As Israel marked its 61st birthday this week, there are many reasons for pride in the past and hope for the future – but also for concern. In recent years, Israel has seemingly worried more about how others define it, and that worries us.
Earlier this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, repeating his opposition to any expansion beyond the 1948 armistice lines, said Israel’s 1967 borders and nothing more define the country. In a separate interview about Israel’s demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize it as a Jewish state, he said Israel can call itself whatever it wants. It is not up to him to define the state, he said – even though he did exactly that.
And therein lies the problem. Israel has become like an adolescent – desperately seeking approval from the popular kids (the international community, including Arab countries), even to the extent of losing its identity.
Maintaining Israel’s Jewish character is of utmost importance, and for any peace deal to work, Israel’s enemies must accept the state as is. Abbas, however, is right: It is not for him to define Israel. Instead, Israel must continually declare its identity. Israeli leaders must have the confidence to say, “We are a Jewish nation and we will remain a Jewish nation, whether you accept us or not.”
Israel showed this determination in December when it launched its Gaza operation in response to the constant barrage of rockets from Hamas, and two years ago when it told Hezbollah enough is enough. Mismanagement marred both operations and while they enjoyed support from the majority of the Israeli public, many Israelis believed that those campaigns ended too quickly and did not accomplish their goals. The inconclusive end to these outings resulted from international pressure on Israel.
At the root of this capitulation is Israel’s desire to be a “normal” country. Even if Israel makes peace with the entire Arab world, it will never be a “normal” county. It should be a light unto the nations, rather than a country that blends in with and is indistinguishable from the nations. Even as Israelis struggle with the Jewish nature of the state and striking a balance between the religious streams, the basic, essential, and unique idea of the state as a Jewish homeland remains. If we cling to that idea, live by it and defend it, even if others deny us acceptance, then we will remain strong.
Happy birthday, Israel. And many, many more.