Soon after the founding of Israel in 1948, a lady newly arrived from Poland was standing outside a cinema in Haifa. When she saw a young soldier walking up to the ticket booth, she froze. ‘Haim?’ she said. After the two had stared at each other in disbelief for a few moments, Rivka Waxmann flung herself at the son she had never expected to see again. The two had been separated in Europe eight years earlier, and each assumed the other had died in the Holocaust.
Stories like this bring to life the reasons why Israel, which celebrates the 65 anniversary of its founding today, needed to come into existence. The great Amos Oz has called Israelis a people of "half-hysterical refugees" who are "haunted by dreadful nightmares". When Israelis quip that Moses wandered in the desert for forty years to find the only spot in the Middle East without oil, the joke is both rueful and proud. Look at what we have achieved, it says, considering what we found here, and where we came from.
At 65, as you look back on battles lost and won, you can be forgiven for dwelling on your achievements with pride. The survivors of Russian pogroms, Nazi genocide and Arab expulsions went on to build a state that defeated its enemies time after time. Today Israel’s GDP per head is close to that of the UK, and it has more scientists and engineers as a proportion of its population than any other country. Its army is one of the best in the world; in Jerusalem’s Old City, tourists buy T-shirts with an image of an F-16 and the slogan: "Don’t worry, America. Israel is behind you."
But as with people who experience early trauma, the instincts Israel developed in order to survive have often proved its undoing. Having had to fight for its life in its early days, it spawned a military which sees violence as the solution to every problem and has spread its tentacles into every corner of the state. Having arrived as landless immigrants scrabbling for every inch of earth, after 1967 Israelis built settlements they didn’t need on territories belonging to other peoples. And like a victim of abuse who has learnt never to trust anyone, Israel has too often been incapable of reaching out a hand in peace to its neighbours.
W. H. Auden wrote of "What all schoolchildren learn," that "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return". Today it is the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation who long for a state in their ancient homeland, their identity forged in oppression. While Israel’s neighbours once spurned peace, today the 22 countries of the Arab Leage have offered it full normalisation if it ends the occupation, allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says he wants to negotiate an end to the conflict and has spoken bravely of the compromises his people must make to bring this about. But Israel’s leaders are making peace harder to achieve by ploughing money into West Bank settlements, further enraging Palestinians and undermining moderate leaders.
Israel’s story, in brief, might be described as overcoming a horrific infancy to grow rich and successful. But its triumphs have come at a cost. Once full of youthful idealism, today it is cynical, increasingly corrupt, and calloused by hubris. The land of socialist pioneers has become, besides America, the most unequal country in the world. A state established as a home for the homeless now treats immigrants with contempt, as is shown by the scandal of Israeli doctors pressuring Ethiopian women into taking long-term contraceptive drugs.
For all its spectacular achievements, the Israel of 2013 is falling short of Zionism’s most basic goal: to make for the Jews a country like any other. Instead Israel has become a state that flouts international law, scorns global condemnation and is increasingly mired in isolation. Israel was supposed to be a safe haven, but now watches its young emigrate to escape conflict and seek normalcy in the US and, in an irony of history, Europe.
At 65, it is hard for people to change their ways. But if Israel is to realise the dream of its founders and become a Jewish democratic state living in harmony with its neighbours, it has no choice but to unlearn the habits of a lifetime. Amid the noise of celebrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem today, an ominous question hangs in the air. It is that of Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, who stood before his war-hungry generals in 1967 and asked: “Must we live forever by the sword?”
Update: This article was amended on 18/04/13 to remove the claim that Israeli doctors had forced sterilisation on Ethiopian women.
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