4/22/15 Israel Independence Day
Israel celebrates its 67th birthday tonight. In a uniquely Israeli transition, the country goes from mourning to celebration in a matter of an hour. This year’s memorial services have been particularly poignant, with a new generation of soldiers being mourned; the soldiers who lost their lives in this past summer's war in Gaza. Memorial Day ceremonies throughout Israel are nothing like the saving-studded Memorial Day sales across the United States. Israel maintains a universal draft and reserve duty for almost all male citizens up to age 40. The annual memorial experience is solemnly observed by all – and not only during the 1 minute moments of silence in the evening and the following morning. President Riviln verbalized it best in his speech at the opening of the national day of mourning. The President shared that last summer, as he undertook what he described as his most difficult task as President (visiting all of the bereaved families), he realized that bereavement occurred in every part of the country; amongst every ethnic group, from North to South, from cities and towns, from Kibbutzim and Moshavim. To Israelis, Memorial Day is a sacred day of remembrance. But tonight it ends, and sadness is replaced with celebration – celebrating Israel’s 67 years.
At 67 years, Israel is no longer that young nation I knew in my youth. Of course, compared to the nations of Europe, Israel is a mere child --- even the US is 167 years older than the State of Israel. But the je ne sais quoi that characterizes a young country seems to be missing nowadays.
Israel has undergone a remarkable transformation in its 67 years. When the state was declared in 1948 it had a population of 600,000, and a per capita income of $3,000. The day the state was declared Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was alone among his close advisors in favoring the declaration – others feared the state would not survive the promised Arab onslaught. Israel’s only important export seemed to be Jaffa oranges. Israel would not likely have survived without the money that came first from World Jewry and then from the German and American governments in the forms of loans and grants. Today, Israel exports more than it imports, and its foreign reserve stands at over $80 billion. Israel is best known for its export of hi-tech; as the country where Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft , Intel (and almost every other hi-tech company worth mentioning) have R& D centers. Israel’s hi-tech industry is unparalleled in the world, matching the best work being done in Silicon Valley. The per capita income in the country is now almost $37,000.
And yet despite all of these accomplishments, Israel remains a country at risk. Only nine months ago rockets were being fired at all of the major cities of the country – and for all its power the country could not stop them from being fired. Of course Israel’s technological abilities allowed it to develop the most sophisticated anti-missile system in the world and successfully intercept almost all of the missiles aimed at Israeli cities. Still, a few got through. Our tremendous technology physically protects both Israeli cities and many of our soldiers in the battlefield. However, despite that fact, Israel remains the only country in the world with multiple neighbors who call for its destruction. Despite being at officially at peace with two of its largest neighbors, Israel has self-proclaimed enemies on almost all of its borders (some of these are other countries but many are mostly groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.)
As I write these lines I am sitting across from a local High School holding its Memorial Day service in a park adjacent to the school; the park where I often work. After the siren’s blare is silenced, a memorial flame is lit, and memorial prayer is read. In the midst of the prayer the names of all the graduates of this very small high school (the Zeitlin school) who have died in Israel’s wars are read and list seems to go on and on forever(30 names in all), and then prayer ends. I look out at the crowd of students, on average 16 years old and realize that in their young lives Israel has lived through four small wars. Then I think of my much-longer life and realize that I have lived through so many more, including at least two wars in which the very existence of the state seemed threatened. A few yards away I spot two young mothers carrying their toddlers in their arms, as they stand in silence while the siren sounds. I wonder how many wars those toddlers live through.
Israel is 67 years old today. Israel is a country, not without its faults. Israel probably could have done more to bring about peace; it could treat migrant workers better; it probably could do a better job integrating its Arab minorities. I could go on – there is likely a whole list of things we could do better, as a nation. However, as I look back at the history of this small, pushy country and forward into the eyes of the high school students who will be joining the army in too short a period of time, I once again realize that almost all Israelis are united in one thing – hoping and praying that the number of soldiers we memorialize does not grow; that our children and grandchildren will not have to live the lives we have, enduring a war every few years. As memorial day quietly passes into Independence Day that is what the overwhelming majority of Israelis will be hoping for the peace that continues to allude us. Israelis, whatever their political view, know that the peaceful future we all hope for may not be in our hands. It takes two sides to make peace. Still, despite that fact, it is to live in peace that almost all Israelis will be united in hoping for as we celebrate.