Whereas on Pesach, the youngest present asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the entire Jewish people ask collectively, “How is this year different from all other years?”. As we celebrate the 61st anniversary of the state of Israel, this year’s differences include new governments in both Israel and the US, and a world that faces unprecedented global challenges, economically and strategically.
On a personal note, this is the second time I will celebrate the establishment of the state of Israel as Israel’s Ambassador to the UK. I’ve been touched by the energy and commitment of the Jewish community and the strength of the community’s connection with the state of Israel. Now more than ever, our challenges are shared, our futures intertwined.
Those who demonise and delegitimise the state of Israel also attack the identity, safety and security of Jewish people throughout the world. Earlier this year, when Israel was forced to defend its citizens from Hamas missile attacks, British Jews, in Trafalgar Square, in Manchester and elsewhere, stood tall in solidarity with the people of Israel as together we called for peace.
Our countries remain bonded by shared values and democratic traditions. We celebrated those values when Gordon Brown visited Israel, becoming the first British Prime Minister to address the Knesset. We celebrated them when President Shimon Peres visited the UK in November, receiving an honorary knighthood from Her Majesty the Queen.
Yet we continue to face extremism and terror from states and organisations that seek our destruction. Prompted, armed and funded by Iran, Hamas has been terrorising the citizens of the south of Israel with missile attacks for several years. It has held Gaza’s population hostage to tyranny while attacking ours.
Israel’s ultimate goal remains the achievement of peace. Yet the challenge of extremist terror cannot simply be wished away. That challenge will become even more explosive if Iran’s race to a nuclear weapon is not halted. In the interests of all who seek stability, progress and peace in the region, the international community must step up its efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran.
Last Monday at the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, President Ahmadinejad added to his encyclopedic collection of inflammatory, antisemitic and conspiratorial speeches. It is disgraceful that the day before Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the world’s leading Holocaust denier was invited to address a UN forum. And it was shameful that countries mistaken enough to attend the conference initially, did not withdraw fully after the Iranian President’s offensive outburst.
Unfortunately, many seem naïve, complacent or unconcerned as regards the challenge of Iranian-sponsored extremism. As Ahmadinejad ranted in Geneva, in London, Clare Short MP invited parliamentarians to “talk to Hamas”. By video link, Hamas chief Khaled Mashal was beamed live from Damascus, direct to the Houses of Parliament. Westminster, a global icon of democratic values, was tainted by a leader who subjugates his people to a theocratic nightmare while pursuing a genocidal agenda against Israel and the Jewish people. In the UK, extremist ideas are being tolerated in alarming places.
Yet these challenges do not diminish from our achievements. Israel is a vibrant, democratic and innovative society. In fields such as nanotechnology and renewable energy, Israel is at the technological cutting edge. This will not only ensure the continued viability of the Israeli economy but will also secure Israel’s place as a driving force in the search for solutions to mankind’s most pressing needs. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv. Today a bustling, cosmopolitan city, Tel Aviv is a testament to what we have achieved in such a short time.
In our tradition, however, before we rejoice in the fruits of independence, we remember the price we have had to pay. We celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, only after commemorating the suffering and sacrifice of our people on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. Our dream remains a secure Israel, at peace with our neighbours. As we pursue that dream in a changing and uncertain world, now more than ever, we must be determined, courageous and united in honouring our shared heritage and protecting the Jewish future.