When David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence in 1948, the country consisted of 650,000 people, many of whom had survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Together with Jews from around the world, they joined in committing to the goal of creating a viable and secure democratic Jewish state.
Jews arrived from all corners of the globe to start their lives anew in Israel. Holocaust survivors from Europe, Jews expelled from Arab countries and Ethiopian and Russian immigrants all came seeking a more secure and prosperous future for themselves and their families. Despite the difficulties involved in absorbing these different population groups, including major political, cultural and religious differences, Israel never succumbed to internal violent conflict.
In the early days of the state, Israelis faced daunting twin challenges growing the homeland while simultaneously protecting it from external enemies who sought its destruction. Accepting the responsibility of building up a poor immigrant nation, the Israeli government pursued socialist policies that sought economic equality for its citizens and allowed for the government to oversee the country’s development. This approach facilitated the resettlement and absorption of new immigrants, helped build up cities, towns and Kibbutzes, and contributed to the remarkable cultivation of undeveloped ecosystems like the swampy Hula Valley and the arid Negev desert.
At the same time, Israel faced repeated attacks from outside enemies on each of its borders who sought to destroy the Jewish state. Israelis remained resolute and resilient, fighting for the country’s survival while calling on its enemies to sit down and negotiate peace.
Indeed, over the years, Israel has made enormous sacrifices for the sake of peace, both in blood and in territory. Menachem Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, ceded control of the Sinai to Egypt. Yitzhak Rabin’s brave efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led to his assassination at the hands of a Jewish extremist. Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza gave way to a deadly Hamas-led rocket campaign against Israel’s southern cities and towns. Even today, despite repeated terrorist threats against Israel emanating from the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continue to actively pursue peace with the Palestinians.
Remarkably, even with the lack of complete peace, this country of eight million continues to grow as a nation. The Jewish state has come a long way, and is now recognized as an international leader in the hi-tech and scientific fields. In just the past eleven years, there have been six Israeli Nobel laureates, and major companies including Google and Microsoft have opened up facilities in the Jewish State. During President Obama’s recent Israel visit, he underscored some of Israel’s cutting-edge scientific and technological innovations, noting the important contributions Israelis were making towards improving the world.
What sets Israel apart from so many other nations is its desire and ability to help others in need. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Israel had one of the first rescue teams on the ground, and operated the only fully functioning field hospital in the country. Israeli doctors regularly treat Syrian rebels who have been injured in the country’s civil war, and Israeli scientists operate agricultural programs in a number of developing countries, using innovative Israeli technology to assist in dealing with environmental concerns like climate change and food security.
After 65 years of independence, Israelis look back with well-deserved pride in what they have accomplished in such a short period. Israeli democracy, despite having endured many trials and tribulations, remains remarkably strong. Political debate can be heard throughout cafes and restaurants across the country. Israel’s vibrant press carries news and opinions from all spectrums of society. The Knesset has become a setting for politicians from all walks of life to engage in meaningful and impassioned discussions about important legislative issues.
Israelis also look forward with optimism about their future. Yes, Israel is an imperfect state, and continues to grapple with many important issues. To be sure, security issues still loom large and likely will for the foreseeable future. Palestinian feet dragging has led to a peace process that is stagnating. Hamas continues to violently threaten Israel and Iran, which has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map, is fixated on building nuclear weapons capable of doing so. The civil war in Syria has also raised serious concerns about the regime’s chemical weapons falling into terrorist hands.
Yet these and other difficulties have not hindered Israel’s ability and desire to continue building a strong democratic and prosperous Jewish state. Israelis know that the best way to counter those seeking to jeopardize its existence is to continue innovating and sharing ideas and creations with the rest of the world.
On Israel’s 65th birthday, the Israeli people have expressed an unquestionable desire to build a better future for their country and for the world. While many challenges still remain for Israel and the Jewish people, as long as Israelis continue believing in and working towards achieving their country’s potential, Israel will continue to be uniquely strong and vital for decades to come.
Abraham H. Foxman is the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.