Sunday, 21 Apr 2024

Opinion | At 75, Israel Has Plenty to Celebrate

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By Bret Stephens

Opinion Columnist

The Jewish state turned 75 on Sunday, mostly in a sour mood.

The country is governed by a coalition that includes political extremists, proud homophobes, ideological monomaniacs, and the merely corrupt. A proposed judicial reform that would have gutted the principal institutional check on rank majoritarianism has been paused, but not quite stopped, by some of the largest protests in Israeli history. Secular Israelis fear the country’s demographic balance is tilting to the religious extreme. Benjamin Netanyahu can’t get an invitation to the White House. It doesn’t seem to bother most American Jews, who struggle to understand, much less justify, the prime minister’s characteristically self-serving, but uncharacteristically inept, leadership.

To top it off, Israelis just endured five days of rocket fire from the Gaza-based, Iranian-backed terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It’s a reminder that, notwithstanding Israel’s recent successes in normalizing diplomatic relations with parts of the Arab world, many of its neighbors still want it wiped off the map.

And for all this, Israel is doing remarkably well.

It helps to remember the circumstances in which the country was born. Israel is a post-colonial state. It started its national life dirt-poor. Its peer group of countries includes Syria, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and North and South Korea. These states came into being with many of the same core problems: hostile neighbors, unsettled borders, deep poverty, restive ethnic and religious minorities and other unresolved dilemmas from their independence struggles.

As with Israel, many of those problems still dog most of those states. The Koreas don’t have a settled border. India and Pakistan have painful memories of forced population transfers. Those who think the Palestinian issue is unique should consider the situation of Kashmiris in India, Tamils in Sri Lanka, or Kurds in Syria.

But if Israelis haven’t settled the conflict with the Palestinians and other neighbors, neither have they allowed themselves to be consumed by it. Israel is not a country that defines itself in terms of what it’s against, what it’s not, or who has done what to it. There is also an affirmative vision of Israeli identity, centered on the ideal of a renovated and renewed Jewish civilization within which its citizens can find prosperity, a sense of purpose and relative security.

It’s easy to take for granted how fully that vision has been realized. “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew,” was how David Ben-Gurion famously defined normality. Israel got there long ago. On a visit to Israel last week, I casually checked an iPhone app to see where the rockets were falling — not too worried, since the Iron Dome and David’s Sling missile systems provide effective defense.

If the success of a society can be measured by the speed at which the miraculous becomes the mundane, Israel is doing fine.

In Jerusalem, I visited an absorption center for new immigrants, most of them in their 20s and 30s, from Ethiopia, Argentina, France and Russia. Israel welcomed nearly 75,000 newcomers in 2022, the equivalent of more than 2.5 million immigrants to the United States (or more than twice America’s legal intake). Nations that attract immigrants tend to succeed.

Countries that make a future also have one. Israel’s fertility rate, at around three births per woman, is significantly higher than India’s (2.05), the United States’ (1.7) and South Korea’s (0.8). Israel’s high birthrate correlates with strong economic growth. Last year, Israel’s economy grew by 6.5 percent, compared to an average among developed countries of 2.8 percent. Israel now has a higher G.D.P. per capita than Germany and attracts more foreign direct investment than Britain.

What about politics?

Seen in one light, the debate over judicial reform was a near-death experience for Israeli democracy. In another, it has thus far been a stunning display of responsible civic activism, evidence that the center can still hold in a polarized country and that arrogant leaders will bow to public demands.

As for Israel’s disreputable political figures, to whom shall they be compared? The ruling coalition in Sweden governs “in cooperation” with the far-right, xenophobic Sweden Democrats party; nobody thinks of Sweden or most other democracies with unsavory figures like this as exemplars of political extremism. Elsewhere, when would-be despots come to power, they ban public protests, imprison or assassinate their political opponents, impose a reign of terror.

In Israel, by contrast, the protests resume every week while Netanyahu is charged with abusing his authority by trying to buy more favorable media coverage. If that’s what counts as Israeli “fascism” — a word some left-wing Israelis like bandying about — Israelis should count themselves lucky.

Seventy-five is an awkward age at which to judge a nation: The United States reached the milestone when Millard Fillmore was president. But for a country that is as widely criticized — and as critical of itself — as Israel, its people have a lot to celebrate. So many post-colonial states wilted. Israel defies the trend.

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