Most remarkable has been the nation’s many decades of successful integration of people of widely diverse backgrounds.
Today’s Israel is much different from the Israel of my youth. It is richer, stronger and much more diverse. I grew up in a seemingly egalitarian Israel, where our economy rested on socialist principles. The kibbutz (collective farm community) was the symbol of our society’s success well into 1970s and beyond, and it produced most of our military and political leadership. Capitalism was almost a dirty word, yet Western culture permeated much of our urban life in the state’s early decades.
Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust made Israel determined to overcome the odds against it. In its first war for survival, the 1948 War of Independence, Israel prevailed over the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, who openly declared to the world their world intention to destroy us. George Marshall, President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, didn’t think the nascent Jewish state could survive. He cautioned Truman against recognizing the Jewish state.
The early years were bleak. Between 1949 (immediately after the War of Independence) and 1951, the country absorbed more people than it previously had on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s founding father and first prime minister) declared the independence of the Jewish state.
The absorption of over a million Jews, Holocaust survivors and Middle Eastern Jews expelled from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, etc., necessitated an austerity program. This era in the early 1950s was called Tzena. Families received coupons for basic foods such as milk, eggs, potatoes, etc. Meat was scarce and expensive. Private cars were rare, and such essentials taken for granted today, including refrigerators (we used ice boxes), telephones and television sets were the property of few. Those individuals who owned a TV could only receive broadcasts from the Arab states and Europe. Israel launched its TV broadcasting in May 1968.
Another dramatic rise in Israel’s Jewish population came in the early 1990s with the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Almost 1.5 million arrived and impacted the demographic balance between Israelis and the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat’s threat that “Palestinian-Arab wombs would bury Israel” didn’t materialize.
Israel’s population grew from around 806,000 in 1948 to about 9.7 million in 2023, with the Jewish population numbering 7.1 million (figures given by Times of Israel). Today, Jewish birthrates in Israel are in parity with the Palestinians. Most remarkable has been the nation’s many decades of successful integration of people of widely diverse backgrounds.
Not long ago, Israel was energy-dependent and water-starved. But with freedom of thought and creativity encouraged, the discovery of significant gas deposits off Israel’s shores are making the country a potential energy exporter. Its desalination plants, a model for the world, makes Israel water self-sufficient.
Still, lacking natural resources, Israel’s brain power and ingenuity have made it a world leader in the crucial areas of medicine, water technology, desert agriculture and environmental protection, recycling as much as 90% of its wastewater. Israel has been sharing its important advances and conservation practices with nations rich and poor throughout the world, enhancing our parched planet.
The country has become known globally as the Startup Nation, being the next country after the U.S. in companies represented on the USA Stock Exchange.
For decades, the Arab League economic boycott of Israel aimed at stifling its growth and causing its people to abandon the country didn’t succeed. The privatization policies of Benjamin Netanyahu in the 21st century propelled Israel into becoming a major economic success story. It resulted in the Arab boycott disappearing and Israel’s growing acceptance among its hitherto enemies in the Arab world.
This ultimately translated into the Abraham Accords of September 2020, when Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed a peace treaty with Israel, to which Morocco and Sudan (still pending) also joined. Egypt and Jordan, acknowledging Israel as a formidable neighbor, signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
Domestically, Israel has some challenges, as do all nations. Constitutional issues that in Israel are referred to as Judicial Reform have sharpened some divisions in the country between left and right, secular and religious Israelis. Yet, democracy and free speech have been on full display.
In the foreseeable future, Israel is facing a gathering storm. The Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies are threatening to attack Israeli population centers from multiple fronts. Saudi Arabia, until recently a major prospect to join the USA-backed Abraham Accords, has instead turned and reached a rapprochement with Iran via Chinese mediation. This stunning event follows repeated public criticism of the Saudis by President Biden over the Khashoggi killing. Riyadh reacted to Biden’s hostility and softening of American support.
The growing influence of China and Russia in the Middle East does not bode well for Israel or the USA. Furthermore, Israel, unlike any other country, faces the existential threat of annihilation. A soon-to-be nuclear Iran, which openly proclaims to the world its intention to destroy Israel, remains a challenge. The sophisticated Israeli military is, however, addressing these challenges. Israel has repeatedly agreed to the existence of a Palestinian state but only if Palestinians agree to live permanently at peace next to Israel and not replace it.
Israelis, despite the arguments and division, recognize the incredible achievements of the Jewish state. Israel is among the freest countries in the world, where religious freedom, free speech (as witnessed by the massive recent protests) human and civil rights are protected. Israel is the only place in the Middle East with a growing Christian population, expanding by roughly 2% annually. Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the LGBTQ community can live without fear of oppression.
Israel is a world leader in high-tech and research and development, spending nearly 5% of GDP on innovation. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been called the most moral army in the Middle East, if not worldwide. While Palestinian propaganda seeks to portray Israel as being colonialist, Israel represents, more than anything, the return of an indigenous people to their own land.
Israel has come a long way from the early days. Its GDP per capita income rose from around $7,000 in 1948 to $52,170 (2021).
Seventy-five years into Israel’s existence, the Jewish state is not merely surviving, it is thriving.
Although I miss the intimacy that typified the Israeli society of my youth, Israel today is a more mature, highly developed nation. There are still unsolved domestic and external problems, including the cost of living and achieving the yearned for peace with all its neighbors. However, success came at a price in blood: 24,213 Israelis who died in defense of the Jewish state and 4,255 victims of terror.
It is fitting to recall Israel’s beloved poet Nathan Alterman’s famous poem: “Full of endless fatigue and unrested, yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head, thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death, then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: Who are you? And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”
So, Happy 75th birthday, Israel!
Joseph Puder, a freelance journalist, is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Taskforce for America and Israel (ITAI).