Jun 2008 Journal

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Israel at sixty

Turning sixty is not generally an event to be celebrated. It marks a turning point between being middle-aged and elderly, though perhaps that is not as clear-cut today as it once was. But for a country, and especially one whose initial survival was uncertain, it is a significant milestone. Today, Israel’s existence, though still questioned by some on the terrorist fringe, is firmly entrenched and its achievements are far from insignificant.

There is no need here to go into the details of Israel’s struggle to combat the initial onslaught by the Arab countries surrounding it. Suffice it to note Israel’s integration of the myriad Jewish refugees from Europe and the Arab countries, when its population doubled in the first five years of its existence. Those Arab countries refused to invest even one hundredth of their vast resources in absorbing their own refugees, preferring to leave their fellow-Muslims to rot in refugee camps, thereby deliberately perpetuating the problem.

Israel’s record in absorbing immigrants has been recognised as an unparalleled social and economic achievement. At the same time, Israel has managed to mark up achievements in agriculture, education, science, the arts and industry that are the envy of many larger, richer and longer-established countries.

In this era of ecological awareness it is worth noting that back in the 1950s Israel made the use of solar power for heating water mandatory in all new buildings. The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, together with the Technion in Haifa and the universities in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba, stand at the forefront of global academic research. Israel’s bio-tech and pharmaceutical industries are also among world leaders. Contrary to George Steiner’s expectations, Israel has even managed to produce several Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences.

Despite adverse conditions, Israel’s agriculture has flourished. Today, Israel’s fruit, flowers, vegetables - even its wines - are welcomed in global markets, while demand for its organic produce outstrips supply.

One of the world’s leading high-tech companies, Intel, esteems Israeli brain-power so highly that it has made Israel one of the leading centres of its R&D activities, with several development units in Israel. It is also the site of some of its largest factories, or ‘fabs’, in which micro-processors, the ‘brain’ of the computer, are made. So when you see the words ‘Intel inside’, you can read them as ‘Israel inside’.

Israel’s literary production - and consumption - is phenomenal, with new and veteran writers being published at an unprecedented rate. Israel’s market for books is among the largest in the world relative to population size. Fifty Israeli writers whose books have appeared in French were feted at the recent International Book Exhibition in Paris. Many more Israeli authors were left out for lack of room and resources. Furthermore, the Israeli film Beaufort, based on a novel by Ron Leshem, was a candidate for best foreign film at the recent Oscar ceremony, and took first prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

Alongside such established names as Zuckerman, Barenboim and Perlman, Israeli musical talents continue to gain international renown. At the recent Rubinstein Piano Festival, no first prize was awarded but the joint second prize was awarded to young pianists from Taiwan and Israel - the first time an Israeli has achieved this. A young Israeli cellist took first place at a recent music competition in England. And Israeli names appear frequently on the international art and design scene. Israeli talents even grace the international football world.

While this is no time for complacency, Israel’s achievements are remarkable by any criterion. They can - and should - constitute a source of pride for all Jews everywhere.

Dorothea Shafer-Vanson

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