Even as the headlines testify that Israel is going through one of the most difficult moments in its history, it is indisputable that the Jewish state’s milestone 75th anniversary is truly a time to celebrate. There are many reasons to celebrate, but the one that stands out in the context of a surge of antisemitism in the world is contrasting today’s reality to the broad perspective of the history of the Jewish people.
With all the challenges facing the state, internally and externally, the history of the Jewish people, which reached its nadir following the murder of six million, entered a period of revival with the founding of the state so quickly that it must be marked as one of the most astonishing turnarounds in human annals.
Nothing, of course, can redeem the Holocaust. But the reality that so many of the elements that left the Jewish people vulnerable to the onslaught of the Nazis have been reversed by the success of the Jewish state cannot be taken for granted. Yes, Herzl’s dream that antisemitism would disappear once a state was established has surely not taken place. But so much else has.
In the Shoah, the Jews were powerless at the worst possible time. In the face of the Nazi onslaught, the Jewish people were defenseless, without a place of refuge, and garnered support only when it was already too late.
Because the Arab world was determined to prevent, and then undo, the state of Israel, the Yishuv was forced to take up arms and become a serious Jewish army, reversing two thousand years of a defenseless people. Today, that new development in the history of a people has not only enabled a nation to be secure, but has been instrumental in bringing about peace with a number of Israel’s neighbors who were long hostile to it. Let us never forget that the Arab world’s preferred choice was to destroy the Jewish state. The positive change is directly correlated to many causes, but one cannot discount the weight that Israel’s overwhelming military strength has had on the shift.
Together with this, transformation has been the continuous reality of Israel as a haven for Jews in danger. Again, the contrast to the period of the Shoah is dramatic. The horrendous stories of Jews facing extermination unable to find refuge, whether it was the tale of the St. Louis or the Evian Conference, the bottom line was for Jews there was no escape.
Ever since, we have seen Jews from Arab countries, the Soviet Union, Argentina, Ethiopia and other countries not only finding a haven of refuge in Israel, but psychologically liberated by the knowledge that even in the greatest crisis, there will be one place at least where they will be welcome.
Third, in so many ways, because Jews were for millennia without a home, they were witnesses to history rather than full participants. Today, Israel represents the active return to history of the Jewish people. One can’t help note this on a personal level when one attends services at the Western Wall on Friday night. The tourists are standing back and watching the Jews praying at their holiest site, and the thought always surfaces that history had turned around, that by returning home, the Jewish people were no longer the observers but the makers of history.
Well-known on so many levels are Israeli contributions to the advancement of civilization as an equal. Its innovations in science, medicine and technology reflect a society that is dynamic. But even on matters that are cloudier, the fact that the Jewish people collectively are making their own decisions about their future, is a new stage and a necessary one following tragedy. With it come aspirations for the future such as a more socially cohesive society and peace with the Palestinians.
Of course, with power comes responsibility and that can be a burden, but one in the perspective of the past the Jewish people gladly accept.
This return to history, this renewed control of one’s destiny does not mean, as some would have it, that Israel does not need strong allies or does not have to heed international sentiment. It does mean, however, that ultimately, the future and security of the state primarily rest with the decisions Israelis make.
So yes, on the celebratory occasion of Israel’s 75th, even coming at a moment of deep challenges in the country, the miracle of the turnaround of the Jewish people, from extermination to independence and life, remains as powerful as ever.