By Joel B. Pollak
Joel B. Pollak ’99 is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Cape Town. He was a political speechwriter for the Leader of the Opposition in South Africa from 2002 to 2006 and is a second-year student at Harvard Law School.
It still has no formal constitution. Its borders are contested and subject to negotiation. It relies heavily on foreign military aid. It has no majority party and seems incapable of electing a stable government. True, it has strong institutions, a successful economy, a vibrant cultural life, and a powerful military. It has won an Olympic gold medal and the Eurovision song contest. But sixty years after David Ben-Gurion proclaimed its independence, Israel remains, in many ways, an idea.
It is not just an idea. It is an idea with powerful political, legal, and historical foundations. Thousands of men and women have defended it with their lives, and more are ready to do so. Historian Michael Oren points out that in recent conflicts, more than 100 percent of Israeli reservists who are called to their units report for duty.  Israelis also have high hopes for the future, in spite of the daily barrage of rockets and the threat of nuclear annihilation. These hopes are best represented by rising birthrates among Israeli Jews, which reached 2.9 children per woman in 2006.  A string of Nobel prizes in the past several years serves as a reminder of what Israel continues to contribute to humanity.
But at the core of that success lies a profound—and self-inflicted—weakness: a lack of leadership. The birthday wishes said it all: “Happy 60th birthday, Israel—well done for surviving,” wrote Melanie Phillips in the Spectator.  “Will Israel Survive?” wondered Mitchell G. Bard in a recent book (answer: yes, after 236 pages).  “Is Israel Finished?” asked Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic.  Speaking about his article to Shmuel Rosner of Ha’aretz, he offered this “note of optimism”: “Jews survive. It’s what we do. We survive in all sorts of improbable ways.” 
No other country is congratulated on its anniversary for its survival. It is true that no other country has faced the threats that Israel has confronted Israel for three generations. Worse than the immediate physical danger is the steady indoctrination of Arabs and Muslims by their leaders to hate Israel and Jews in particular. As George Orwell once noted:
“The truly evil thing is to act in such a way that peaceful life becomes impossible….By shooting at your enemy you are not in the deepest sense wronging him. But by hating him, by inventing lies about him and bringing children up to believe them, by clamouring for unjust peace terms which make further wars inevitable, you are striking not at one perishable generation, but at humanity itself.” 
That hatred has reached the West, and is preached not only in mosques, but in university classrooms. In the eyes of Israel’s enemies, the Jewish state has never existed at all—not now, and not ever. They have denied Israel’s legitimacy in every possible forum. But they are not solely to blame for Israel’s vulnerability.
Israel’s own leaders are partly at fault, for continuing to behave as if Israel’s right to sovereignty depended on the acquiescence of its most wretched and determined enemies. Yes, Israel has shown a continued will and ability to use pre-emptive strikes against the deadliest dangers—such as Syria’s North Korean-built nuclear plant, which Israel destroyed in September 2007. But on the home front, in the fight against terror, Israel’s most successful recent military operations—the Gaza disengagement, the West Bank security barrier—have all been tactical withdrawals. Necessary and advantageous, but retreats nonetheless.
The newest stop for foreign dignitaries visiting Israel is the town of Sderot, which has been bombarded with rockets by terror groups, with the assistance and approval of the elected Palestinian government, since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Israel’s leaders wish to emphasize that the country remains vulnerable to attack. Instead, Sderot illustrates their paralysis and shame.
One of the primary reasons for any state’s existence is the protection of its citizens. A single assault against a country’s military—let alone repeated violence against its civilians—is enough to justify a serious military response. Its allies believe Israel has displayed restraint; its enemies know it has shown cowardice. Afraid of international condemnation, wary of the cost of a potential war on two fronts, Israel’s government has failed to fulfill its most basic duty.
Not that Israel should be easily provoked into hasty counter-attacks—certainly not when the lives of its soldiers and innocent civilians on all sides are at stake. That was the mistake made in the Second Lebanon War, a fight Israel rushed into without the preparation it needed to ensure victory. The appropriate response is the one described by U.S. President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11: “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”  Of course, Israel ought not give up on peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Nor, however, should it rush towards talks with unnecessary urgency and hysterical warnings of “apartheid” on the horizon. 
What it should do is muster the will to tackle its most serious challenges, military and political. Israel was slow to recognize the damage that the images of the “death” of 12-year-old Palestinian Muhammad a-Durra—an event that was probably staged—would do to Israel’s reputation abroad. Only the determined campaign of French media critic Philippe Karsenty gave Israeli officials the courage to call the a-Durra film a hoax. 
For decades, Israel’s leaders have failed to muster the political courage to deal with the country’s most pressing domestic questions: the role of religion in public life and the status of its Arab minority. These are problems on a scale far greater than the political puzzles faced by other democracies, such as America’s struggle with entitlement reform. They are primary questions of national identity, left unanswered.
