The unique experience of Memorial Day – immediately followed by Independence Day, in Israel is so pervasive, even a three-year-old can sense that something big is going on. My daughter Tamar returned from preschool yesterday clutching her plastic Israeli flag and parroted back the explanation her teacher had given the children.
“You see Mommy, today is a very sad day. Everybody is wearing black. Black is a sad color. But tonight, when the stars come out, it starts to be a happy day. And everything is blue and white. Blue is the color of the sea and the sky and white is the color of the desert. They are happy colors and everyone is happy.”
At her tender age, she managed to accurately describe up the two days Israelis devote to patriotism. Indeed, celebrating the country’s birthday often feels like an exercise in mass bipolar disorder or a workshop in overcoming Jewish guilt.
Following a day of grief, ceremonies at every military cemetery, town square, and schoolyard for the fallen, reflections in the media on every television channel on the terrible price in young lives paid for this country in the too-numerous war, Israel’s Remembrance Day offers collective hug to the heartbroken families they left behind. Then, in an instant, the sadness is left behind and transformed into celebration – complete with music, fireworks, dancing, and, of course, barbecues in a country clothed in the blue and white of the flag.
For 24 hours, a citizenry, that, while deeply devoted to their country, doesn’t generally indulge in displays of fanfare flag-waving, is unabashedly, rejoicingly patriotic. After an evening of cathartic jubilation in my local park, on Israel’s 60th birthday, I feel the need to leave the sad and troubling aspects of the country behind for a moment. As a working journalist in Israel, I have every other day of the year to write about the missteps and mistakes of the country’s leaders as it copes in in its complex neighborhood full of angry neighbors, the threats that show no sign of going away, the complicated and often corrupt internal politics and the scandals which also, sadly, show no signs of disappearing soon, either.
Today, is a day to celebrate the accomplishments of the country which has been my home for 15 years.
First and foremost, the fact that it is here at all, is, in itself, its greatest accomplishment. The country has fulfilled its basic purpose as providing a haven for the Jewish people in the traumatic aftermath of the Holocaust, a safe place for Jews to live, grow and prosper.
In 1948, there were 650,000 Jews living in Israel. Today, there are eight times more – 5.5 million Jews, a result of natural increase as well as immigration.
These Jews live within the borders of Israel proper peacefully together its substantial non-Jewish minority – Israel’s Arabs. (True, they are not incredibly thrilled to live in a Jewish state, if you want to know more about that, you can check out the New York Times article today, which, to its credit, concedes that they are “better off and better integrated than ever in their history, freer than a vast majority of other Arabs” before describing their unhappiness.
There are also 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came with Jewish family members.
Think about it – in 1948, only six percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in Israel – today, approximately 41 percent of the world’s Jews call it home. These Jews are as diverse as members of any family that is scattered all over the globe – European, Asian, African, Orthodox, secular, devastatingly poor and exceedingly rich.
The state’s humble goal was at first and foremost merely to exist – and that is still here is probably what its founders would be most proud of if they could see it today. What would most devastate them is that a substantial part of the world still questions its right to exist, and the fact that so much of the country’s time and energy must still be spent trying to counter these existential threats.
The truly amazing and miraculous part of the story is that in the face of its struggles against its enemies, Israel has not only survived, but thrived. The Israeli economy is thriving and robust, that the level of high-tech development in such a tiny country and that we produce not only a record number of new inventions and research papers to the world, and world-class scientists – along with supermodels, soccer coaches, and Olympic wind-surfing champions. Along with prestigious universities and holy places, a thriving nightlife and a fun-loving and youth culture.
There is certainly a less cheerful side, too. Anyone who has read my blog over the past five years knows that I, like any journalist working here. certainly do not look at Israel through rose-colored glasses.
And yet – skeptical and cynical as I’ve been trained to be, as aware of all of Israel’s flaws as anyone could be – after all, I’ve made a good living chronicling them, I still can’t help being impressed by this feisty little country on a regular basis.
I look back at my blog after five years, and find my criticisms and complaints generously interspersed with moments of real inspiration.
One of those times was in 2003, after a traumatic year in which I had the experience of sealing up my child’s kindergarten classroom for protection from possible missile attack, I sat proudly at his graduation, then came on and wrote in my blog:
“It is moving to be part of this crazy exhilarating enterprise. To sit there with people who came from every continent of the world to raise their kids in a Jewish state despite all of the dangers and risks, who made it through this terrible year together with the sealed rooms and hauling gas masks to school. And to watch the children, who, despite it all, are proud, happy, confident, and love their free and fun lives.
If you’re wondering, I honestly and truly wish the same kind of lives for Palestinian children, and hope their parents love them enough to give it to them.”
In spite of everything I’ve witnessed over the past several years, I still have that wish.
And if that wish could, by some miracle come true – and the much-ballyhooed Palestinian state ever does come into existence, I could only wish them as fruitful and productive a first sixty years as Israel has enjoyed.
Am I fantasizing? Perhaps. But as another crazy journalist, Theodor Herzl, the man who first envisioned the idea of this country, said, “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
Allison Kaplan Sommer is PJM Tel Aviv editor