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David Harris

David Harris

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Happy Birthday, Israel!

Posted: 05/ 8/11 07:05 PM ET

This week, Israel celebrates its 63rd birthday.

For most countries, that number would elicit a shrug of the shoulders. Not in Israel's case.

Considering Israel's extraordinary history, each birthday is a cause for celebration -- and admiration.

It's quite a story -- and it drives Israel's foes bonkers. Try as they might, they haven't managed to sap Israel's will to survive, nor its capacity to thrive.

How can it be that this tiny nation, the size of New Jersey or Wales, could defend itself through thick and thin against determined, well-funded, and numerous adversaries?

How can it be that this small sliver of land, one percent the size of Saudi Arabia and bereft of any natural resources until recent offshore discoveries of natural gas, could catapult itself into the top tier of advanced nations?

And how can it be that the flag of democracy could be planted in Israel in 1948 and celebrated in this lone oasis to the present day, while surrounded by what the world today should better understand as a prevailing culture of despotism, emergency rule, torture, cronyism, and corruption?

No, Israel is not perfect. Of course not. And yes, Israel, like other democratic societies, remains very much a work in progress.

There's still much to be done in addressing relations between Jew and Jew, Jew and Arab, democracy and religion, and rich and poor. Moreover, the quest for a durable peace -- a lot tougher than the editorial writers at the Financial Times or New York Times would have you believe -- raises difficult and divisive questions about how best to get there, and whether it's even possible in the current regional environment.

These issues aren't going away anytime soon. Nonetheless, Israel's birthday provides an occasion to pause, take a deep breath, and marvel at what has been achieved.

An ancient people, born and rooted in this land, have built a modern, dynamic state.

The age-old cry of the Jewish people, "Next year in Jerusalem," is now this year.

The psalmist's remembrance of the tears of exile in Babylon has been replaced by the joy of the return home.

A language of old has been restored.

A dry, barren soil has become lush with the fruits of the earth.

A people decimated by the Nazi Final Solution experienced sovereign regeneration only three years after the Holocaust.

A nation confronted by a war of extinction on its very first day -- and relentlessly thereafter with more wars, waves of terrorism, economic boycotts, blood-curdling incitement, assaults on its legitimacy, you name it -- has never given up or given in.

Despite the ever-present threats, Israelis have embraced life to the fullest, not succumbing to a siege mentality, nor losing the yearning for enduring peace and normalcy.

Israeli society has developed rapidly, enriched by wave after wave of new immigrants. In recent years, for example, thousands of African Christians and Muslims have risked life and limb, crossing inhospitable lands such as Egypt, to seek a new start in, yes, Israel.

It's hard to visualize the real Israel if the only lens is the conflict-obsessed media. In actuality, Israel today is a high-octane, multicultural, and open society.

First-time visitors are inevitably surprised.

They often expect to be met with dark colors, a brooding mindset, and the shadow of war. Instead, they soon discover why Lonely Planet named Tel Aviv the third hippest city in 2011, and why the 2010 UN Human Development Report ranked Israel #15 among the world's nations -- ahead of the United Kingdom and Denmark and just behind France -- in terms of education, health, and other indices of an advanced society.

They also might learn that Israelis have won more Nobel Prizes than all the countries surrounding them combined. Or that, incredibly for a nation of only seven million, Israeli high-tech companies -- prominent in such fields as biotechnology, alternative energy, and communications -- now rank second, after the U.S., in the number of listings on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

They see Arabic as an official language of the country, and functioning mosques and churches throughout the land.

And, above all, perhaps, visitors to Israel encounter a deeply-rooted and pervasive national spirit that is hard to put in words. Apropos, maybe if more of Israel's adversaries would see it up close with open eyes rather than judge it blindly from a distance, they'd come to understand two things. First, Israel is a far cry from the place they've conjured up in their one-dimensional minds. Second, Israelis will not be defeated in their determination to defend their country.

There's a story that God became so furious with the sorry state of the world that he announced a new flood would engulf the planet in two weeks. In response, the French president told the nation that, as the end was near, there'd be no more work and everyone was encouraged to enjoy la joie de vivre. The Italian prime minister announced that, with only 14 days left, all Italians should take full advantage of la dolce vita. Meanwhile, the Israeli prime minister informed the Israeli people: "We have exactly two weeks to learn how to live underwater."

That just about says it all.

Through courage, inspiration, sacrifice, and innovation, and in defiance of all the odds, Israelis have built a remarkable country in their ancestral home. Again, the work is unfinished and the challenges are many. But in 63 short years, Israelis have proved the late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion right when he said: "In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles."

Happy 63rd birthday, Israel!

For more information, visit ajc.org.