Some say Israel’s 50th has been a hard birthday to reckon with. Have we built our house of twigs or bricks? Wolves are still at the door, but now there’s huffing and puffing from the inside, too. A beer in solitude seems preferable to a cake with too many candles. In sympathy, all of us, at one time or another, have had a birthday when the last thing we wanted was to arrive home, tense and melancholy, only to enter a living room full of friends yelling “Surprise!”
Perhaps, though, on days like that, our friends know us better than we know ourselves; we know Israel deserves celebration and love even if recent history has worn her down.
It is rightly said that “anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t
really understand the situation.” The body politic has been ravaged and malnourished by centuries of vast dispersion, hostility, humiliation. Questions still exist that were first posed at Israel’s birth: Is this a Jewish state, or just a state for Jews? Who will be ascendant, East or West, Ashkenaz or Sephard, academics, anarchists, romantics or rogues?
But as Emerson wrote in another time and place, “She sees a little better on a cloudy day, and in that storm of battle and calamity, she has a secret vigor and pulse like a cannon.” She has won four wars of survival, and cold wars of diplomacy and intrigue that led to the messiah-like ingathering of millions from once-forsaken places. And the morning-after headaches that follow.
It doesn’t always seem like party time.
But “Surprise!” anyway, old friend, these 50 years have been remarkable, a redemption, a recuperation. Wake our ancestors from eternal slumber and one glance at modern Israel will seem mighty evidence that a messiah walked the earth, even if the redeemer has been but our blood, toil, sweat and the invisible grace of Providence.
Like Jimmy Stewart’s lesson in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Israel is best appreciated by imagining a world without her being born, a post-Holocaust world. Our souls would feel a colder shiver.
Return to the sensation of the 1947 partition vote, just 150 weeks after Auschwitz. Return to the thrill of the 1967 shofar in a reunited Jerusalem, the Entebbe rescue, the flowering of life where once was malaria, swamps and dunes — miracles so cascading that they managed to turn miracles into cliche.
This dusty outpost of the old Ottoman Empire has transformed itself into a high-tech paradise, with universities, artistic enterprise, yeshivas and freedoms surpassing anything in the Middle East, and often beyond.
Summon back the thrill of Sadat’s first visit, his embrace with Begin, and the still-gestating, never-departing promise of Camp David and Oslo.
Forget the unpaid bills. Get out of town, beyond the beltway of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Sea of Kinneret is still as blue as it was in 1950, as in the dreams of 1650. The waterfalls and wild goats of Ein Gedi are still magic. Haifa and Beersheva have grown tall and sturdy. We have access to Rachel’s Tomb, and the cool mountain caves and sacred pools under the highland of Sefat. The prayerbook shares her Hebrew now with newspapers, novels, movies, poetry, conversation. We have re-entered the dignity of history and self-determination.
In this issue, we’ll meet citizen-heroes who were present at the creation, and we’ll examine several sets of blueprints for the years ahead. Rabbi David Hartman searches his country’s soul and confronts the painful questions it must ponder in its next 50 years; Rochelle Furstenberg chronicles Israeli artists’ quest for a cultural identity; and staff writer Lawrence Cohler-Esses outlines the new struggle facing Israelis: the one over the very nature of their country.
For 2,000 years, Jews clutched the dream that if only we could get back to where we first fell in love with our history and destiny, then everything would be right for us again. The job’s not finished, but things already are more right than anytime since the Holy Wall was just one of four. These 50 years of Israel have been a blessing. She’s had a wonderful life, and long may she wave.