San Francisco’s Israel in the Gardens festival on Sunday, June 10 is one of many large-scale events around the world celebrating Israeli independence, and with just cause (in Israel, it is also a day off from work).
But, perhaps more so for Israel than for other countries, it also is a time to weigh and debate accomplishments and future challenges. Such is the atmosphere for a relatively young country that is often under the microscope of the international community.
So, how has Israel done in its 64 years?
Looking at our domestic situation, by any objective standard Israeli democracy is as robust and pluralistic as any in the world. Protests and political advocacy, including very fierce and unpopular criticism of the government and military, occur on a daily basis.
Despite more than six decades of war and terrorism, and threats of annihilation, Israelis enjoy freedom of expression on par with any modern democracy. And this vibrant, democratic environment occurs within a society that works to bring together people from numerous divergent communities scattered for generations as diasporas, many of which do not have traditions of pluralism and democracy.
To be sure, our society is not perfect — like other nations, we have flaws, particularly in terms of economic inequalities, and it is our responsibility to correct them. But the necessary political infrastructure exists to address those problems.
Israel’s democratic credentials include a wide-open electoral process; a free and highly critical press; a vibrant NGO sector with tens of thousands of political and social groups across the political spectrum, engaging in intense debate; as well as the systematic protection of the rights of minorities to freedom of expression and protest.
In the summer of 2011, mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of citizens on socioeconomic issues were a testament to Israel’s dynamic civil society and a culture of advocacy and peaceable protest. Israeli police facilitated these activities, blocking off roads and granting permits. The government responded to protestors’ demands positively, in the form of a task force to address their claims.
Additionally, Israeli police forces and government institutions facilitate what have become annual events: gay pride parades in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat; marches on Human Rights Day; protests by the Islamic movement, and more.
As a result of these activities, pro-democracy activists in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere, where thousands were murdered at the hands of their own governments, are said to have taken inspiration from the democratic nature of Israel and its commitment to freedom of expression.
The Israeli society that fosters this democracy also fosters innovation and creativity at rates disproportional to its population. Impressive data on the number of startup companies and agricultural and high-tech inventions is widely known. An exhibit last year at Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum highlighted 45 of Israel’s best inventions — from “surgical robots” that conduct “highly accurate, state-of-the-art” spine surgery with less need for radiation, to a “unique internal pipe generator that supplies electricity for water monitoring and control systems in remote areas and sites without accessibility to electricity.”
And culture continues to flourish. Festivals showcasing art, theater, music and other creativity occur on an almost weekly basis in cities throughout the country. Israeli films have been nominated for Oscars four out of the last five years.
At 64, Israel has accomplished more than most countries. The story too often is politicized. But at its core, Israel’s success story is about the ingathering of exiles, the rebirth of a language, innovation, determination, and building a country — from the land up.
In short, Israel is not just doing well — Israel is thriving. The ensuing celebration is well deserved.
Jason Edelstein, a native of Sacramento, is communications director of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution.