The 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence is cause for celebration as well as for reflection. Celebration because we can commemorate the creation and preservation of a democratic, Jewish nation-state. Reflection because we must both acknowledge Israel’s many successes and address its ongoing challenges.
My own reflections begin with my first visit to Israel more than 40 years ago, a year after I finished college. I studied Hebrew at an ulpan at Kibbutz Ein Gev while working half days hauling bunches of bananas out of dense groves beside the Kinneret. Next, I headed off to the Upper Galilee to work on an archaeological excavation in what would turn out to be the first of 10 summers digging in Israel scattered over the next 30 years.
More significantly, I came to know the people of Israel. Yes, there were Jews whose background, like mine, were from Europe. But there were so many others — not only Sabras but Jews born in Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia or Yemen. There were, of course, people of other religions and ethnicities, too — Muslim and Christian Arabs, Druze and Circassians. The more often I returned to Israel, the more I learned about its people and its history, and the more I became entranced with the place with all its complexities and contradictions.
Today, Israelis have every right to be proud of their accomplishments in agriculture, science, technology and for providing a safe haven for millions of Jews from around the world. Israel is militarily powerful and economically successful.
At the same time, Israel faces internal and external challenges that must be solved if it is to successfully navigate the next 70 years. The nation’s inspiring Declaration of Independence says that the state “will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants [and] will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex.”
As in so many other countries, including our own, Israel has a mixed record on integrating many of its citizens into full participation into its society. Even 60 years after their aliyah from North Africa or the Middle East, too many Mizrahi Jews have not achieved full social and economic equality. Haredi Orthodox Jews too often live in poverty because they do not participate in the secular workplace. Israel’s Arab citizens — 21 percent of the country’s population — remain marginalized in a nation that promised them equality, still facing discrimination in education, employment and housing.
However, on recent visits, I have been fortunate to encounter dedicated Israeli organizations that are working to bridge those gaps and move Israel closer to its founders’ vision of “full social and political equality.” Israel’s government must also be commended for recently allocating 15 billion shekels (about $4.2 billion) specifically to further develop infrastructure and human capital among Israel’s Arab citizens.
Looking outward, peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have stabilized Israel’s relations with its two most important neighbors. However, the lack of a negotiated end to the occupation of the West Bank still hampers the larger potential for connection to the wider Middle Eastern world in which Israel is embedded.
The occupation also stands as a contradiction to the founders’ principles. Israel was created as a haven and a homeland for Jews where they could exercise the political self-determination denied to them nearly everywhere for 2,000 years. In all justice, that same precious right cannot be denied to their Palestinian neighbors. Without question, the road to sustained peace between Israelis and Palestinians has been and will be difficult, slow and filled with reversals. We can join with Israelis to work for the day when a sustained resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved to permit the two nations to live side by side in mutual security and peace.
Much of my life since has been shaped by my visits to Israel. Over the years, I came to know one special group, the very individuals who helped create the state of Israel in 1948. I photographed and spoke to more than 100 of them in the 1990s just prior to the 50th anniversary of the state they built with their own hands. Now, I trust that Diaspora Jews can work together with all Israelis towards the vision that their generation inscribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, to develop a state “based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets.” I look forward to seeing that dream become a reality.
Aaron Levin is a Baltimore resident, author of “Testament: At the Creation of the State of Israel” and volunteer with the New Israel Fund and J Street.