Israel at 50

The official celebration of Israel’s 50th birthday began on Chanukah, but it should really have begun on November 29. On that date five decades ago, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. Younger generations have little comprehension of just how unlikely that UN decision was given the political and economic circumstances of the time.

Recognition of Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, was nearly as improbable. Today, people take for granted the power of the “pro-Israel lobby, ” but AIPAC didn’t exist 50 years ago. Two Jews lobbied President Harry Truman, the courtly Englishman, Chaim Weizmann, and Eddie Jacobson, the President's former haberdashery partner. Given the opposition of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and Secretary of State George Marshall, who could have predicted that Truman would back partition and recognize the new State of Israel?

Consider for a moment the miraculous story of Israel's growth in the succeeding decades.

Let’s start with the ingathering of the exiles. The integration of people from more than 100 countries has been nothing short of astounding. Consider that the Jewish population doubled in just the first three years of statehood. Less than 50 years ago, 500,000 Jews lived in Palestine. This year, Israel's population is expected to reach six million.

Just think about America’s immigration problems and then contemplate the enormity of Israel’s task, absorbing nearly 750,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union in less than a decade. It would be like the United States assimilating the entire population of France.

Think about Israel as a haven. Since 1948, no Jew has had to worry about having the doors closed to them as they were during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Jews escaped from Arab persecution in operations Ali Baba and Magic Carpet. And who will ever forget operations Moses and Exodus, when thousands of Ethiopian Jews were secretly airlifted to Israel. What other nation would have done such a thing. As William Safire said, “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought to a country not in chains but in dignity.”

Those Ethiopians were on the lowest rung of one of the world’s poorest societies; today, less than 15 years later, most are productive members of Israel’s high-tech society.

Do you realize how remarkable it is for a country the size of New Jersey, with few natural resources and a tiny population, to have developed from a Third World nation to a First World society in such a short period? In the last few years, Israel has had one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. It’s recognized as one of the world’s leading centers of research and development. More than 7,000 American companies do business in or with Israel, including Fortune 500 companies like Intel, Microsoft, IBM, McDonald’s and Baxter Healthcare. Why do they do business there? Because they’re Zionists? Of course not. American business has learned that Israel is a great place to make a profit, to tap into a large pool of extraordinary talent and to serve as a gateway to the European market.

The Arab boycott and the lack of peace with its neighbors inhibited Israel’s international relations for decades. But today Israel stands tall on the international stage. It now has diplomatic relations with most nations and the peace process fostered normalization with several Arab countries.

When you talk about Israel's development, you also have to mention the special alliance with the United States. Virtually every U.S. government agency has an agreement to cooperate with its counterpart in Israel. At least 21 states have their own agreements to promote state to state exchanges in trade, agriculture, education, culture and other areas of mutual interest. The strategic alliance between the U.S. and Israel has evolved so that today it is one of the strongest in the world.

Israel's accomplishments cannot just be measured by the tangible strength of its economy and military; they are also reflected in the vibrancy of its democracy, the innovativeness of its approaches to problems and the character of its people.

In just 50 years, Israel has emerged from the desert, from the ashes of the Holocaust, from the battlefields of six wars and unspeakable terrorist atrocities as a strong, proud country. For every two Jews, you may have three synagogues, four political parties and five organizations, but you have only one blessed Jewish State, one Homeland, one Israel. Let us celebrate.