As the State of Israel marked its 64th anniversary of statehood this week, with its population approaching 8 million, it has never seemed as powerful — or as vulnerable.
The Jewish state is a vibrant, messy democracy. It is the spiritual center of the Jewish people, having fulfilled one of Zionism’s key missions in providing a haven for persecuted Jews from around the world despite being in a state of war with Arab neighbors since the day it was founded.
Israel is a military, economic, scientific and technological power to be reckoned with. But it faces an existential threat from Iran, whose leaders race to develop a nuclear bomb and continue to call for the destruction of the Zionist state. Moreover, Israel finds itself in an increasingly chaotic region. Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south continue to arm themselves with rockets while Syria is slipping into civil war, as its president murders civilians and the world observes. Egypt seems poised to establish an Islamic-led government whose policies toward Israel will make the “cold peace” of the last three decades look idyllic. (One leading candidate to replace Hosni Mubarak for president has called Israelis “killers and vampires,” while another gained popularity over the years for demonizing Israel.)
Within their borders, Israelis remain deeply divided over the government’s policies toward the Palestinians and the West Bank settlements. No one holds out hope for a resolution anytime soon — the Palestinian Authority appears more eager to make peace with Hamas than with Jerusalem — but international pressure mounts on Israel to take the initiative in terms of compromise and concession.
The unease over Israeli politics and diplomacy has spread to the United States, where the debate among American Jews has grown nastier over whether “pro-Israel” means supporting the policies of the current government (be it left, right or center) or holding it to a higher moral and ethical stand than any other national administration in the world.
And yet, for two days this week, a sense of sobriety prevailed in Israel as the majority of its citizens marked Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), and the loss of 22,993 soldiers since the founding of the state. Virtually no family, from the prime minister on down, has been untouched by the grief of war and terrorism. The anguish of Israel’s Memorial Day is far more raw, and universally observed among its citizens, than the comparable day in America, best known for its sales, barbecues and parades. In Israel the pain is real, not virtual, and it is shared.
As Yom HaZikaron blends into Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), the nation sheds its grief and rejoices in the miracle of its founding, mirroring the resilience seen throughout Jewish history of a people enduring tragedy while holding out hope for the future.
The future is here, and it is ours — as a people — to cherish or squander. Why can’t we unite throughout the year as we did for two days this week?