“If Herzl were to land here tomorrow morning,” I was asked in a recent television interview, “do you think that the father of modern Zionism would consider his vision fulfilled, or would he turn around in disgust and get back on the plane?” My first instinct was to reply that his beard would probably turn gray.
But then, in the few short seconds television gives one to think, the real answer dawned on me with revelational clarity: Israel 1997 is a modern day miracle that would make even Herzl proud. After five decades of independence, Israel is the country where one out of three Jews in the world lives.
Despite five full-fledged wars and 50 years of intermittent but continual low-intensity conflict, Israel has not only survived but become a regional superpower with one of the world’s most sophisticated armies. It has absorbed immigrants from over 100 countries - people with different backgrounds and languages, diverse customs and cultures, and created one people with a common language and essentially, a common goal. It has 98-percent literacy, an impeccable legal system, some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world. It is at the forefront of high technology and a pioneer in agricultural development. It is a society rich in literature and culture, ever innovative and on the brink of coming to terms with its neighbors.
Though politically diverse, it is a healthy democracy where most battles are fought in a parliament and the individual civil liberties are enshrined in both law and tradition. It is a country that cares about its people wherever they may be and is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to protect them.
Though the day to day environment is stressful and, over the years, several hundred thousand people have opted to leave, almost 99 % of the 600,000 immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union have opted to stay - even though visas to other countries are readily available. And while housing may not be luxurious, there are virtually no people without a roof over their heads and adequate health care is affordable for all.
Sure there are weeds among the flowers, but the achievements cannot be overlooked. Neither can the problems, however. To rest on past achievements would be folly, almost suicidal. Now that Israel has won its wars and is on the way to coming to terms with its enemies, the time has come for this people to come to terms with themselves. Despite the unity in the face of adversity, current divisions in our society are deep and if not dealt with, potentially disastrous. There is an almost irreconcilable divide between those who want to turn a modern democracy into a theocracy and to those who want to protect what we have. There is little doubt that Israelis of North African descent feel themselves discriminated against, even though the youngsters among them are now the third generation.
There is a growing resentment between those who give and those who take, those who serve and those who don't. There is an inherent injustice in the increasingly disproportionate resources being extorted by minority interest groups and in the way we have treated the Arab citizens of our land. There is growing political violence as seen in the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the increased vitriol being aimed by some against the Supreme Court. There is slippage in the education system, and housing prices are gradually escalating beyond the means of many. There are growing efforts, particularly by Shas, to reopen the ethnic divide and to move people out of the university system into yeshivot.
These are real and perturbing phenomena that have to be addressed and not to see them would be tantamount to sanctioning regression.
Should Israel be proud on its 49th birthday? The answer is a clear and resounding yes. But to be just proud and not worried would be myopic and self-defeating. Much has been achieved. Much remains to be done.