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15 Reasons to be Proud of Israel

15 Reasons to be Proud of Israel

In celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday, here are 15 amazing reasons to be proud of the Jewish state.

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Making the desert bloom

When Jews first began returning to the land of Israel in large numbers in the 1880s they had the goal of “making the desert bloom”. Visiting the Jezreel Valley in Israel’s north – today a verdant center of Israeli agriculture and dotted with picturesque towns – Mark Twain wrote in 1869 that “There is not a solitary village through its whole extent – not for 30 miles in either direction. There are two or three clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation”. He called the entire country “dismal scenery”.

Yet Jewish farmers refused to give up. They drained swamps, planted fields, and built farms and towns. Israelis invented drip irrigation and other progressive farming techniques, and quickly built a modern country from desert soil. Today, Israel is one of the world’s largest economies, despite its small size. It is the 37th largest export economy in the world, selling nearly $56 billion worth of goods – from agricultural products to high tech – around the world.

Today, Israel is teaching other nations how to make their own deserts bloom. “People come here from all over the world to study how we grow things in the desert and how to fight against the desert’s continuing conquest of their land,” explains Gadi Grinblat, of the Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center in Israel’s Negev desert. An Israeli government program sends Israeli agro-scientists to Africa, Asia, Latin America, Central Europe and the Middle East in order to share Israeli developments and know-how with countries around the world.

Rescuing Jewish holy sites

Were it not for Israel, some of the most important Jewish holy sites would not exist.

Between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan controlled eastern Jerusalem, they banned Jews and razed the ancient Jewish quarter, destroying 34 synagogues and using the ruins to house garbage, dead animal carcasses, and piles of dung. They desecrated the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, trashing tens of thousands of Jewish tombstones and using them for building materials, and burned thousands of Jewish books and Torah scrolls.

Joseph’s Tomb, restored in 2015 after arson.

When the Palestinian Authority gained control over Joseph’s Tomb in 2000, one of its first actions was to plunder and burn the synagogue there. They also ransacked the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, using bulldozers to dump 400 truckloads of priceless archeological treasures in a nearby trash heap. Without Israel, countless Jewish sites presumably would face similar onslaughts.

Religious sites open to all

Everyone can pray at many of the world-famous religious sites in Israel. Take the Western Wall, the last remnant of the holy Temple in Jerusalem and Judaism’s holiest site: open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and requiring no charge, the Western Wall is full of worshippers from all over the world who visit to pray and commune with the Divine in its awe-inspiring presence.

Israel is full of thousands of religious sites holy to billions of people around the world. It’s not only Jews who benefit. In 2009, Israel opened a hiking trail following key Christian sites in the Galilee region. And in recent years the number of Muslim tourists visiting the Jewish state has increased. Tourists from Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular, have been touring Israel in greater numbers, visiting Muslim sites and enjoying the amenities that Israel has to offer.

Jewish refugees

On Israel’s first independence day, May 14, 1948, its population stood at 806,000. Thousands of desperate Holocaust survivors waited to be able to move to the Jewish state. Soon, Arab countries expelled over 850,000 Jews, many of whose families had lived in those nations for thousands of years. Within a year, Israel’s population more than doubled as it absorbed these desperate refugees to 1,174,000.

Israel’s government has taken proactive steps to rescue beleaguered Jews worldwide. One of the first actions of the new state was sending planes to Yemen to spirit the 55,000 Jews who faced murderous hostility to safety in Israel.

In one 36-hour period in 1991, Israel sent 33 airplanes to Ethiopia to rescue 14,400 Ethiopian Jews who were cowering in the capital, surrounded by civil war. The top-secret maneuver – dubbed Operation Solomon – broke the world record for the number of passengers in a single airplane.

In recent years, Israel has provide life-saving refuge from Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Russia, Belarus, Crimea, Venezuela, France and other nations. Today, Israel’s population stands at 8,630,000.

Freedom of religion and protection of minorities

Israeli law guarantees the protection of freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation. The US-funded organization Freedom House characterizes Israel as a “multiparty democracy with strong and independent institutions that guarantee political rights and civil liberties for most of the population” and notes that “the judiciary is active in protecting minority rights”.

Israeli Arabs, who make up about 21% of Israel’s population, have rights identical to Jews. Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language of the state of Israel. Israeli Arabs attend school, enjoy freedom of religion, and vote in free and fair elections. Israel’s lively democratic scene means there are a panoply of political parties to choose from, including some that cater specifically to Arab interests.

In recent years, more Israeli Arabs have been vocal about their Zionism and support for their country. Sarah Zoabi, an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, appeared on the popular Israeli cooking show “Master Chef” in 2015; calling herself an “Arab, Muslim, Israeli, proud Zionist”, she noted that “We live in paradise. Compared to other countries, to Arab countries – we live in paradise.”

Foodie Paradise

Local is the key word for many gourmets these days – locally sourced ingredients are fresher and taste better. Israel, which produces 95% of its own food, is a food lover’s dream, with fresh vegetables and vibrant Mediterranean ingredients like lemons and olives making regular appearances on Israeli tables. Add the fact that Israelis hail from scores of countries, from Egypt to Russia to India and beyond, and you get a sense of what an exciting fusion of cuisines is available in Israel today.

In 2017, Forbes Magazine featured Israel’s dynamic cooking, explaining “Why Israel Might Just Have the World’s Best Restaurant Scene”, noting that “it’s hard to name a restaurant scene that’s more appealing than Israel’s”.

