Israeli Independence Day, 2014
On Monday evening and Tuesday, Israel marks its 66th Independence Day. Each year this day is preceded by Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers. The one holiday segues into the other, a few minutes after sundown, with the raising of the national flag on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem from half-staff to full height.
That moment, one of the most defining and resonant in Israeli life, signifies that the country owes its existence to those who have been willing to sacrifice for it. And with Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers coming only a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day, it also represents a subtle, profound shift from mourning to celebration.
And celebrate is what Israel does on Independence Day. With all-night festivities in city squares; the awarding of the Israel Prize to twelve high-achieving citizens; a reception for 120 outstanding soldiers at the president’s residence; above, in the nation’s skies, amazing displays of prowess by air force jets; the International Bible Quiz in Jerusalem; massive flocking to parks and nature reserves; flags lining city streets and flying from balconies and car windows.
Although by now a veteran immigrant, I’m struck anew each year by the depth and authenticity of sentiment that this day evokes. After two thousand years of dispersion, 66 years of restored statehood is still a very short time. And I predict that in another 66 years this day, so permeated with history and meaning, will be no less intense.
Each year, a few days before Independence Day, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics releases numbers that get widely reported in the media.
The numbers tell remarkable stories. The country’s population now stands at almost 8.2 million—compared to 860,000 in 1948, the year the state was declared. Of today’s total, 75 percent are Jews, 21 percent are Arabs, and the rest are mostly Russian immigrants who are connected to Jewish families and identify with the Jewish collective.
Since last year’s Independence Day 178,000 babies were born in Israel. Although Israel’s birthrate is already uniquely high among Western countries, this marks a new record. Also over that period 40,000 people died and 24,000 new immigrants arrived, for a net population growth of 162,000 or 2 percent.
And contrary to widespread mythologies and “apartheid” canards, it is not the Arab population within Israel, nor the Arab population in the West Bank, that is growing but rather the Jewish population in both places—on a dramatic upward curve, while the Arab populations are actually declining. The idea that the Israeli Jewish population stands to be demographically overwhelmed may be precious to some U.S. officials and other harsh critics of Israel. Problem is, it’s not true.
Combine this with Israel’s huge economic growth, outsize contribution in high tech, medicine, agriculture, and other fields, massive absorption of immigrants, and maintenance of a vibrant democracy under unpromising conditions, and it adds up to a remarkable success story.
Yes, there are dark clouds on the horizon. In addition to the anti-Israeli terror organizations now dominating Lebanon and Gaza, the violent turmoil once known as the “Arab spring” has brought an influx of global jihadis to Syria and the Sinai. Meanwhile the Western powers are immersed in a “process” with Iran—which regularly threatens Israel’s destruction—that appears headed toward letting Iran become a threshold nuclear power.
But while these threats are real, there are countervailing factors. The last war between Israel and Arab states (as opposed to terror organizations) was fought in 1973, over four decades ago. These days Sunni Arab states are focused on the Iranian threat and see Israel as a tacit ally and potential deliverer. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan endure. True, this is pragmatic “peace” between governments while Arab populations throughout the region remain virulently anti-Israeli and antisemitic. But pragmatic peace is still worth a lot.
Israel is a triumph of the human spirit. In recent decades the country’s achievements and real nature have been obscured by an obsession with the Palestinian issue. But the real Israel is still there for anyone who wants to look past the media miasma and see it.