This is the season of celebration in Israel, commemorating survival first of all. There's remembrance of the Holocaust, remembrance of those who died fighting for independence and remembrance of those who have fallen since in defense of the nation's right to exist. Remembrance was bittersweet the other night in the great ballroom of Washington's Shoreham Hotel, transformed for the night into "Jerusalem Hall," but a flourish of trumpets as well. Fifty-nine years of survival as a nation in the cauldron of the Middle East is no small feat.
Nothing has been easy for Israel since President Truman ordered the recognition of the nation only 11 minutes after its declaration of independence in 1948, and the Soviet Union followed three days later. Israel's neighbors still vow to destroy it, and the virus of anti-Semitism still flourishes, not only in the Middle East but in Europe as well. Jews, envied and often resented for the habits of discipline and hard work admired in others, are often held to a different standard.
Anne Frank, the little girl whose diary of life in a cramped Amsterdam attic became some of the most poignant literature of World War II, observed the phenomenon without understanding why. In an admission that Jews (like others) do not always live up to their ideals, she repeats a truism that perplexes her.
"Oh, it's sad, very sad, that the old adage has been confirmed for the umpteenth time," she wrote in the spring of 1944. "What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does reflects on all the Jews." This was an insight of surprising clarity in a girl of such tender years, written shortly before she was discovered with her family and sent to her death in a Nazi concentration camp.
Times have changed only a little since President Truman, a Southern Baptist, defied his State Department to order swift recognition of Israel. Now fundamentalist and evangelical Christians are among Israel's staunchest friends. But anti-Semitism has become the fashion not only of the street thugs and skinheads, but of the intellectual elites in Europe (and sometimes here). In England, professors in several universities urged a boycott of Israeli academic conferences, and Britain's National Union of Journalists voted for a boycott of Israeli fruits and vegetables to protest Israel's "aggression" against Palestinians. Palestinian terror against Israelis goes unremarked. The journalists' call to boycott was particularly perverse because it was sounded in reaction to the kidnapping of a reporter for the BBC by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza.
There are occasional encouraging signs. A British parliamentary inquiry recently recommended that steps be taken to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism on university campuses, and here at home the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights declares that "anti-Semitic bigotry is no less morally deplorable when camouflaged as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism." Specific evidence exposes several university departments of Middle East studies as inhibiting authentic debate, and even curbing free speech, by discouraging defense of Israel.
Anti-Semitism was injected into the first round of the presidential campaign in France. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the extremists on the right, expressed regrets that President Jacques Chirac had acknowledged the French government's responsibility in deporting French Jews to the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Other Frenchmen asked why their government had waited so long to recognize atrocity. Le Pen, who once paid a fine of $250,000 for saying that the Nazi gas chambers "were only a small detail in history," made the run-off in the French elections four years ago. This time he did a dramatic fade, winning barely 11 percent of the vote in the first round.
This year has not been one of Israel's finest hours at home. Several officials have been shamed by personal scandal, and through no fault of the ordinary soldiers, last summer's war in Lebanon was not the usual triumph of Israeli arms. But like America, Israel is a young country at 59, with the strength, wit and self-confidence to criticize what's wrong and set out to fix it. When America was 59, in the year 1835, there were only 24 states, and considerable growing pains lay ahead of us.
The "chosen people" have never claimed perfection and are a long way short of achieving the best that is to be. But it's a democracy in a region where government of the people, by the people and for the people is an alien and often-despised concept, a flourishing oasis in the desert, flexing its muscle against powerful enemies that wish it only ill. It deserves the happy birthday wishes from its friends.