Israel from 25 to 75: The lesson is perpetual vigilance
Israel is celebrating its 75th birthday. Many have noted the cloud over this anniversary. The Associated Press ran its story on Israel’s Independence Day under this headline: “A deeply divided Israel limps toward its 75th birthday.” The New York Times led with this headline: “Political chaos unsettles Israel as it looks to honor the fallen and its independence.”
To put this in perspective, I’d like to recall another anniversary that I witnessed, and that took place under a cloudless sky.
Fifty years ago, in 1973, I’d been living in Israel with my parents and brothers for nearly two years. In May, Israel was set to celebrate its “silver” 25th anniversary. Israel’s self-confidence at that moment couldn’t have been higher. Its smashing victory of June 1967 was still fresh in the collective memory. Israel sat astride the Middle East like a colossus, from the Suez Canal in the south, to the outskirts of Damascus in the north. The country was booming: in every year since 1969, per capita income had grown by 20 percent.
The leaders of the day, who included Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, decided that the best way to mark Israel’s 25th anniversary would be a giant military parade in Jerusalem.
My father, who was a resourceful man, managed to get us tickets to the main reviewing stand. So I sat with my family on that glorious day, watching the full might of Israel unfold before 300,000 spectators.
Thousands of soldiers marched by, from every branch of the military. Tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled before us, spewing smoke as their tracks rattled over the asphalt. (Some of those tanks were Soviet, captured in 1967 from Arab armies.) Fighter jets and attack helicopters roared overhead in perfect formation. In the main reviewing stand were not just the leaders of Israel, but the surviving founders of this tiny superpower—most notably, David Ben-Gurion, the Old Man himself, then 86.
It’s a day I’ll never forget: a day of unsurpassed pride in the power of Israel.
And also, as we would learn, a day of unsurpassed hubris. No one in that crowd imagined that five months later, Israel would be plunged into a desperate struggle for survival. On the next Yom Kippur day, October 6, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a combined surprise attack on Israel. Israel’s flexing of its muscles hadn’t deterred them at all.
Israel survived that war, but the country was shaken to its foundations. Israelis had been arrogant in thinking themselves invincible. Their leaders had been wrong to dismiss the resolve and the capabilities of the Arabs. And Israel had paid a terrible price: almost 2,700 dead and more than 7,200 injured, thousands of them permanently incapacitated and maimed. They included many who had paraded in Jerusalem only months earlier.
The war also brought down a political elite that had run the country since independence, including both Golda Meir and Dayan. It marked the beginning of the end for the Labor Party. And there would never be a military parade on Independence Day again.
Why do I tell this story now? Israel has the most to fear not from doubt, but from hubris. An Israel that questions itself has a better chance than an Israel that puffs with pride. An Israel that looks strong on the outside can conceal weakness within. But an Israel that fearlessly probes its weaknesses can emerge stronger.
So I’m actually reassured by the apprehensive and pensive mood on this 75th anniversary. Israel has so much to celebrate. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to explain the inexplicable: how a tormented people rose from the slag heap of history, and rebuilt itself as an independent state and a prosperous nation, against all the odds. Along the way, it welcomed millions of refugees, defeated and made peace with enemies, and became a military and economic powerhouse.
But Israelis must also remain vigilant. That not only means standing up to enemies, but questioning the judgment of their own elected politicians. The leaders I saw in the reviewing stand on that day in 1973 had been in power for a long time, and thought they shouldn’t be doubted. The leaders of today’s Israel have been in power a long time, and think the same. The duty of citizens doesn’t end with elections. Perpetual vigilance is crucial, because as we discovered fifty years ago, even the most seasoned statesmen and politicians can make tragic mistakes.
Happy birthday, Israel!
If you never watched it, this is a great time to view my seven-part lecture series on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, at this link.