Blue and White Everywhere--Even in these Strange Times: Israel at 59

This week, as we passed overnight from the deep mourning of Yom Ha'Zikaron (Israel's Memorial Day for the Fallen, including 233 more this year, half of them in the Second Lebanon War) to the celebrations of our fifty-ninth Independence Day, the country's streets and house fronts, businesses and private cars were draped in flags-to my eye at least, more than ever, despite a forlorn call by a radical Ha'aretz writer to avoid hanging a flag "besmirched by the occupation." Indeed, there was a clear gap between the public mood and the perceptions offered by much of the media, where self-flagellation and recrimination seem to have acquired the revered status of a national pastime.
How can it be-the question seems to be put by our pundits-that after (a mere) fifty-nine years, often spent in murderous conflict with our neighbors, we have not yet attained the wealth of Switzerland, the social systems of Sweden, the cleanliness of Singapore, or the sense of moral superiority enjoyed (and occasionally flaunted) by Norway? Ordinary Israelis are somewhat less prone, apparently, to such inflated expectations, and more readily convinced that there is already much to be happy with, even now. More and better is yet to come, even if we are riding through a rough political patch just now. They may be right: It is quite possible, despite all that has happened since last year's celebrations, to point to three major developments, and one permanent fact, that Israelis can be proud of:

  • To begin with (and if it was up to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to set the agenda, this is what he would be saying day and night), there is the spectacular and robust rise of the Israeli economy, which brought us a huge wave of investment and a positive trade balance. (The dollar sank so low that the governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, drove down the interest rates to less than 4 percent so as to reduce somewhat the attractiveness of the shekel.) Israel has what it takes to compete with the best in the fields of high-tech or nano-tech, biotechnology or communications systems. And unless disrupted by politics or further corruption scandals, this present trend seems set to persist. Hence the ability of the government, now riding a huge increase in revenues from taxes, to plan an ambitious "war on want" to bring tens of thousands above the poverty line within the next few years.
  • Even the great flood of corruption cases may be seen, if one insists on thinking positively, as a sign that the Augean stables of Israeli political life are being washed through, and the standards of public conduct, of sexual mores in the workplace, and of tolerance for delay or obstruction of due process are being fixed at a distinctly higher level than they have been in many years. With Olmert's right-hand man, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, now obliged to suspend himself while being investigated in a huge embezzlement case, this "witch-hunt" for wrongdoers has reached a new (and perhaps justified) level. But, at a minimum, it does seem to have created a less permissive climate when it comes to raiding the public purse.

  • Finally, a paradoxical thought: In a year marked not only by the war in Lebanon, but also by tense moments in Gaza (and elsewhere) after Gil'ad Shalit's abduction, the level of violence is actually down-particularly vis-à-vis the prospects of being torn to pieces on a bus going home or to school. For a variety of reasons, while the Qassams from Gaza still are intolerable, other forms of violence have sharply decreased. We may see more ups and downs. There is a chill in the air about the unfinished business with Hezbollah and the threat posed by Iran; and thus people seem prepared for the possible prospect of war "definitely in July." ("Major Rumor," a legendary fictitious figure of my childhood, seems to have been promoted to colonel.) But for the time being, measured in terms of their daily lives, most Israelis feel more secure than they did two years ago.

Add to all this the more permanent elements that we reconnect to on days like Yom Ha'Atzmaut: the sheer beauty and life-lust of this tiny land, which in a good many ways has so much to offer. Jerusalem is what it is, a unique place in world history and a seat not only of government but of learning-and a lively city, at that. Tel Aviv (which does not pretend to be pretty) has one of the best nightlife scenes anywhere, from beach parties to refined French food, as the world now recognizes. In the Baha'i Gardens, Haifa boasts one of the wonders of the world; and down south, Eilat has not only its own wonders-easy access to one of the finest coral reefs, side by side with dramatic desert landscapes-but also, by dint of a stable peace treaty with Jordan, a few hours ride to another majestic world wonder, Petra. Young Israelis once died trying to reach "the Red Rock," but now whole families (and eager local vendors) chat freely in Hebrew as they roam amidst the natural wonders and the high marks of Nabatean culture. For 7,150,000 citizens crammed into a state the size of Massachusetts, this is much to keep us busy. And that is before you hit the well-marked nature trails, including Israel's own version of the Appalachian Trail-properly called the Israel Trail, traversing the whole country north to south-where you find hikers of all ages, enjoying the last breezes before summer in steep creek beds and on wooded hillsides. Come and see for yourself.

True, there is, in these confusing times, a need for comforting symbols and good omens. As I was thinking over this piece in my mind on my morning walk, my eye caught the rare sight of a kingfisher-a glorious small bird, with a what looks like a bib already on its chest for a fish dinner, and a deep azure tint on its back, so it cannot be seen from above when it hovers over ponds and waterways. Then, in a flash of colors, it flew on-with a vigorous display of blue and white on its wing. Here was an omen to conjure with. We shall need it as we thrust ahead into the unexpected, and hope to be in good shape for the diamond jubilee anniversary next year.

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