Israel’s finest minds have been diverted from these issues and forced to return to basics. Human rights pioneer Ruth Gavison recently lamented:
“Is it possible to justify the existence of a Jewish state?…Over the many years in which I have participated in debates about Israel’s constitutional foundations and the rights of its citizens, I did not generally feel this question to be particularly urgent. Indeed, I believed that there was no more need to demonstrate the legitimacy of a Jewish state than there was for any other nation…Today I realize that my view was wrong. The repudiation of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is now a commonly held position, and one that is increasingly seen as legitimate.” 
Gavison adds: “More worrisome is the fact that many Jews in Israel agree with this view, or at least show a measure of sympathy for it.”
Legal scholar Amnon Rubinstein and historian Alexander Yakobson revisit Israel’s legitimacy in their masterful Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights, which has already been published in Hebrew and French and is due out in English from Routledge later this year. They prove Israel meets the standards of other liberal democracies, and that its “Jewishness” ought not detract from its legitimacy. But this argument, however welcome and erudite, still frames Israel’s existence in a conditional way. No other nation measures its right to exist against the rights of other nations—except perhaps Palestine, Israel’s birth-twin and eternal shadow.
Palestine today is a grievance, not a cause. It is an anti-idea, what Orwell called a “negative nationalism,” which has been utterly failed by its leaders and by its purported champions in the broader Arab world. Yet that anti-idea has more clarity than Israel’s own incoherent self-consciousness. Never mind Palestinian textbooks; the standard American college Arabic text, Al-Kitaab, leaves Israel off the map and describes Jerusalem as the Palestinian, not Israeli, capital.  Anti-Israel activists accuse Israel of “apartheid,” using fake quotes from Nelson Mandela as “proof”  these soon become the iron truth of national myth.
There is one sense in which the South African analogy has merit. If a Palestinian state is ever established, it will look something like Lesotho and Swaziland—two tribal kingdoms, created at the end of territorial conflicts, economically dependent on their larger neighbors, which are not “Bantustans” but legitimate, sovereign states. That is the destiny to which Palestine will likely have to reconcile itself.
Whether it does so or not is not Israel’s concern. The fates of Israel and Palestine are linked but are not mutually dependent. The future of the Jewish state is entirely in its own hands. Israel cannot last if it believes its future remains contingent on “recognition.” U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 created both Israel and Palestine, but one was built. That—and not mere survival—is what Israel’s 60th anniversary ought to celebrate.
Independence was, and remains, a formality. The key to Israel’s existence has been, and ever will be, its own will to exist. The dream of Zion remains strong, but there are deeds left to be done. Borders must be determined—and defended. The status of Israel’s Arab citizens must be resolved fairly—and finally. The role of religion must be defined in a way that satisfies Israel’s unique identity as well as its pluralistic aspirations. Israel has the hope, and the experience, it needs to continue building—to 120 and beyond. What it requires now are leaders equal to the task.
1. Michael Oren, “Q&A with Michael Oren,” Jerusalem Post, Jun. 5, 2007, <http://info.jpost.com/C004/QandA/qa.orenm.html>; also Michael B. Oren and Benjamin Balint, “Save the Citizens’ Army,” Azure, Winter 5765/2005, No. 19, <http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=11>.
2. Moti Bassok, “Study: Jewish births lead rise in Israeli fertility rates,” Ha’aretz, Jul, 11, 2007, < http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/921392.html>.
3. Melanie Phillips, “Happy 60th birthday, Israel—well done for surviving,” Spectator, Apr. 30, 2008, < http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/features/643426/happy-60th-birthday-israel-well-done-for-surviving.thtml>.
4. Mitchell G. Bard, Will Israel Survive?, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
5. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Is Israel Finished?”, The Atlantic, May 2008, < http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200805/israel>.
6. Shmuel Rosner, “Is Israel Finished? Five Questions,” Ha’aretz, Apr. 29, 2008, < http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/rosnerBlog.jhtml?itemNo=979077&contrassID=25&subContrassID=0&sbSubContrassID=1&listSrc=Y&art=1>.
7. George Orwell, “As I Please,” Tribune, Aug. 4, 1944, in The Collected Essays, Journalistm and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3: As I Please, 1943-1946, Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., Boston: Nonpareil, 1968, 199.
8. George W. Bush, Remarks at the National Day of Prayer & Remembrance, Episcopal National Cathedral, Sep. 14, 2001, < http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911prayer&memorialaddress.htm>.
9. Mark Tran, “State of Israel could disappear, warns Olmert,” Guardian, Nov. 29, 2007, < http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/nov/29/israel>.
10. Barak Ravid, “Government Press Office: Al-Dura’s death was staged by Gaza cameraman,” Ha’aretz, Oct. 2, 2007, < http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/908869.html>.
11. Ruth Gavison, “The Jews’ Right to Statehood: A Defense,” Azure 15 (2003), < http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=188&search_text=>.
12. Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal and Abbas Al-Tonsi, Al-Kitaab fii Ta’allum al-‘Arabiyya: A Textbook for Beginning Arabic, Part One (2d ed., Georgetown UP, 2004).
13. The fake Mandela quote, which is repeated all over the Internet and at gatherings of anti-Israel activists, has its origins in a “Mandela memo” written by Electronic Intifada founder Arjan El-Fassed, available at http://www.mediamonitors.net/arjan28.html.