Start-Up Nation

Israel has emerged as a major player in high-tech, and currently has one of the highest concentrations of startups in the world. Foreign companies increasingly have opened Research and Development centers in Israel to take advantage of local talent: about 300 research centers employ about 60,000 Israeli programmers, designers and engineers. Israeli’s dynamic hi-tech scene employs about 300,000 people – out of country of only 8.6 million.

Israel maintains its status as the Start-Up Nation by what The Economist calls a virtuous circle of investment in scientific education and nurturing of local talent. At 4% of GDP, Israel invests about twice the global average in high-tech research and development. (In comparison, consider that Australia, another high-tech giant, invests only about 2.4% of GDP in research, and contains only about 1,500 startups, despite the fact its population is roughly three times Israel’s size.)

Thriving Literary Scene

In 1881, Eliezer ben Yehuda, a passionate Zionist born in Russia who moved to the nascent Jewish state, vowed to speak only Hebrew. Soon, a small circle of friends joined him. Long the language of Jewish prayer and holy books, Hebrew hadn’t been spoken as the daily language of a free people for nearly 2,000 years. Yet ben Yehuda’s quest was successful: today, Hebrew is the only “dead” language that has been revived, and today is spoken by over 8 million people in Israel and beyond.

Shmuel Yosef Agnon

The literary scene in Israel is thriving. Israelis buy more books per capita than any other country in the world, and Israeli literature has been scooping up literary awards in Israel and beyond. In 1966, Israeli novelist S.Y. Agnon won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Israeli writer Dovid Grossman won the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s highest honor, in 2017. Israeli city streets are often named after writers and poets.

Thriving Free Press

With dozens of newspapers, magazines, online news sites, radio stations and television news shows, Israel is home to a dynamic, free press. Freedom House, which ranks press freedom internationally, rates Israel as “free”, its highest ranking, and the only country in the Middle East to earn that distinction. “Israel hosts a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected,” the organization noted in its 2017 report.

Vibrant Musical Scene

Israel’s music scene is vibrant, spanning diverse musical styles from classical to hip hop. Among classical music fans, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Jerusalem, is ranked as one of the world’s greatest symphonies. Unusually for an orchestra of its caliber, it has never needed to recruit heavily abroad, and has been able to fill most of its seats with local talent. In recent years, Israel’s jazz, rap and world music scenes have exploded, filling the country with concerts and music venues.

There are scores of musical festivals in Israel today. Some of the most popular include Jacob’s Ladder, a major folk music festival held at Kibbutz Ginosar on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; the annual Guitar Festival, held in the Negev desert; the Red Sea Jazz Festival, held over four days each year in Eilat; the Tamar Festival featuring rock music each Autumn along the Dead Sea; and the annual Klezmer Festival in the mountain city of Safed.

Living Judaism

Even when they identify as secular, Jewish principles are crucial to most Israelis. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that over 80% of Israeli Jews believe in God, and three quarters eat kosher food – no matter whether they identify as religiously observant or not. A large majority – 66% – light Shabbat candles on Friday night, and 60% of Israeli Jews recite Kiddush over wine on Shabbat.

First Responders

When disaster strikes anywhere in the world, Israeli first responders are increasingly on the scene, helping with rescue, distributing aid, and setting up field hospitals. Israeli aid workers set up one of the first emergency hospitals in Haiti following its devastating earthquake in 2010. Israelis were among the first on the scene after the Japanese tsunami of 2011, after the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, after hurricanes hit in Puerto Rico and Texas in 2017, and elsewhere. Each year, dozens of Israeli rescue teams are dispatched to provide vital first aid at disaster sites around the world.

Meanwhile, a number of initiatives at home bring people to Israel for vital medical procedures. The Israeli Save a Heart Foundation flies hundreds of sick children to Tel Aviv each year to receive life-saving heart surgeries. Since the civil war in Syria, 4,000 Syrians have fled to Israel and received free medical care in the Jewish state. This is often secret: when they return home, Syrian refugees aren’t able to confide in anyone that they received help from Israel; even when Israeli medics send life-saving equipment and medicine to Syria, they first remove all Hebrew stickers and writing so that no one knows the aid came from the Jewish state.

Women’s Rights

Israel was the first country to ban underweight models – in 2013. Israeli publications are also banned by law from digitally altering women’s images to make them look thinner. These progressive moves are no surprise, given Israel’s commitment to women’s rights. Not only is Israel a lone bastion of female equality in the Middle East, Israeli women enjoy greater rights and freedom than women in many western countries.

Israel’s founding laws were among the first in the world to treat gender as a protected group – and guarantee equal rights. Today, over a quarter of members of Israel’s Knesset are women. In 1969, Golda Meir became Israel’s first female prime minister – and only the third female prime minister globally. Israeli women have served as mayors, on Israel’s Supreme Court, and fill the ranks of professors and other professionals. A majority of all Ph.D.s awarded in the Jewish state today are given to female graduates.

Moral Army

Citing the Israeli army’s commitment to minimizing civilian deaths, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, has called the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) the most moral in the world. “No other army in the world has ever done more than Israel is doing now to save the lives of innocent civilians in a combat zone,” Col. Kemp has observed.

Happiness

The UN annual World Happiness Report ranked Israel 11th for the fifth year in a row in its 2018 report. As one of the world’s happiest nations, Israel is in company with peaceful, prosperous lands: Finland ranked first, followed by Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. In contrast, Israel’s neighbors were ranked 88th (Lebanon), 90th (Jordan) and 150th (Syria). (The United States ranked 18th.)

Perhaps Israelis are so happy – despite the threat of war, despite being surrounded by neighbors who openly call for its destruction, despite terrorism – because there is a fundamental, positive ethos in the country, rooted in tradition and a sense that the Jewish people enjoys a long, unbroken history inside the Land of Israel.

April 14, 2018

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