The Shepherd Becomes the King: Interpreting 70 Years of Israeli Independence
The proclamation of Jewish independence on May 14, 1948, may have been the most epic reversal of history ever recorded.
Eighteen centuries after the Romans expelled their forefathers and only three years after the Holocaust, 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 opposition and Arab invasion from all sides. Rarely in history does one find a cause so evidently moral. Israel’s founding was at once a victory for justice, a triumph for freedom, and a crushing blow to antisemitism. It was a story of David against Goliath.
But 70 years later, things are different. Israel isn’t David anymore. Though still tiny, this nuclear state and regional hegemon is one of the most successful and dynamic countries on the planet. New facts demand a new approach, and too few voices are taking the next chapter of the State of Israel seriously.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world still loathe the Jews and the Jewish state. A thousand miles from Jerusalem, the Iranian ayatollahs are working hard to achieve Israel’s immediate destruction. One hundred miles away in Lebanon and just 50 miles away in Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas are doing their best to assist. All around the world, agents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement are trying 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Israel will have enemies for the foreseeable future, but that old fear of being “wiped off the map” has faded and has been replaced by an unshakable confidence. This new national confidence is a source of both consternation to her enemies and occasionally concern to her allies. Israel’s allies, who are accustomed to caring for the poor and endangered Jew, are adjusting to the new reality that David can fend for himself. 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 conceptual revolution has been Israel’s status in the Arab world. In recent years, as a consequence of shared concern over Iranian expansion, Israel has established a growing network of friendly ties with Arab neighbors. Since 1979, Israel has made peace with Egypt; since 1994, with Jordan. One year before that, Israel began working with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to create the Palestinian National Authority, the first experiment in Palestinian self-determination in all of history.
Anyone who remembers the events and rhetoric of 1948 would be shocked by the change of tone among Arab leaders toward Jerusalem. Last September, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stood before the UN General Assembly and inveighed against Palestinian leadership, 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 onto 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, moving its embassy to Jerusalem, canceling the Obama-era Iran Deal, and launching retaliatory missiles at Israel’s enemies in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile is working hard to forge deeper ties with Russia, China, India (even going so far as to spark 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 than it is today. The selection of Israeli singer Netta Barzilai as the winner of the Eurovision song competition on Saturday only underscores a general opening 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 hungry 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 has recently discovered and begun 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.
In just one lifetime, the Jewish state has gone from rags to riches. So how should we think about engaging Israel in light of such dramatic changes?
First, we need to keep in mind what Israel actually is. 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; 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. Our friendship with Israel means understanding Israel’s essential humanity.
Second, we should recognize that hatred of the Jewish state remains strong in many quarters. The war isn’t over, and the timeless reality of antisemitism demands constant vigilance. Hubris, self-deception, and destruction lie in wait for those who mistake calm for capitulation.
Third, we should begin looking at Israel as a model of entrepreneurial ingenuity that can benefit others through its hard-won knowledge. Much has been made about Israel as the “start-up nation” whose innovative economic techniques can be adopted by other developing countries. Less talked about has been Israel’s success in the social and governmental realms. How to manage the problems presented by immigration, poverty, and post-traumatic stress? How to ensure freedom and pluralism amid deep ethnic, religious, and ideological differences? How to uphold rule of law against the corruption and capriciousness of political leaders? How to balance the demands of liberalism and democracy with the need to preserve cultural mores? These are all challenges that Israeli leaders have studied and, in many cases, met with incredible solutions. As Middle Easterners look for a way out of their current quagmire, and as we in the West seemingly move toward a post-liberal future, we should be examining these case studies and looking for models that work.
Fourth, we Christians should see Israel as a gateway to the Hebraic tradition that lies at the root of our faith, a tradition that often gets buried beneath our denominational preferences and ultra-modern sensibilities. 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 first made our civilization great, then Israel and its people offer an obvious entry point, a living link that helps us reclaim the original context of our faith.
Lastly, we need to get beyond the old paradigm of “supporting” Israel and explore the possibilities of partnering with the Jewish state to advance shared values and interests. Of course, we support Israel—that’s a given. But the most interesting way to engage Israel in the future won’t be face-to-face, reaching down to give the Jews a hand; it will be side-by-side, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as we work to address each other’s challenges, promote pluralism in the Middle East, and 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 raised on the constant alarmism of 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 the executive director of The Philos Project and co-publisher of Providence.
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.