Happy 66th Birthday, Israel!

For many nations, a 66th birthday may not generate much excitement. But if the country happens to be Israel, which celebrates its birthday this week, it's another story.
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For many nations, a 66th birthday may not generate much excitement. But if the country happens to be Israel, which celebrates its birthday this week, it's another story.

Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only UN member state whose right to exist is regularly challenged, whose elimination from the world map is the aim of at least one other UN member state (Iran), and whose population centers are deemed fair game by Hamas-controlled Gaza and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.

None of the countries that are serial human-rights violators -- not Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Sudan, or any of the others -- gets anything near the relentless, obsessive, guilty-till-proven-innocent scrutiny that democratic Israel receives from UN bodies, with their built-in, anti-Israel majorities, in New York and Geneva.

Indeed, Israel is the only nation in the world which has a permanent, separate agenda item at the UN Human Rights Council. All other countries in the world are lumped together under another agenda item.

No other country is the target of such non-stop, well-funded, and highly-organized campaigns to discredit, delegitimize, and demonize a sovereign state.

No other country faces systematic attempts to launch boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions against it, not to mention flotillas and flytillas. All the while those behind the efforts, claiming to speak in the lofty name of human rights, studiously ignore places like Syria, where more than 100,000 have been killed in the past three years alone and numberless more wounded, homeless, exiled, and detained. Why this lack of interest in Syria? Presumably because no Israeli connection can be claimed.

No other country has its right to self-defense challenged as Israel does, even though it acts no differently than any other nation would if confronted by periodic terrorist assaults and deadly missile and rocket attacks.

And no other country is as microscopically examined in the media, from the BBC to the Financial Times, from CNN International to the wire services, leading to such typical whoppers as a New York Times headline -- "Tensions Rise as Israel and Gaza Swap Strikes." Rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel, Israel responded to defend its citizens, and to the newspaper of record, it's an antiseptically 50-50 equation between the attacker and the attacked.

I have enormous admiration for Israel -- for its resolve, resilience, courage, and ingenuity.

What it has achieved in the past 66 years is breathtaking: the rebirth of a state with a rock-solid democratic foundation; the ingathering of millions of refugees and immigrants from just about every corner of the world; the creation of a world-class economy; the building of a first-rate army; and a determination to overcome one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another.

Other nations might have succumbed, after 66 years of uninterrupted hostility, to enemies trying everything under the sun to destroy them, and short of that, to demoralize and isolate them. But Israel has not flinched. It refuses to cave. It keeps confounding its foes.

Its commitment to a two-state accord with the Palestinians, polls repeatedly reveal, remains unshakeable, even as many Israelis can't help but wonder if the Palestinians, given one chance after another for sovereignty, truly share Israel's aim of Jewish and Palestinian states living side by side in peace and harmony.

Moreover, in global surveys Israel comes out among the "happiest" countries in the world; Tel Aviv ranks as one of the top "go-to" destinations for young people; and Israelis' life expectancy exceeds that of Americans'.

How can it be, Israel's adversaries ask, that these "sons of monkeys and pigs," as radical Muslim preachers openly refer to the Jews (and as ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared four years ago, while a Muslim Brotherhood leader), manage to stand tall, strong, and, yes, optimistic? How can it be that this nation of just eight million, grown from only 650,000 at its birth in 1948, repeatedly defeats far more populous Arab foes that have arrayed themselves against it? How can it be that these Jews, seemingly led to slaughter like sheep by the Third Reich, suddenly learned how to defend themselves and vanquish larger Arab armies, within three years of V-E Day? And how can it be that Israel, with no natural resources to speak of until recent natural gas findings, could achieve a first-world economy, catapulting it into the OECD; double-digit winners of Nobel Prizes; top-three ranking in new NASDAQ listings; and global recognition as a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship?

Too often, Israel's adversaries have come up with misguided if self-satisfying answers, usually elaborate conspiracy theories inspired by anti-Semitic tropes.

In reality, though, the answer is much simpler. It derives from an age-old connection among a land, a faith, and a people. Many have tried to sever the link. All have failed.

Consider the words of Ezekiel, expressed some 2,700 years ago:

Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel... And the desolate land shall be tilled... And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the Garden of Eden.

Or, to fast forward from the ancient prophet Ezekiel to the prophetic Winston Churchill:

The coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.

Churchill added that the state's establishment was "one of the most hopeful and encouraging adventures of the 20th century."

Indeed, so it continues to be in the 21st century.

To be sure, Israel, like all democratic societies, is a permanent work in progress. Much remains to be done.

From grappling with a less-than-ideal electoral system to dealing with religious zealots who invoke a "higher authority" than the state, from addressing a yawning gap between rich and poor to balancing the Jewish and democratic nature of the country, from the decades-long pursuit of peace with its neighbors to the defense of the country in an ever more turbulent region, Israel has no shortage of challenges.

But, above all, Israel is a wondrous "adventure." I feel privileged daily to see the fulfillment of the prayers of generations longing for a return to Zion from forced exile.

Witnessing Soviet Jews arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport even as Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles came raining down, while Israel did not miss a beat in welcoming the newcomers, reveals the country's character.

So, too, being in Rambam Hospital in Haifa during Hezbollah missile attacks. One minute, a siren would sound and everyone would calmly go, or be moved, to the bomb shelters. The next minute, after the all-clear signal, the scientists would return to their labs to continue cutting-edge research in cancer, diabetes, and stem-cell therapy.

Or visiting Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, where victims of Hamas strikes against Israel were taken for medical care, and seeing Palestinian patients from Gaza in rooms adjoining the Jewish wounded.

Or getting to know Save a Child's Heart, an Israeli program that provides life-saving pediatric heart surgery. Many of the children come from Arab countries that deny Israel's very existence.

Or seeing the scrawling on a Tel Aviv wall shortly after 21 young Israelis were killed at a discotheque -- "They won't stop us from dancing."

Or watching an Israeli Arab Supreme Court justice -- who, incidentally, refuses to sing Israel's national anthem -- sit on a panel that upheld the conviction of an Israeli ex-president on charges of rape.

Or imagining the role Israel could one day play in the region in helping advance food security, water security, energy security, environmental security, public health security, and knowledge security, all of which will be towering issues in the 21st century.

No, this Israel may not now feature prominently in the media, I'm sorry to say, but it is the Israel that pulsates daily with a love of life, of freedom, and of the land.

Happy 66th Birthday, Israel!

This essay is an adaptation of an earlier version written by the author.

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