May 15, 2008
Israel: A work in progress
The creation of Israel is a paradigm for the way people without sovereignty embrace and transform their history through freedom. That ongoing struggle of humans trying to find their place in the universe unfolds over time, but it requires a place.
Israel also represents a unique laboratory -- and not just for defining itself for its residents but also for addressing global crises. Every problem on this planet is refracted and amplified here: Having resettled and grown in the land, how can we conserve its environment? Can we halt our addiction to oil and achieve energy independence? If we level the field in information and technology, can we overcome the limitations of size and space and become a player on the global stage? If Israel can answer questions like these, it will achieve a secure position among nations and obtain its peace.
As President Shimon Peres said, the objective of this 60th anniversary year should be to bring Israel to the world and the world to Israel. Our experiment, through shifting events and the failures and challenges they bring, is one that results in the covenant renewed. And looking back through the decades from our founding, we can find four lessons that resonate globally. They also inform 21st century hopes for our survival, based on the merging of ancient truths with the ever-present task of national renewal. These are lessons that will sustain all global communities from the chaos of our times:
Lesson 1: Diasporas need homelands.
Today, the United Nations reports that more than 300 million people in this world live in Diaspora communities that struggle to maintain homeland ties. The Rwandans, the Armenians, the Guatemalans and, yes, the Palestinians long for their place among the nations. For many nations, Diaspora remittances are sometimes far greater than foreign direct investment, portfolio flows and foreign aid combined. The contributions of Israel's Diaspora and its transformation through the creation of the State of Israel have been a lesson well studied by others.
Lesson 2: Nations need security.
Imminent threats, beginning before the Holocaust, informed not only the Zionist movement but also the Jewish concept of state defense. No nation can survive while its people live in exile.
The captive Hebrews in Babylon lamented, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" In revolting against its history, Israel rejected centuries of subjugation and developed a national defense based on the doctrine that homeland building can tolerate many risks for peace -- but never the catastrophic risks that unite senseless hatred with regional imperialism.
This is what links the Eichman trial to Entebbe to Osirak to last fall's strike against the Syrian reactor facility. Yet the world has seen genocide spread to Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. The lesson of homeland security is ignored at great peril.
Lesson 3: Language and cultural revival are key.
Jewish cultural identity -- expressed through art, music and, most important, through the revival of Hebrew from its strict liturgical usage to an official state language -- has been key to our national renewal and rebirth. Where else in the world has a language no one spoke, but which was common to all, emerged as a national language?
Like archaeological discovery and conservation of cultural capital, the protection of language is essential for national cultures throughout the world. While not promoting linguistic exclusivity (Israel, after all, has three official languages), the protection of communal language promotes a multilingual access and a cultural infrastructure, encourages the safekeeping of minority languages and culture and their ultimate restoration as part of our international heritage.
Lesson 4: Unity exists in diversity.
From the microcosm of Israel's rebirth as a modern nation, this is perhaps the most profound lesson for a global future. Israel's Jewish-majority population can boast more than 120 nations of origin, along with significant local minorities of Palestinian, Druze and Bedouin Arabs. As a result, Israel is one of the most diverse countries in the world.
Integrating this pastiche into a democratic republic that protects and celebrates diversity through unity remains a remarkable achievement. It is also becoming a common challenge for nations around the world.
Absorption is the means to achieving true national self-interest. It puts the emphasis on integration, rather than on full assimilation and the triumphalism of a majority. In Israel, frankly, there is no majority -- not Ashkenazim, not Sephardim, not political, not religious. It is our challenge to grow from the particular to the universal without comprising the richness and uniqueness of diversity.
Ultimately, these lessons underscore the celebration of Israel's rebirth. Let us reaffirm our particular attributes as a nation by reaffirming our universal values. That was the lesson of the prophets.
These lessons and inspiration place Israel, a small country, on the global stage in a unique way. They offer enormous advantages in global trade and provide the basis for both military power and peace incentives. They provide the basic formula for an open society, global ties and national security. They enable Israel to renew and repair both itself and an endangered world in troubled times.
Glenn Yago is director of capital studies at the Milken Institute.