By Uriel Heilman | JTA
Being in Israel in the 21st century, one often wonders what Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, would think of this modern-day state if he could see it.
The malarial swamps of pre-state Palestine have been replaced by rapidly growing cities with glitzy shopping districts, carefully landscaped parks and six-lane highways that run between high-rise office buildings and limestone apartment complexes.
The agricultural pioneers, the chalutzim who struggled to sow the seeds of the new nation-state armed with triangular hats and simple hoes, have been succeeded by sunglasses-wearing settlers in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley who have installed high-tech drip-irrigation devices to hydrate hybrid tomatoes for export to markets in London, Paris and New York.
And the nation whose birth defied the odds in a war of independence against invading Arab armies to the north, east and south has become a regional military superpower with an assumed nuclear arsenal, a crack air force and peace treaties with two of its four Arab neighbors.
Agricultural settlements have turned into sprawling cities, the 1948 population of roughly 800,000 has swelled to more than 7 million and — perhaps most important of all — the Jewish state has become home for Jews from Russia, Europe, Iran, Ethiopia, Argentina, Egypt, North America, India and too many other places to count.
Sixty years on, Israel has much to celebrate, having raised a vibrant, diverse and occasionally bewildering society virtually from scratch.
In all likelihood, Herzl would not even recognize the place.
“I think Herzl would be so perplexed,” says veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a conservative think tank in Jerusalem. “He wouldn’t know in what proportion to be thrilled and disappointed. Israel bears no resemblance to what Herzl imagined, conceiving a Jewish state from the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
Herzl envisioned a socialist utopia that would combine the best of European culture and Jewish ingenuity. In his famous work “Altneuland,” Arabs hardly merit mention.
Halevi says Herzl would find Israel’s radical Jewish diversity most perplexing.
“The East-West mixture, the racial mixture of Israel, Ethiopian culture, Moroccan music — all the elements that make Israel so unpredictable and so interesting — are elements Herzl couldn’t conceive of sitting in Vienna in the beginning of the 20th century,” Halevi says.
In many ways, however, Herzl’s dream of a Jewish state has been fulfilled.
Israel has secured its place among the nations even though its leaders bemoan the existential threat posed by Iran and the demographic threat represented by the Palestinians. A state like any other, Israel boasts metropolitan cities, concert halls, theaters, centers of science and learning, skyscrapers, a stock exchange and a thriving nonprofit sector.
Of course, as a state like any other, Israel also has poor people, failing schools, government corruption, run-down neighborhoods, traffic, drug problems and criminals.
And after 60 years, Israel still faces basic questions of existence and character most countries have resolved long ago: Can the state be both Jewish and democratic? What will the final borders of the country look like? Where, exactly, is the balance between religious and secular, Arab rights and Jewish character, change and preservation, future and history?
Sixty years on, the battle for Israel’s soul is far from over.
Tel Aviv leftists debate right-wing settlers about whether the final borders of the state should encompass the West Bank or run along the pre-1967 border. Secular yuppies from Herzliya lobby to be able to buy pork products and shrimp in their local supermarkets while Knesset-sanctioned inspectors slap fines on malls that open on Shabbat.
Russian Israelis say Israeli immigration policies unfairly exclude their non-Jewish relatives, while yeshiva rabbis warn that an influx of foreign laborers and non-Jewish immigrants erode the state’s Jewish character. Arab Israelis from Jerusalem ask why their Palestinian cousins from nearby Bethlehem are barred from visiting them while a Jew from Chicago can become an Israeli citizen simply by showing up at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv with a letter from her rabbi.
These are the growing pains of a state that 60 years after its founding still hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be.
Yet even as they struggle with these basic questions, Israelis are continuing to build the state.
One would be hard-pressed to find another country in the world that has experienced such rapid growth over the span of just six decades. That the growth has occurred amid frequent wars, the constant scourge of terrorism and other daily challenges has made it all the more remarkable.
And despite the apparent lack of natural resources in Israel — the country has no oil reserves to tap, no verdant breadbasket and a relatively small population — Jewish ingenuity has made Israel a center of innovation.
Israel has more companies listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange than any other outside the United States. The world’s leading technology companies, including Intel, IBM and Microsoft, maintain extensive R&D facilities in Israel. The country has the highest proportion in the world of university graduates per capita. Outside of Europe and North America, Israel leads in the number of patent applications.
Israelis invented the video camera that fits inside a pill, giving doctors a new non-invasive way to view their patients’ insides. Four young Israelis invented the first instant-messaging technology, known as ICQ, which was later sold to AOL. The disk-on-key, now almost universally used in place of diskettes, was created in Israel.
“Israel has the highest concentration of talent in the world,” says Moshe Kaveh, the president of Bar-Ilan University.
Despite the worrisome headlines about Iran, Hezbollah’s resurgence along the Lebanon border and Hamas’ growing power in the Gaza Strip, Israel has become an increasingly stable, normal country. In 2007, terrorism-related deaths in Israel fell to 13 — the lowest level in years.
The question for Israel isn’t so much whether people will be able to live in the country in 10, 20 or 30 years but whether they will want to.
After 60 years of focusing on survival, Israel must now address its internal challenges, Israelis say, particularly the ones that threaten national unity: the religious-secular gap, the Arab-Jewish gap, the rich-poor gap, the right wing-left wing gap.
This, essentially, is how Israel has developed throughout its six decades — always in a state of emergency, under the threat of wars or terrorism, and with the great questions of society still unanswered.
Yet all the while, Israelis have forged communities, launched companies, started rock bands, built cities, gone to cafés and raised their families. This perseverance — the carrying on of daily life, despite all the craziness in the country — is what makes Israel at 60 a story worth telling.
By Uriel Heilman | JTA