Israel and America at 70 – Celebrating Works in Progress

Just as Americans toasted America at 70 – despite its flaws – we should salute Israel…

The Jerusalem Post

May 9, 2018

Israel and America at 70 – Celebrating Works in Progress

Still, just as Americans toasted America at 70 – despite its flaws – we should salute Israel, especially after comparing Israel today with America on July 4, 1846.

M ay 14 marks the seventieth anniversary of Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel. All Americans should cheer this modern miracle. Yet even some American Jews are choosing to be disappointed in Israel rather than proud of this democratic work in progress. You’d expect such peevishness from Israel’s foes – but from friends and family?

Three forces seem to be holding erstwhile allies back. First, wherever we stand politically, we are all injured by a hostile coalition of Israel’s enemies systematically singling out Israel as illegitimate. It’s not zero-sum: celebrating Israel’s achievements doesn’t negate legitimate Palestinian aspirations. Nevertheless, many have absorbed the negativity, like secondhand smoke. Preferring to avoid conflict, even some sympathizers won’t stand up for the international community’s favorite whipping boy.

Second, while the high percentage of American Jews who are liberal join their fellow Democrats in distinguishing their animus for President Donald Trump from their embrace of America, too many reject “Bibi’s Israel” categorically. Too many define Israel solely by what they most detest in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – be it undermining the Western Wall compromise, pressuring Palestinians or cozying up to Trump.

Most unfair, and morally immature, is abandoning Israel because it hasn’t met our highest, often unrealistic, expectations. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times  says we miss our “grandfathers’ Israel.” But the Israel of Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, of the movie Exodus and kibbutzim, was actually a much less progressive place than “Bibi’s Israel” today. Israeli Arabs had limited rights until the 1960s, Jews from Arab lands were disrespected until the 1970s, and the economy was run until the 1980s by socialist insiders who crushed you financially if you disagreed with them politically.

Still, just as Americans toasted America at 70 – despite its flaws – we should salute Israel, especially after comparing Israel today with America on July 4, 1846.

Back then, 70 years after its independence from Britain, America was at war – and American jingoists used the anniversary to stoke war fever against Mexico. The war victory would create six new states – and violent controversy when Southerners tried extending slavery into these newly-acquired Mexican territories. Clearly, America’s borders then, like Israel’s today, were not yet fully defined.

America at 70 was ballooning – its population doubled about every 23 years. The mystery of who was an American was slowly being solved. Americans generally were more idealistic yet more pragmatic than Europeans, more individualistic yet more conformist, more entrepreneurial yet more generous. And, contrary to much false nostalgia, that America was also a country of immigrants, trying to create E Pluribus Unum – one out of many countries of origin.

Unfortunately, that America treated many immigrants cruelly: NINA – No Irish Need Apply – signs were common; Jews would have to wait 12 years for the right to vote in North Carolina – 31 years to vote in New Hampshire.

These paradoxes paled before America’s two biggest contradictions: the land of liberty was also an empire of slavery – while the home-of-the-free was killing many Native American braves.

At a Rural Anti-Slavery July Fourth Celebration in Dedham, Massachusetts, abolitionists criticized harshly while celebrating enthusiastically. They consumed mounds of “Milk, cream, sugar, lemons, ice, eggs, fruit, flowers, cakes, pies; hams, tongues, fowls, (ready cooked), cheese, tea, coffee, bread, butter.” They read various hymns filled with guilt and anguish, tempered by democratic fury and faith: “The Land Our fathers left to us/ Is foul with hateful sin/ When shall, O Lord, this sorrow end/ And hope and joy begin?”

These abolitionists refused to turn their backs on the US – seeking to better not batter America. “Wipe out, O God, the Nation’s guilt,” they cried: “Then swell the Nation’s power.”

The Civil War wouldn’t begin for another 14 years. Slavery would last another five years after that. And only 120 years later, during the 1960s, would the Civil Rights movement start making real progress in freeing America from its ugliest racism.

Idealists with a profound grasp of democracy, the abolitionists realized that celebrating a country doesn’t mean endorsing every policy, or even liking its government. In fact, they used their celebration to demand their country fulfill its founding ideals. They saw their country in 1846 as what one historian would later call an America with a roof but not walls. The blueprints for freedom were drafted, its infrastructure was growing, much work remained.

Most important, they realized that democracies’ high ideals risk paralyzing people in their disappointment when reality falls short. Instead, as citizens – and activists – they would use democracy, that marvelous self-correcting mechanism, to help America truly become America.

In 1969, an interviewer asked David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, “Do you think Israel is implementing its destiny of being a ‘Chosen People’?” As a Zionist who sought to establish a model state, he replied: “Not yet.” Ben-Gurion knew that 20 – or 70 – years in the Jews’ 3,500-year-old history isn’t even a rounding error. He was bursting with Zionist ideals challenging this revolutionary society to progress further.

Ben-Gurion appreciated Israel’s many achievements. Israel was defying the odds, developing a Western-style democracy in the Jews’ ancient homeland despite living in the undemocratic Middle East surrounded by autocratic enemies. And providing this home to Jews after the European Holocaust and Arab expulsions, in their homeland, reviving Jewish culture and the Hebrew language, establishing a strong, moral, army and raising prickly-sweet Israeli-born “sabras,” changed the historic image of the broken, beaten Jew. This New Jew was inspiring and empowering Jews globally, including in free America. Without Israel’s inspiration, American Jews would not feel as powerful, as confident, as politically engaged, as comfortable with themselves as they do today.

Fifty years later, Israel’s achievements are more impressive. Israel has withstood multiple military and terrorist assaults, keeping its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens safe and free while making peace with its once-deadly adversaries Egypt and Jordan. Polls show that Israelis still support a two-state solution – as its founders did in 1948 – despite Palestinians’ relentless rejectionism and attempts to destroy the Jewish state. In fact, while America in 1846 was adjusting its borders by seizing territory from natives and neighbors, all of Israel’s recent territorial adjustments involved forfeiting land for peace, not expansions through war.

Today, despite Palestinian attempts to isolate Israel, 161 countries recognize it. Israel exports over $50 billion worth of products annually. Since the 1960s, Israel has emerged as highly developed and socially progressive, one of the world’s most egalitarian, tolerant democracies. And Zionism, once about establishing the state, is now focused on defending and perfecting that state.

Ben-Gurion’s “not yet” acknowledged much progress in Israel’s report card – with areas that “Need Improvement” too. His soaring aspirations reflect another bond between America and Israel. The American and Zionist ideas of perpetual polishing – in the DNA of all liberal nationalists – unite these two dynamic aspirational democracies, reminding us how far each has come – and inspiring us to imagine where each country will go.

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Gil Troy  is the author of  The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s . His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. Professor Gil Troy is Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University.

Follow on Twitter  @GilTroy .

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