Still defining who and what it is, Israel at 75 is plugging full steam ahead
By David E. Kaplan
Yom Ha’atzmaut has arrived this year at a time of internal turmoil and uncertainty. If the flags are out every Saturday night in justifiable protest – in my view – they will be out this Independence Day in no less justifiable pride as we celebrate how far we have come despite the challenges. It’s okay if at 75 the country is still trying to work out what it’s going to be when it grows up.
Looking back to 1948, the naysayers and voices of gloom were lining up at the starting block warning that we stood no chance. Just review the choice of words of US Secretary of Defence, James V. Forrestal who was trying to influence President Truman not to support the Jewish state’s quest for independence:
“You fellows over at the White House are just not facing up to the realities in the Middle East. There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about six hundred thousand Jews on the other. It is clear that in any contest, the Arabs are going to overwhelm the Jews. Why don’t you face up to the realities? Just look at the numbers!”
It’s not only about the numbers.
I thought of some of the early South African pioneers I have interviewed over the years like Polly Resnick (née Salber), ordinary people caught up in doing extraordinary things. Arriving from Cape Town to Haifa in 1938 on a small refugee boat, she boarded a bus to Tel Aviv. Chugging along the old coastal road, “we were not yet halfway to Tel Aviv when the bus driver told us to get quickly under our seats because we were being shot at. Bullets whistled through the windows. So this was my warm welcome to Palestine.” I loved her story, when later married and living in Jerusalem, a British officer came to her door. “It was during the curfew soon after the bombing of the King David Hotel and he asked, “Madam, do you speak English? I wanted to say to him that I speak a better English then him but instead, I invited him in and seated him on the couch which underneath was hidden five rifles.” Polly had had been a member of the Haganah since her early days living with her aunt in Tel Aviv. Now she thought:
“Oh my God, if he finds these firearms, not only will they be confiscated, I WILL BE CONFISCATED!” My heart was pounding. I offered him a cup of English tea to which he replied, “Oh Madam, I would love it.” We sat and chatted. All I wanted to do was get rid of him, and he asked if he could please have another cup of tea. I was crazy with fear and all the while my neighbours were shouting to me in Hebrew from their balconies, “Don’t worry Polly; It will be alright. You’ll be okay.”
Meanwhile soldiers were swarming the road and randomly searching houses for firearms. “Finally, he finished his second cup of tea and left with a smile. Little did he know he was sitting on the very illegal items he was searching for.”
Well, sometimes you have to look beyond the numbers that Defence Secretary Forrestal alluded to but to the core values and the will of the people at the time. I recall when moderating a debate in 2015 at a WIZO conference at the Hiton Tel Aviv, to my question “How relevant today is Zionism to the lives of Jews both living in Israel and in the Diaspora?” the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Rachel Azaria, answered as follows:
“There is a lovely story of two chalutzim (pioneers) on their kibbutz, Afikim, while under siege during the War of Independence. While shells were falling all around them, they spoke of establishing a state, not caring if it lasted one day or more but it had to come into being. That was their task. After the war, every year on Yom Haatzmaut, whenever they walked passed each other on the kibbutz, they would defiantly hold up the number of fingers displaying how old Israel was. As the years wore on, they would run out of fingers and smile. They got the job done and it was now up to the next generation to secure it.” And so it has been, continued Azaria, “that each generation since independence was confronted with “getting the job done’.”
And while that is still the case today of “getting the job done”, today’s generation – as we pass further from the defining epochs of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the independence – need to figure out who we are, what we stand for and to define our Zionism that will have traction for future generations. In part that is what the national protests are about, which at this Yom Haatzmaut is now into its 17th week.
But where one can look at the ‘numbers’ to see where today’ generation is taking Israel, look no further than today’s news headline:
Israeli high schoolers sweep international math competition
“In a historic first,” the report read in The Jerusalem Post, that “an all-female team of young Israeli mathematics students took home every medal possible at the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad (EGMO) in Slovenia. These young Israeli math enthusiasts won the gold, silver, and bronze medals after competing against 214 contestants from 54 countries worldwide.
Not only was this an extraordinary achievement for these young students, but one student, in particular, stood out from the crowd. Participant Noga Friedman not only took home the gold medal for her achievements but ranked 1st, competition wide with a “perfect score.”
Its also an extraordinary achievement for Israel.
So yes, we ‘do the math’. Israel at 75, despite the challenges, has the talent and the temerity to continue: “to get the job done”.
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