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JERUSALEM – A 60-year-old orthodox Jewish Jerusalem resident was violently assaulted while carrying an Israeli flag last week during the country’s annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers.
The attack took place as commemorative sirens were sounding throughout the biblical Promised Land, prompting most citizens to stand at attention in remembrance of the over 22,000 soldiers who have fallen during the past six decades, most of them in one of Israel’s many wars (if we include the two violent Palestinian revolts, as we should, the number is now up to eight wars, not including Saddam’s wonderful Scud attacks in early 1991).
So who assaulted the observant man that dared to hoist the blue and white Israeli flag during the memorial siren? No, not enraged Palestinian Hamas terrorists or some Arab Muslim woman hiding a knife underneath her chador. The attackers were ultra-orthodox Jews who oppose the existence of the Jewish-run state of Israel on purely religious grounds. These extremely pious folks prefer to wait for the Messiah to come and set up a strictly orthodox state, considering any loyalty to the current largely secular country a desecration of God’s holy name.
This is just one small example of the many peculiarities and contradictions that one cannot help but notice in the modern state of Israel.
Here are a couple additional oddities. Officials in the neighboring Arab country of Jordan banned several planned demonstrations this month that were designed to protest Israel’s reappearance on the regional map 60 years ago this week. One of the events was a large rally in Amman sponsored by pro-Palestinian groups and opposition Jordanian political parties, including the Islamic Labor Front.
But inside democratic Israel, such anti-state Arab rallies are being openly staged this month in several locations, with police permission, especially in the Muslim-dominated lower Galilee region. One anti-Israel demonstration last week brought together hundreds of Arab-Israeli citizens in the historic town of Jaffa, located within Tel Aviv’s southern municipal boundaries.
In March, Jordan’s Hashemite authorities barred relatives of the slain Palestinian terrorist who sadistically gunned down eight young Jewish seminary students in Jerusalem from holding a public mourning service for him. But here in Israel’s capital city, where 26-year-old Ala Abu Dhaim lived and died, public activities were permitted, even if under strong protest from many Jewish residents of the holy city.
Of course, such seeming absurdities are precisely what makes Israel stand out so glaringly in one of the world’s most turbulent and autocratic regions.
Israel is a thriving democracy in a sea of Islamic-ruled states. One of them, Iran, is governed by radical Shiite Muslims who vow to wipe out the Jewish state. Others, such as Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, are ruled by despotic and fairly corrupt Sunni Arab regimes. Or they are perennial basket case countries like Lebanon and Iraq, divided between always feuding sects. Or they are simply ruled by very exotic, if sometimes dangerous characters like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
If you draw a horizontal line from the Atlantic Ocean across North Africa directly through Israel and ending up in northern India, you will find only two other countries located along that line with stable regimes that allow a fair degree of political and religious freedoms to their citizens – Morocco and Jordan. Still, their relative freedoms and political moderation pales in comparison to Israel’s, for all of the Jewish state’s manifold problems and struggles to survive in a very hostile neighborhood.
Israel’s participatory democracy is hardly perfect. One need not look any further than the current police probe of possibly illegal financial contributions received by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discern that obvious fact.
The country’s million-plus Arab citizens frequently complain of discrimination against them, and it is indeed a fact that their towns and villages receive less government aid per capita than do majority Jewish areas. But it’s also true that many Arab citizens are not terribly loyal to their own state, as the demonstrations mentioned above illustrate. And it is frankly not easy for many Israelis to really trust them, given that more than a few Arab Israelis have carried out terror attacks over the years, or actively supported Palestinian death squads.
Israel’s several thousand Messianic citizens can also testify to suffering some degree of discrimination. Actual violence is sometimes directed against them – as we tragically witnessed when a 16-year-old pastor’s son was severely wounded by a package bomb at his home in Samaria last month. Threats and acts of violence seem to be often overlooked or downplayed by authorities. Many black Ethiopian Israelis complain that they are sometimes slighted in employment and educational opportunities, as most Sephardic Jews from North Africa and other non-European areas grumbled about in earlier decades.
Yet despite these shortcomings and manifold others like them, Israel remains one of the most remarkable countries in the world. The ancient Hebrew prophets warned that Jacob’s offspring would be scattered from their covenant land to the remotest parts of the earth if they continued to sin against their Maker, and so it occurred. I am reminded of the literalness of these dire prophecies every time I speak to Jewish groups in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia – the exact opposite side of the globe from the Middle East, with the two Anglophile countries situated in the southern hemisphere to boot.
But I have also witnessed firsthand the doubling of Israel’s Jewish population during the 28 years I have lived and worked here as a journalist. I’ve marveled as the percentage of world Jewry residing in Israel rose from around one-quarter when I arrived in 1980 to well over 40 percent today. And I am quite aware of official statistics showing that very soon now, the largest single Jewish community on earth will once again be located inside the borders of the ancient Promised Land – for the first time since the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple and slaughtered or drove most of the Jews out of the land nearly 2,000 years ago.
I feel a sense of awe when I see pictures of an almost treeless Jerusalem during the early decades of the 20th century, and then look out of my central city apartment window upon lush gardens and verdant green parks featuring hundreds of Jerusalem pine tress, olive trees, tamarisk, eucalyptus, carob, almond, acacia and towering palm trees, and yes, even many budding fig trees. With the financial support of Jews and others around the world, over 200 million trees have been planted here during the past 100 years – a remarkable feat in a semi-arid land.
And the cranes are everywhere to be seen – no, not the long-neck birds (they do fly overhead at times) but towering construction cranes putting up tall apartment buildings at a dizzying pace in every portion of Israel’s disputed capital city.
I could go on and describe in detail Israel’s lopsided contribution to medical and technological breakthroughs that we all take for granted. I could recount the history of its unique drip irrigation system now used in drier climates everywhere, bringing abundant agricultural productivity where there was little or none before – including to some of Israel’s declared enemies.
But space does not permit me to do all that. So instead I will simply say, “Israel, I salute you” during this special 60th birthday week. And knowing full well that your many enemies are working day and night for your ultimate destruction, I also declare aloud that I firmly believe the same Ancient of Days who scattered you from His special land is now gathering you, and will continue to watch over you like a shepherd keeps his flock.