Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Israel is celebrating 70 years of national independence, and there’s a huge irony in that number. For it was in the year 70 that the last Jewish Commonwealth was destroyed by the Roman Empire, and the Temple, the center of gravity of the Jewish people, was destroyed. The rebirth of Israel is nothing short of a miracle. It involved dedication, commitment of a national movement that began with the establishment of Zionism, which is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. That movement, through brilliant diplomacy of our forefathers, like Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weizmann, brought the energies of a people back together and allowed for the Declaration of Independence by David Ben-Gurion in 1948.
At its birth, Israel was attacked by multiple Arab armies around it, and if you look at the data, at just the very statistics of Israel’s situation, we were a country not even today with 8 million people. But our neighbors, who have been at war with us all these years, they have about 300 million. If you look at our territory, territorially Israel is a country with little or no strategic depth. For example, it takes only four minutes for a Soviet Sukhoi 24 jet fighter to cross from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, giving Israel very little early warning time. Ten thousand square miles. You could drop Israel into the Great Lakes, and you wouldn’t even hear the splash. But our Arab neighbors have 650 times the amount of territory. That gives them a distinct strategic advantage. It creates a basic asymmetry between Israel and the countries around it. Yet Israel, over the last 70 years, has managed to persevere.
That’s the miracle that Israelis will think about when they consider what the meaning is of the country being 70 years old. There was this extraordinary commitment to innovation. Every time our adversaries threw at us another strategic challenge, we had an answer. Just even recently, we’ve been facing this threat of rocket fire from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. So what does Israel do? It develops the first really working rocket defense system, after we developed missile defense systems 10, 20 years ago. To replace the rocket, our adversaries develop tunnels. Tunnels are an old technology, but these tunnels were going to allow terrorists to come in their hundreds into Israeli territory and kill innocent civilians. What does Israel do? It makes the first anti-tunnel system in the world. So innovation that came out of military necessity helped give Israel a scientific and technological leg-up.
What Israel developed was a formula for integrating diverse immigrants into our society – people from backgrounds like the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Germany, the United States, India, Great Britain, and despite many flavors of Israeli society we became one. That determination, that commitment, to making the Zionist experiment work gave us enormous strength for facing every challenge that was hurled against us. People like to ask, is Israel closer to being a Sparta, a military powerhouse, or an Athens, a country with art, poetry, and excellent universities? Frankly, Israel has to be both. You can’t have an Athens in a dangerous Middle East unless you have some qualities of being a Sparta, which is able to defend itself. Since the days of its founding in 1948, Israel developed a doctrine that it must defend itself by itself. Certainly, there are threats that are hard for Israel to handle alone. In the days of the Cold War, we couldn’t hold back the Soviet Union just by relying on our own skills. We had an alliance with America. Before that, we had an alliance with France. But we have shown an ability, certainly with respect to the countries that have threatened us from the Middle East, to withstand anything they can throw at us by ourselves. That also gives us a moral edge in the struggle for world public opinion. The Israeli holiday cycle does something which is very unusual in the world. In fact, it’s very unique. Before we reach the day of commemoration of our national independence, we have a day to remember those soldiers who fell in all of Israel’s Wars, because I think Israelis understand that our successes today, our independence, would have been impossible if it wasn’t for those who were willing to sacrifice their lives so that we could remain free.
Now, as we look forward to commemorating 70 years of Israel’s independence, we bow our heads to those who made that independence possible. We go from a keen memory of the past to the tremendous joy and anticipation of Israel’s future.