Israel’s happiest accomplishment

At 60, Israel has hardly begun, but its accomplishments already go well beyond the founders’ wildest dreams.Having just emerged from another day in first grade, Aviad asked me, for some reason, who was our prime minister, and I answered he …

At 60, Israel has hardly begun, but its accomplishments already go well beyond the founders’ wildest dreams.Having just emerged from another day in first grade, Aviad asked me, for some reason, who was our prime minister, and I answered he was Ariel Sharon.

“Really?” replied the toddler, “and I thought it was Yossi Benayoun.”

Yossi Benayoun, the soccer forward who was born humbly in Dimona, has since climbed to international stardom in Liverpool, and Aviad, now a fifth grader who has also evolved, was asked this week what he thought Israel’s best accomplishments were in its first six decades. He said: The Yom Kippur War and the disk-on-key.

“Now there is a thesis,” I thought to myself. On the one hand – an epic military victory involving hordes of soldiers, casualties, prisoners, tanks, missiles, aircraft, diplomats, journalists, dollars, spies and oil barrels, all of them surrounding the tiny Jewish state the way the brothers’ sheaves circled Joseph’s in his dream; and on the other hand, a morsel of tin and plastic that stores entire livelihoods, and symbolizes the ingenuity which has inspired thousands of inventions here, from MS medicine and firewall software to unmanned aircraft and drip irrigation.

As it marks its 60th birthday, many find Israel’s shortcomings greater than its accomplishments. Celebrity lawyer Ya’acov Weinroth, for instance, has just decried in Haaretz our being possessed by greed, while the Atlantic Monthly asks on its cover: “Is Israel Finished?” As the ones who ordinarily decry Israel’s every failure, sin and shortcoming, Middle Israelis now wish to remind the whole world that Israel is not finished, that if anything it has hardly begun, and that in fact its accomplishments are well beyond its founders’ wildest dreams.

Israel’s most famous achievements have been the military ones, mainly because they were dramatic, violent and contentious. Today this is hard to recall, but back when the state was established its survival was in such doubt that the IDF Chief of General Staff had to travel to Switzerland to study its army’s system of reserve duty. Since then the IDF has become so big that many wonder whether it isn’t too big.

More deeply, but in the same vein, the very emergence of Jewish paratrooper brigades, submarine flotillas, artillery batteries, tank battalions and fighter-plane squadrons – so soon after the Jews were so non-military that they were butchered en masse – is a twist of historic events that even an exceptionally imaginative novelist could doubtfully have conceived without critics questioning his sanity.

Diplomatically, the Jewish state has also registered once-unthinkable breakthroughs. Today this is hard to believe, but in its first 16 years Israel did not buy even one bullet from the US. The first elaborate military contracts were with France and lasted only a decade, as Paris decided in 1967 to side with Israel’s enemies. Now Israel has just about all it needs militarily, thanks to local production and brisk foreign trade, but none of it came by itself.

The same goes for diplomatic relations. The young Jewish state’s unconditional ostracism by the Arab world soon spread to much of the Nonaligned Bloc, then, following the ’67 war to the entire East Bloc (except Romania) and finally, following the ’73 war, Israel also lost in one fell swoop all its embassies in Black Africa.

Now all this is history. Israel has full and elaborate ties with Eastern Europe, non-Arab Africa, China and Vietnam. Moreover, previously low-level relations with India and Turkey have since morphed into fully-fledged strategic alliances. Add to that the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the de facto relations with some of the Gulf and Maghreb states, and compare that with David Ben-Gurion’s prediction in 1970 that peace with Egypt would come, but might take three decades to arrive – and you get a perspective on how far and how fast we have traveled.

This, too, did not go without saying.

Not to mention the economy. Israel’s lack of mineral riches, its small workforce’s inability to mass-produce anything and its industry’s lack of access to the neighboring markets all made many doubt its ability to survive, let alone thrive. In subsequent years, the failure of its centralized economy and the costs of its wars resulted in such hyperinflation that the economy became a basket case and the shekel a laughingstock.

Now the Bank of Israel is regularly buying dollars to keep the shekel from becoming excessively strong, while foreign companies ask Israeli business partners to pay them in Israeli currency, which has become fully convertible and is now among the world’s most solid coins. Israel has become the developed world’s fastest-growing economy; who would have thought.

Still, these dwarf in comparison with Israel’s social-cultural accomplishments.

It has been less than three decades since then-Labor Party leader Shimon Peres had to be whisked away from Beit Shemesh, where a predominantly North African-descended audience pelted him with eggs and tomatoes as the representative of well-to-do, Ashkenazi Israel. Who today remembers this, with kids increasingly unable to ethnically “classify” each other, and with non-Ashkenazi tycoons like Yitzhak Teshuva, Haim Saban and Tzadik Bino dominating much of the business sector? The same goes for the religious-secular rift. To us it goes without saying that the IDF, by law, keeps kosher in all its kitchens, but back when the state was established someone had to decree that, as well as the law forbidding industrial production on the Sabbath and civil marriages and divorces, all of which conceal serious controversies that could have debilitated the Jewish state, but never did.

Even happier is the restoration of the Hebrew language. Next time our leaders, enemies or friends make you want to jump out of the window, look behind your shoulder and imagine Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary – is suddenly there, ready to hear you.

“What can you show me that will make me happy?” he will ask, and you will take him down to the nearest playground, kindergarten, school yard, grocery store, hospital, law firm or engineers’ office, and then observe him absorb – like a composer scrutinizing a symphony orchestra’s performance of his own sonata – the kids’ play, the grocer’s counting, the school children’s shouts, the kindergarten teacher’s storytelling, the engineer’s calculation, the surgeon’s operation and the lawyers’ negotiation, all rolling about in the very Hebrew whose resurrection he insisted was both feasible and imperative, while some ridiculed and others persecuted that hero for his odd cultural vision and resolve.

Then take Ben-Yehuda for a stroll up the Jerusalem pedestrian mall that is now named after him, and then proceed to one of the nearby ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where the offspring of the rabbis who once boycotted him now themselves speak Hebrew, and then take him across the country – to get a load of our numerous Hebrew novels, periodicals, movies, plays, poems, operas, university courses, TV shows, evening schools, political debates and what not.

Then, looking at that prophet’s gulping of his vision’s realization, you, too, will appreciate that in breathing life into the language of Moses, David and Isaiah, and in speaking it to our kids, we are doing the unthinkable every minute anew, and that in this, what Israel represents is even more improbable, rewarding and vindicating than winning a war and inventing the disk-on-key.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.