Juxtaposition Nation: Israel at 75

Israel is celebrating 75 years of existence this week. Here’s a smattering of thoughts on this miracle nation’s fascinating history and culture.

The Jewish State turns 75 this week, and Israelis are celebrating their Independence Day, known in Israel as Yom Ha’atzma’ut. The date changes each year, as it is referenced by the Jewish calendar, but it falls from April 25 to 26 in 2023.

Israeli independence is dated from the declaration of the State by the nation’s first Prime Minister and the dominant figure in Israel’s early politics, David Ben-Gurion, only a few hours before the official end of British Mandate Palestine. The state was declared despite the desires of the British (one of the few times you’ll see me fault the British Empire is in its treatment of Israel). It was declared knowing it would trigger a massive, all-out, genocidal invasion of the country by its far larger and better-equipped Arab neighbors. It faced down that war of extermination, along with several others, coming out victorious each time. It has dealt with constant terrorism for nearly its entire history, often funded or promoted by various nations and international institutions – including the United States. And still it is here, thriving, in spite of the gale-force headwinds. The existence of such a state is a prophecy fulfilled – whether from the Bible or from Theodor Herzl. (My money is on the latter.)

Somehow Israel seems both older and younger than its seven and a half decades of national life; this is just one of the many paradoxes that makes Israel one of the most interesting countries on Earth.

The Sea of Galilee, from a restaurant near Capernaum.

When Zionist Jews began immigrating to the area of the future state, under the Ottomans and British, the land was largely barren, sparsely-populated, and decrepit. Now, less than 150 years after the birth of the modern Zionist movement and a mere half of that since the founding of Israel, the land is flourishing. Empty desert landscapes are just a short drive from wildly productive agricultural plots, irrigated in the most impressive and efficient manner known to man. The austere and ancient city of Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital, is linked by rail to the modern, skyscraper-filled metropolis of Tel Aviv. On one end of the line, you can walk in the footsteps of pilgrims who have been visiting for millennia; on the other end of the line, you can shop in a massive mall, eat world-class global cuisine, and refresh yourself in the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean.

Israeli society and culture are just as seemingly contradictory as are its geography and settlement. Israel is the only democracy in the region and has remained one through countless internal and external trials. Its political system is bumptious and complicated, but it has not been dominated by a single party like many other nations which emerged after World War II. It began as an agriculture-focused socialist state, with kibbutzim aplenty, and has evolved into a capitalist mecca, boasting some of the world’s most advanced technology companies. In liberal Tel Aviv, nightclubs and scanty outfits are all the rage; in areas not too distant, yeshiva students spend hours studying religious texts in sex-segregated spaces. Israel is a nation steeped in preparation for existential conflict, with most of the populace serving mandatory terms in the armed forces. At the same time, the culture can be freewheeling, confident, and easygoing.

Ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum.

Of course, all of this is juxtaposed with the fact of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Two nations essentially exist within the territory of one. On one side of the fence, Jews are entirely unwelcome, if not targets for assassination; on the other side of the fence, Muslim Arabs serve in the Israeli Knesset and, just recently, served in the government coalition itself. One side of the fence has seemingly chronic parliamentary elections, while the other hasn’t had an election in nearly 20 years. Rockets fired from one side of the fence are intended to hit civilians, while rockets fired from the other side are primarily intended to intercept those of the aggressor. One side proposes peace deals and unilaterally withdraws from contested territory; the other side rejects anything other than total destruction of its rival. This does not absolve Israel of the abuses its government and military have indeed carried out against Palestinians throughout the past 75 years. What it does do, however, is contextualize the situation.

That brings us back to Israel’s Independence Day, which is itself part of this nation of contrasts. The celebrations, parades, barbeques, and fireworks of that day are an expression of pure national joy. The country comes together to revel in the miracle of its very existence. Work stops, stores close, and the citizenry takes the day to enjoy the blessings of the Jewish State. And just a day before this joyous occasion, the nation comes together to mourn, because Israel’s Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) falls on the same week. This is a deliberate choice. The nation commemorates those who have died in defense of the country and in terror attacks, linking the sacrifice of Israeli lives to the ability for those who remain to live in relative peace and prosperity. On that day, sirens sound at 8am, stopping all traffic and activity for a full minute of silence; Israeli TV stations cease normal broadcasting and instead fill the time with the list of all those who died in service of the nation; and entertainments are shut down by law. Linking these two events – one profoundly moving and the other incredibly jubilant – is the heart of this nation of contradictions. And that is exactly what makes Israel such a special place.

A view of Jerusalem from afar.

As you may be able to tell from my writing, I have a particular affinity for the nation of Israel. I am not Jewish myself, but I have been philosemitic since childhood and grew up around Jewish traditions and culture. (I have, after all, spent most of my life in the NYC metro area, the area with the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel.) I have participated in many a seder, and some of my family members through marriage are Jewish – honoring Passover with them is a treasured tradition. I find myself drawn to Israel for these reasons and others. I am a national security hawk, and Israel is one of America’s greatest allies; I am an historian, and Israel is a nation that is full of world-making history; and I love an underdog success story, and Israel fits that bill perhaps better than any other nation.

I also have a personal connection to Israel which cemented my love for this extraordinary country. Back in 2013, when I was an auditor, my main client was a major Israeli telecommunications and technology company. As part of the audit, we had to travel to Israel to work with the corporate staff, examine documentation, and conduct interviews to understand our client’s processes. Given the expense of shipping an entire audit team halfway across the world, our time in-country was precious; we worked ourselves to the bone trying to reach our ambitious goals. Audited financial statements are required to meet a hard deadline by law, so this was crunch time to the max. Besides dealing with the inevitable jet lag, the work itself was exhausting. Yet despite all of this stress, my time in Israel was deeply impactful on my life.

Archaeological excavations in progress in the Old City of Jerusalem.

I was able to indulge my love for history – and presage the eventual career change that has me here writing this now – by visiting sites like Nazareth, Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea, and the Dead Sea. (The photos in this essay are all my own; apologies for the 2013-quality phone camera.) I was able to eat, drink, and be merry in some of the finest restaurants and bars (and a few of the less high-end versions) I’ve ever been to. I have never felt more beloved as an American abroad than when I was in Israel – a truly foreign feeling for me at that time. I was able to explore and experience a culture that made a huge impact on my life, helping me to better contextualize my own problems in a wider lens. I have a funny story about that, actually.

One day we had off from work, we went golfing with some of the client’s personnel. Halfway through the round, the skies opened to a torrential downpour, complete with lightning and thunder. Us Americans retreated to the nearby gazebo, but several Israelis continued their round unabated. When they reached the end of the hole and joined us under cover, my coworker asked them why they were crazy enough to keep playing in the storm (obviously, he had seen Caddyshack). One of the Israelis responded immediately, saying: “When you have to worry about the Iranians, you don’t tend to worry about lightning.” This struck me like…. well…. lightning. The very real challenges the nation faced did not turn its inhabitants into dour pessimists, but allowed them to truly savor the miracle of Israel itself. We would all do well to adopt this stance in our everyday lives, even if the problems we face are far less serious than those of the world’s lone Jewish state.

The Western Wall, the only remaining section of the Second Temple; this is one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

So that concludes my rambling peroration about a beautiful country that I have a strong affection for. Congratulations to the nation of Israel for 75 years of existence, against all odds, and may there be another 75 in the offing. And 75 more after that, and so on. L’chaim!

The modernity of Tel Aviv, the beauty of the Mediterranean, and the old city of Jaffa in the distance.

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