Thursday, April 19, 2018

 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column

Independence Day in Israel is a lot like Independence day in America. There are barbecues, fireworks, weekend camping trips, street fairs, concerts of patriotic music and boring speeches by government officials. Both nations gained independence from the British Empire, and neither felt warm enough toward their former imperial rulers to join the Commonwealth. 

But there are significant differences. Possibly because the nation is young enough that there are still people around who remember when the state did not exist and who remember the price that was paid to create it, there is still a feeling – at least, in some quarters – that independence is not a normal condition. For thousands of years there was no sovereign Jewish state, and the Jewish people were the paradigm case of the outsiders living, with various degrees of toleration, in other people’s countries. That changed suddenly on May 14, 1948, the 5th of Iyar on the Jewish calendar. 

America had her Tories who would have preferred to remain colonies of Great Britain (including the son of Benjamin Franklin, who had been the Royal Governor of New Jersey), but I suspect that after some 242 years, very few Americans continue to believe that the US should return to colonial status. Israel had (and still has) her anti-Zionists: those who oppose a Jewish state for religious reasons, and those who oppose it for various political reasons. I doubt this will change even when the state reaches (with God’s help) its 242nd birthday.

Some Americans complain that many of their countrymen (and women) don’t appreciate the sacrifices required to create and maintain an independent nation. This is less of a problem in Israel, whose people are under constant threat, both individually and collectively, by the enemies of the state and the Jewish people. Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism (yom hazikaron) takes place the day before Independence Day. When the siren sounds to mark the beginning of yom hazikaron, almost all Israelis stop what they are doing and stand at attention for the duration of the siren. Autos stop in the middle of the highways , and their drivers get out and stand beside them. I admit that no matter how many times I’ve experienced this, it’s always emotionally powerful. Except for the siren (and perhaps a few barking dogs) there is absolute silence; and it happens at the same precise moment all over the country.

I said “almost all Israelis” because there are some Arab citizens, some Haredim, and even a few extreme leftists who oppose the Jewish state and make a point of showing their contempt for it and for the soldiers who died for it. If I could afford to, I would happily buy them all one-way tickets to the Arab or Diaspora countries that they appear to yearn for.

When America gained independence, its population was composed of Europeans mostly of British descent, African slaves and Native Americans. It was some time before the “non-white” inhabitants achieved equal rights. Israel also had a minority population made up of Arabs who, while citizens from the start, were under military rule until 1966. Since independence, both countries absorbed immigrants from numerous cultures, although almost all of those absorbed by Israel were Jewish.

Some Arab citizens of Israel see themselves as Israelis, while others embrace their “Palestinian” identity and reject “Israeli-ness.” Most Jews feel that they are part of a Jewish people that encompasses Jews of different national origins. The divisions between Jews of European and Middle Eastern or North African origin are becoming less important as time and intermarriage blur them. Russians, Ethiopians and others are also blending into the Jewish population.

In America until recently the concept of the “melting pot” which would turn immigrants (but never African Americans!) into members of a homogeneous American People was popular, and immigrants aspired to assimilate into “American” culture. More recently, many immigrant groups strongly reject the melting pot, and insist on maintaining their original cultures. I don’t believe this tendency is strong among non-Haredi Israeli immigrants, who do appear to be assimilating to “Israeli” culture. There are various reasons for this: army service, shared stresses (terrorism, bureaucracy, etc.) and the comparative openness of Israeli society. In Israel, at least among the Jewish population, it seems that identity politics is declining; while in America, it is gaining importance.

American society seems – from my admittedly distant vantage point – to be more divided than ever in my memory. The delivery of health care and other social services appears to be worse than I can remember, the primary, secondary, and higher educational systems are failing in their purposes, and the long-term decrease in violent crime seems to be ending. There are many other troubling social indicators. Time will tell if the decline that I perceive is real, and if so, if it will be overcome.

70 years after independence, Israeli society has overall never been better off economically, although the high price of housing is a problem. There are still pockets of deep poverty. The benefits of the success of the high-tech sector and the natural gas discoveries have not filtered down to the lower rungs of the ladder. Politically there is the ongoing struggle between the right-of-center majority and the left-of-center establishment that includes the Supreme Court, the media, academic class, the arts, and so forth. There is growing conflict between Haredi extremists and everyone else. But on balance it is a happy, optimistic society. One indication is the high birthrate, over three children per woman for the Jewish and Arab sectors.

Despite this, there is a cloud over our optimism, which is the almost certainty of war with Iran and its proxies in the near future. Israel is not expansionist and does not desire war. We have absolutely nothing against the Iranian people, but unfortunately their radical regime has an obsession with destroying our state and ourselves.

We’ll prevail. It will be terrible for us, but more terrible for our enemies. Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel was not reconstituted after thousands of years to be lost after only 70.

There are flags everywhere, hanging from windowsills, on cars, on both of the antennas on our roof. Our bank is giving out free flags, made in Israel by handicapped people.

Happy Independence Day!




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