Israel is first-world and modern. It is organized, vibrant and bustling. It was after midnight when I was startled from sleep in my hotel room in Jerusalem. The voice on the line was that of the tour director of the America-Israel Friendship League, the organization that arranged for my group of 20 U.S. business and political leaders to visit the embattled nation of Israel.
He told me that a half hour earlier a suicide bomber had killed several people and wounded many at a night club in Tel Aviv. The location was only a few blocks from where our delegation had reservations for the following night. The story would be on the news networks within minutes. I was advised to call my family immediately and tell them I was safe.
I was safe. I felt completely safe in Israel. The only time I felt in danger was crossing the narrow streets and dodging the local drivers. Israel is on the front line of terrorism, but Israelis have lived with danger for so long that they seem resigned to it as a part of their existence. Their attitude is contagious. They are the world’s most notable survivors.
Israel is first-world and modern. I have traveled in countries where elevators and telephones don’t work, and nothing happens on time. That’s not Israel. It is organized, vibrant and bustling.
It is said that stability is necessary for democracy. Israel is in the world’s toughest neighborhood, surrounded by authoritarian dictators and monarchs little more enlightened than the caliphs and sultans of the Middle Ages. Yet, remarkably, Israel has labor unions, chambers of commerce and intensely competitive political parties.
Our group heard from a prominent member of the Knesset, and from a recently retired, highly decorated Israeli general. The disagreement between the two was passionate. Their outspokenness could only occur in a free nation, confident of its freedom.
The one thing they agreed on is the nuclear threat they perceive from Iran. Both indicated that, perhaps in a matter of months, Iran will have a nuclear weapon capability. One hoped that the U.S. and our NATO allies would be able to negotiate successfully with Iran. But he was not optimistic, fearing that America has become bogged down in Iraq and therefore unable to concentrate effectively on Iran. Eyes blazing, the other told us that Israel would not face another holocaust; that Israel would find a way to survive, with or without outside intervention.
Can our nation, which provided the model for Israel, defend and expand freedom and democracy there and elsewhere in the world? What obligation do we have to do so? While not at war as we were in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, we are again at war. That is powerfully supported by the fact that approximately 70 percent of Montana Army National Guard personnel, and 80 percent of the Air Guard have served on federal active duty since 9-11. Similar statistics apply to other states. Being the world’s only superpower carries daunting responsibilities and burdens.
A lasting memory of my visit to Israel will be the view from the crest of a ridge on Israel’s northern border, overlooking war torn Lebanon. In the far distance was the Mediterranean coast, home of the Phoenicians, sophisticated commercial traders, inventors of the phonetic alphabet, and one of the ancient world’s most civilized and enlightened peoples. At the base of the ridge, flying defiantly in view of the fortified Israeli outpost where we stood, was the blue battle flag of Hizbullah, the Iranian-sponsored paramilitary organization that has claimed credit for countless acts of terrorism.
Two questions arise as we look at the future of the turbulent Middle East. Can it become stable, modern, democratic and enlightened? Or will it continue to be the breeding ground for violence and, perhaps, nuclear destruction with shock waves effecting the entire world? A positive answer to the first question will take at least a generation. Sadly, the second one could require only a few months.
(Originally appeared in the Billings Gazette)