To mark Israel at 70, Miri Regev’s Culture Ministry launched a celebratory campaign. In the promotional video, religious and secular Israelis wax lyrical about the Jewish state’s achievements. The finale is a man exclaiming “Yesh!” or “Yay!” just because he is happy. The official message is that, after 70 years, “Yes, there is something to be proud of.”
As nationalist pride-inducing slogans go, it leaves much to be desired. First of all, it sounds more like an exercise in defensiveness than a festive refrain. The lady, in this case Regev, doth protest too much. And it leaves one wondering: If you really are so proud, who are you working so hard to convince?
Is it Israelis worrying what the next 70 years might hold? Is it diaspora Jews unsure whether to support Israeli policy when they see violence against Palestinians and prejudice against African asylum seekers? Maybe it is anyone who might – shock, horror – criticise the country.
I was born in Israel, but moved to London as a child. Growing up, Israel did not seem like some long-realised political dream. It was where my grandmother lived, where I played with my cousins on holiday. I never exactly thought of myself as a Zionist, either. It might sound hopelessly naïve and smack of privileged ignorance, but I didn’t really grasp the reality of the ongoing conflict until the Second Intifada. Israel was just another fact of life, not a matter for debate.
Perhaps this means that, when I respectfully disagree with the thrust of Regev’s argument, I feel less disappointed than those for whom Israel was meant to be an ideal, who talk about “losing their Zionism.”
Surely, though, after 70 years, we should swap the talk of “Should Israel exist? Yes it should! No it shouldn’t!” for trying to live at peace with our neighbours and making Israel a better run, more humane place.
Israel may have ranked 11th in the latest UN “Happiness Report” (compared to the Palestinians at 114), but anyone familiar with the Israeli news cycle will be a close personal friend of the low-rumbling headache. The headlines only four months into 2018 include such gems as a leadership crisis and corruption scandal, the cancellation of a long-awaited (and needed) refugee deal, Israeli troops killing Palestinians protesting in Gaza, and, for dessert, another possible Israeli strike in Syria. This gives just a taste of the issues with which Israel needs to grapple for a sustainable future.
Israel needs friends abroad and in the neighbourhood, but it also needs to look inwards. It needs to focus on how it treats the Palestinians, over whom it has so much power, and be willing to give up control over them. It needs to focus on how it treats the Arab minority. It needs to think about its treatment of African asylum seekers. It needs to look at the growing divide between religious and secular Jews and the exclusion of women from the public sphere. It needs to work hard to improve ordinary citizens’ lives.
All this means brave leadership. It means taking real steps towards peace. It means politicians taking responsibility. It means Israelis thinking honestly about how they can make the country better. It means not forgetting what Israel pledged in its Declaration of Independence: “Complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” among other worthy aspirations.
So, after 70 years, how about getting on with the job of making Israel a place of which we really can be proud. So proud that no one needs a campaign to convince them.
Alona Ferber is a writer and editor based in London. She is writing in a personal capacity.