend themselves and vanquish larger Arab armies, within three years of V-E Day? 

And how can it be, its adversaries ask, that Israel, with no natural resources to speak of until recent natural gas findings (yet to be exploited), could achieve a first-world economy, catapulting it into the OECD; double-digit winners of Nobel Prizes; and a top-three ranking in new NASDAQ listings? Too often, Israel’s adversaries have come up with misguided, if self-satisfying, answers—usually elaborate conspiracy theories inspired by anti-Semitic tropes. In reality, though, the answer is much simpler. It derives from an age-old connection among a land, a faith, and a people. Many have tried to sever the link. All have failed.

To be sure, Israel, like all democratic societies, is a permanent work in progress. Much remains to be done. From grappling with a less-than-ideal electoral system to dealing with religious zealots who invoke a “higher authority” than the state, from addressing a yawning gap between rich and poor to balancing the Jewish and democratic nature of the country, from the decades-long pursuit of peace to the defense of the country in a turbulent region, Israel has no shortage of challenges.

But, above all, Israel is a wondrous “adventure.” 

I feel privileged daily to see the fulfillment of the prayers of generations longing for a return to Zion from forced exile. Witnessing Soviet Jews arriving in Israel as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles came raining down, while Israel did not miss a beat in welcoming the newcomers, reveals the country’s character. So, too, being in Rambam Hospital in Haifa during the Hezbollah missile attacks.One minute, a siren would sound and everyone would calmly go, or be moved, to the bomb shelters. The next minute, after the all-clear signal, the scientists would return to their labs to continue cutting-edge research in cancer, diabetes and stem cell therapy.

Or being in Barzilay Hospital in Ashkelon, where victims of Hamas’ strikes against Israel were taken for medical care, and seeing Palestinian patients from Gaza in rooms adjoining the Jewish wounded. Or getting to know Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli program that provides life-saving pediatric heart surgery. Many of the children come from Arab countries that deny Israel’s very existence. Or seeing the scrawling on a Tel Aviv wall shortly after 21 young Israelis were killed at a discotheque—”They won’t stop us from dancing.” Or watching an Israeli Arab Supreme Court justice—who, incidentally, refuses to sing Israel’s national anthem—sit on a panel that upheld the conviction of an Israeli ex-president on charges of rape. 

No, this Israel may not feature prominently in the media, I’m sorry to say, but it is the Israel that pulsates daily with a love of life, of freedom, and of the land. It is the Israel I know and cherish.

Happy 64th Birthday, Israel!

This is an edited version of a column that originally appeared in the Huffington Post and Jerusalem Post. Reprinted with permission.