The proclamation of Jewish independence on May 14, 1948, may have been the most epic reversal of history ever recorded.
Three years after the Nazi Holocaust and eighteen centuries after the Roman expulsion from Judea, a tiny group of 750,000 Jews—less than half the current Jewish population of New York City—declared sovereignty in their ancestral homeland against a tidal wave of Arab opposition. Israel’s founding was at once a triumph for freedom, a victory for justice, and a crushing blow to antisemitism. It was a story of David against Goliath. Rarely does one encounter a cause so moral.
But 70 years later, things are different. Israel isn’t little David anymore. This nuclear state and regional hegemon may be small, but it’s also one of the most successful countries on the planet. New facts demand a new approach. The State of Israel has entered a new chapter.
Let’s not forget that hundreds of millions of people still hate the Jews and the Jewish state. A thousand miles from Jerusalem, the Iranian ayatollahs are working to achieve Israel’s immediate destruction. One hundred miles away in Lebanon and fifty miles away in Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas are doing their best to help. All around the world, supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement try to isolate and weaken the Jewish state through nonviolent, but no less insidious, means.
Israel will have enemies for the foreseeable future, but that old fear of being wiped off the map has faded for the time being. In its place is an unshakable confidence that causes her enemies, and occasionally even her allies, some consternation. David the weak shepherd has become David the mighty king, and many of his best friends still don’t know what to do with that.
The most obvious revolution has been Israel’s growing cooperation with the Arab world. In 1979, Israel made peace with Egypt. In 1994, with Jordan. One year before that, Israel began working with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to create the Palestinian National Authority, history’s first experiment in Palestinian self-determination. Mutual concern over Iranian aggression has led to friendly ties with several other Arab countries.
Anyone who remembers the events of 1948 will be surprised by the new tone being adopted by Arab leaders toward Jerusalem. Last September, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stood before the UN General Assembly and inveighed against Palestinian political leaders, calling on them “to overcome [their] differences and not to lose opportunities and to be ready to accept co-existence with the other, with Israelis in safety and security.”
In late April of this year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman reportedly told an assembled group of Jewish-American leaders, “In the last several decades the Palestinian leadership has missed one opportunity after the other and rejected all the peace proposals it was given. It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.”
Just last week, as Iranian missiles fell from Syria on northern Israel, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa went on Twitter to support Israel’s right to defend itself.
Clearly this is not the world of universal Arab opposition into which Israel was born.
Beyond the Arab world, things are looking also looking up. In his first year in office, President Donald Trump has spurred the United States to become more pro-Israel than ever before, moving its embassy to Jerusalem, canceling the Obama-era Iran Deal, and launching retaliatory missiles at Israel’s enemies in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also working hard to forge deeper ties with Russia, China, India (even sparking up a budding bromance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi), and many key African and European countries. On the diplomatic and cultural fronts, Israel has never been more accepted. The selection of Israeli singer Netta Barzilai as the winner of the Eurovision song competition on Saturday only underscores a growing openness toward Israel from countries around the world.
Israel’s external displays of strength are equally matched by its internal fortitude. No longer is it the struggling, resource-poor country of immigrants that it was in 1948. Today Israel’s economy is one of the most dynamic in the world, on track to grow by around 3 percent through the end of 2019. Unemployment is lower than it has been in years. Life expectancy is up. Unlike many developed countries, Israel’s population growth is well above replacement rate. Israel recently discovered and began exploiting a massive natural gas field offshore, and its pioneering work in desalination, irrigation, and wastewater treatment has taken the country from water shortage to water surplus in just a few years.
The Jewish state has gone from rags to riches in the span of one lifetime. The question is how that should affect the way we engage with Israel going forward.
First, we need to understand Israel’s essential humanity. Outsiders often reduce the country to two-dimensional images of the “Holy Land” or the “frontline against terror” that ignore the 8.5 million people who actually live there. Israel is, above all else, an exercise in Jewish self-determination and security, and we support Israel because we support the Jewish people–not the other way around. Israel is also home to almost two million non-Jews, a myriad assortment of Arab, Druze, Aramean, Armenian, and Syriac citizens who care just as deeply about its future as the Jews do.
Second, we should recognize that hatred of the Jewish state still remains strong in many quarters. The war isn’t over, and the timeless threat of antisemitism demands constant vigilance. Hubris, self-deception, and destruction lie in wait for anyone who mistakes calm for capitulation.
Third, we should begin to look at Israel as a model of entrepreneurial ingenuity that can benefit others. Much has been written about Israel as a “start-up nation” whose innovative methods can be adopted by other developing countries. Less talked about has been Israel’s success in the social and governmental realm. How to deal with immigration, poverty, and post-traumatic stress? How to ensure freedom and security in the face of deep ethnic, religious, and ideological divides? How to uphold the rule of law against the corruption and capriciousness of political leaders? How to balance the demands of liberalism and democracy with the preservation of cultural mores? These are all problems that Israeli leaders have studied and, in many cases, solved. As Middle Easterners look to escape their current quagmires, and as Westerners move into what increasingly seems to be a post-liberal future, we ought to be studying Israel’s successes–and its failures–in search of models that work.
Fourth, we Christians should recognize Israel as a gateway to the Hebraic tradition that gave birth to our faith. Though hardly a religious country—only 20 percent of its people identify as orthodox—Israel nevertheless serves, through its history, geography, and demography, as a point of departure for Christianity and Western culture more broadly. If “saving the West” involves any kind of return to the transcendent vision that built our civilization, then Israel and its people offer an obvious entry point–a living link that helps us reclaim the original context of our faith.
Finally, we need to get beyond the old paradigm of “supporting” Israel and explore a new mode of partnering with Israel to advance shared values and interests. Of course, we support Israel—that’s a given. But the most interesting way to engage Israel going forward won’t be reaching down to give the Jews a hand; it will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder to address each other’s challenges, to promote pluralism in the Middle East, and to act out that old adage that Jews and Christians take so seriously: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It may be hard for those habituated to the Israel-in-crisis narrative to cope with the fact of Israel’s success. But wise friends will see that the Jewish state’s most exciting years still lie ahead. In one of its more aspirational paragraphs, the Israeli Declaration of Independence reads:
We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
Seventy years on, thanks to Israel’s growing strength and acceptance, these aspirations actually have a shot at becoming reality.
Robert Nicholson is co-editor of Providence and president of The Philos Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. He holds a BA in Hebrew Studies from Binghamton University, and a JD and MA (Middle Eastern History) from Syracuse University. A formerly enlisted Marine and a 2012- 2013 Tikvah Fellow, Robert splits his time between New York City and Syracuse.
Photo Credit: Young Jewish men, some survivors from Buchenwald, arrive in Haifa to be arrested by the British on July 15, 1945. From To the Promised Land by Uri Dan, via Wikimedia Commons.
[Article edited on April 24, 2019.]