The flags waved, the singers sang, and the dancers danced. Soldiers paraded, rabbis prayed, and dignitaries spoke as Israel celebrated its 60th birthday. But there was a forced air to the celebration. Troops were on alert, security was even tighter than usual, and the commentaries in the newspapers were as introspective and self-critical as ever. Israel seemed distant from its own joy, like a man on guard at a raucous party, his eyes sweeping the celebrants, his concealed weapon always within reach.
Why the mixed emotions, the divided mind? The cheers should have been unreserved. A state that shouldn't have lasted 60 days by any reasonable expectation had now endured for 60 years. And not just endured but grown, prospered, flourished by all the usual measures - cultural, political, military, scientific and technological.
Through it all, and perhaps most impressive, Israel has remained not just a democratic outpost in a sea of authoritarian regimes, but one that is always questioning its own ways - far more profoundly than either its hateful critics or reflexive defenders. Now that's something to celebrate.
Yet the Israelis, though stronger than ever, seem more uncertain than ever. Maybe that's because, though Israel is still there, so is the existential threat.
What a contrast with May 14, 1948 - the 5th of Iyar, 5708, by the Jewish calendar. Even as the Jewish state was declaring its independence in a Tel Aviv art museum, the first bombs were falling on the streets. Egyptian columns were invading from the South, the Syrians from the North, the Iraqis and Jordanians from the East.
At least five Arab armies were converging on the newborn state, not counting the homegrown Arab militias that had been engaging a rivalrous collection of Jewish ones for months now. Jerusalem's old city, King David's citadel, was cut off and would soon be lostŠ.
Yet there was no uncertainty that first independence day. Even those with reservations about declaring independence put them on hold and joined in the celebration. The joy was unbounded. The first Jewish commonwealth in 2000 years had materialized, the dream was fulfilled.
This was the formal moment of triumph for Zionism, which Martin Luther King Jr. once and best defined as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. To listen again to those old broadcasts from Tel Aviv, the songs resounding even while the air raid sirens wail in the background, is to hear joy.
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