Israel turned 75 yesterday, and one could reasonably argue on the occasion of its diamond jubilee that it has had the most impressive first three-quarters of a century of any state on Earth. Formed in the face of a pending and inevitable war for its existence as an independent state, the new country of refugees and immigrants won that war despite losing one percent of its population during the fighting and managed to construct a system of state institutions despite enormous economic challenges and constant threats from neighbors on all sides. It absorbed millions of new immigrants—most of whom were penniless—from across the globe and managed to construct a society and build a national identity with this mix of European, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, Soviet, and other Jews. It not only persevered in the face of relentless military challenges and wars, but became the dominant military power in the Middle East, one whose advantage over its former foes is so great that nearly all of them gave up any pretense of a further fight. It built an economy with a socialist government in a place with no natural resources, and then adapted to the information age to create one of the world’s leading high-tech hubs that places Israel 13th in GDP per capita.
Perhaps more important than any of these things, Israel fulfilled its promise of changing the fundamental condition of the Jewish people. Zionism was a response to millennia of Jewish insecurity and physical danger, and called not only for Jewish political liberation but for that liberation to manifest in a sovereign Jewish state. Only in such a state could Jews truly be guaranteed their freedom from oppression, and there is no question that in establishing a safe haven to which Jews from around the world can immigrate, Israel’s success is monumental and unquestioned.
And Israel’s success is not only about Jewish physical safety, but about anti-Jewish discrimination as well, and that success extends beyond Israel’s borders. Inside of Israel, no Jew needs to hide or downplay their Judaism, worry about how they will fit in as a minority in circles in which they travel, or wonder if they are being discriminated against behind their backs because of their Jewish heritage. Outside of Israel in the Western world, the creation of a Jewish state and its successes have also not coincidentally coincided with the end of overt anti-Jewish discrimination in polite society, the near-cessation of clubs to which Jews cannot belong or professions where being Jewish creates a glass ceiling preventing advancement. While there are new challenges that North American Jews are facing in some quarters of American society as a result of their Zionism, it is a different and less pervasive form of discrimination than the classic antisemitism that viewed all Jews as being others and that often kept them at arm’s length.
Viewed in historical context and against the backdrop of the enormous hurdles that Zionism and Israel faced, and watching Zionism become perhaps the most successful political movement of the 20th century while the Jewish state itself became a powerhouse, it is easy to chalk this up to the miracle of Israel. I and many other American Jews were raised on this idea of Israel benefiting from some sort of supernatural karma, divine or otherwise, and feeding the notion that Israel was destined to succeed. It began with stories about the partition plan being approved by both the United States and the Soviet Union when the early stages of the Cold War should have pointed to the two rival superpowers being on opposite sides of everything, and moved on to the improbability of the nascent state surviving a multi-front assault and winning its war of independence. There was the massive victory of 1967 at unprecedented lightning speed, the IDF turning the tables following the disastrous surprise invasion of 1973, and Saddam Hussein firing 39 Scud missiles at Israeli cities during the Persian Gulf War and somehow only killing two Israelis directly.
In recent years, as Israel’s military successes have thankfully become less necessary due to diminishing external threats, it has become common to hear about Israel’s high-tech economic miracle, or the miraculous success in desalination technology and making the desert bloom. Underlying all of this is the constant background drumbeat that Israel is destined to overcome whatever challenges it faces, through some immutable Israeli characteristic of ingenuity or through an inevitable deus ex machina. Everything will always be fine—yihiye b’seder in modern Hebrew parlance—no matter what the dilemma.
75 years in, it is time to move away from the framework of the miraculous to the framework of normalcy. Israeli successes have indeed been remarkable, and they have come through a combination of Israeli hard work, Israeli smarts, strong relationships with Western countries and particularly the U.S., and a dose of good luck. But Israel today faces some real challenges, from the short term of how to manage the judicial overhaul controversy without splitting Israeli society in two, to the long term of how to resolve a worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These issues are not going away on their own, and counting on a miracle because Israel always manages to be fine in the end is a strategy that is bound to lead to miscalculation and disappointment. It also absolves Israeli political leaders of having to make difficult but necessary decisions, since there is a widespread belief that Israel is special and everything always works out in the end. Just as it is taken as a given that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and that no evidence can possibly contravene that enduring fact, it is taken as a given that Israel will figure out a way to beat any odds, even if there is no plan or roadmap to do so.
Yom Ha’atzmaut should always be a day to celebrate Israel, and the 75th anniversary of its founding is no exception. As we honor the Jewish state, let’s extoll its virtues and its accomplishments, but without talking about the miracle of Israel. Not only does it take away from the work of generations of actual Israelis to build what exists today, it creates a damaging mindset in which similar successes for the next 75 years are somehow guaranteed. If Israel’s successes are to continue, it will have to face its challenges head on and come up with solutions that do not rely on a hope and a prayer. The more we talk about Israeli miracles, the harder that task will be.