Faces of Israel

The mosaic of Israeli faces on this month’s Oregon Jewish Life cover depicts the diversity of this modern nation as it prepares for its 64th birthday. The following pages offer glimpses of different aspects of the miracle that is the state of Israel.

As Israel gets ready to celebrate its 64th birthday on Yom Ha’atzmaut, it’s natural to reflect on a time when Israel served as a rallying point for the American Jewish community. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel faced a grave threat from belligerent Arab neighbors and labored under an enormous financial burden as it absorbed hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, Jews in the U.S. stood solidly behind the Jewish state.

But today? The discourse on Israel has become so polarized between left and right that some of us avoid talking about it altogether. Due to sharp differences among American Jews on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, many rabbis no longer feel comfortable giving sermons about Israel lest they alienate congregants who disagree with their views. Astonishingly, a few university Hillels have reportedly refused to display an Israeli flag in their buildings because it may offend the more liberal students.

With so much of the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may be easy to lose sight of the miracle that is the state of Israel. It’s a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees (that there are dense forests in Israel is in itself miraculous). This small country the size of New Jersey, with almost no natural resources and surrounded by enemies, truly represents a triumph of the human spirit. Israel, after all, is a flourishing, productive and compassionate society – one that’s far from perfect but nonetheless merits our deep admiration.

No other modern free society, for example, has come into existence and been shaped under conditions as adverse to liberal democracy as Israel’s. Yet, in some ways, Israeli democracy is more progressive than the much more established American system. Whereas politics in the U.S. is dominated by the two major parties, Israeli voters can typically choose from over a dozen parties representing a wide spectrum of political views. Ironically, Israel is the only Western democracy with a fundamentalist Islamic party holding seats in its parliament!

For the most part, Israeli society is highly pluralistic. Israel recognizes 15 religions (though, regrettably, it has failed to grant official recognition to the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, a source of frustration for many American Jews). Notably, it was an Arab judge who recently sentenced the former president of Israel, a Jew, to seven years in prison for rape. Tel Aviv was selected as the “best gay city of 2011,” reflecting an open and vibrant LGBT culture. And Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where the Christian population is thriving instead of disappearing.

In addition to its robust democracy, Israel has one of the most entrepreneurial and innovation-based economies in the world. It’s remarkable how many of the things we use in our everyday life have their origins in Israel. As Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, put it succinctly, “Microsoft is as much an Israeli company as we are a U.S. company.”

Microsoft, HP, Intel, Google – they all have research and development centers in Israel. But computer technology isn’t the only field where Israelis have excelled. Israel is a world leader in agricultural technology. Moreover, there’s virtually no area of medicine and biotechnology in which Israeli innovations haven’t made significant contributions. Thanks to research conducted at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, progress has been made toward slowing the symptoms of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

For American Jews, there is perhaps no greater source of vicarious pride than Israel’s longstanding tradition of tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world.” Israel and humanitarian relief are practically synonymous. Who could forget that in the immediate aftermath of Haiti’s destructive earthquake in 2010, it was a team of Israeli doctors and nurses that set up the only full-functioning field hospital, saving hundreds of lives? Last October, despite deteriorating diplomatic relations, Israel was one of the first countries to offer aid to Turkey after it was struck by a massive 7.2-magnitude earthquake.

In Japan, which was devastated by a tsunami a year ago, IsraAID, an Israeli NGO, is continuing to provide intensive therapy to tsunami victims still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The NGO was honored for its work recently by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in New York.

Meanwhile, each year, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza receive the highest level of care at Israeli medical centers. In 2010, a 4-month-old infant from Gaza was treated in Israel for a life-threatening genetic disorder and became the subject of the award-winning Israeli documentary, “Precious Life.”

None of this, of course, is to suggest that American Jews should refrain from voicing opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor should we ignore the fact that Israel has its share of domestic challenges, among them an unstable parliamentary system, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a recent wave of radicalization in some ultra-Orthodox communities.

Yet, it’s precisely the aforementioned attributes of Israeli society – democratic, innovative, compassionate – that should give us hope that Israel will overcome both its internal struggles and external conflicts. They should also help us realize that Yom Ha’atzmaut is more than a celebration of the establishment of the Jewish state – it’s a celebration of the vital role Israel plays in making our world a better place.

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Where would we be without Israel?

Drip irrigation, which allows cultivation of crops in arid regions, was invented in Israel.

The cell phone was developed in Israel by Motorola, which has its largest development center in Israel.

Most of the Windows NT and XP operating systems were developed by Microsoft-Israel.

The Pentium MMX Chip technology was designed in Israel at Intel.

The Pentium 4 microprocessor and the Centrino processor were designed, developed and produced in Israel.

Voice mail technology was developed in Israel.

The technology for the AOL Instant Messenger ICQ was developed in 1996 by four young Israelites.

According to industry officials, Israel designed the airline industry’s most impenetrable flight security. U.S. officials now look to Israel for advice on how to handle airborne security threats.

Israeli scientists developed the first fully computerized, no-radiation, diagnostic instrumentation for breast cancer.

An Israeli company developed a computerized system for ensuring proper administration of medications, thus removing human error from medical treatment. (Every year in U.S. hospitals 7,000 patients die from treatment mistakes.)

IMAGE CAPTION: Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, immediate past director general of the Hadassah Medical Organization, addresses the audience at the moving-in ceremony of the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower March 19 on Hadassah Hospital’s Jerusalem campus. During a visit to Portland in 2010, Mor-Yosef said, “I present the face of Hadassah Hospital as a place of co-existence. With the hospital’s humanitarian mission, when you walk through the corridors of the hospital, you see the different faces of Israel. Jews, Arabs, ultra-Orthodox and secular are all sitting in the same waiting room to see the same doctors.” The 19-story structure contains 500 beds, 20 operating rooms, 60 intensive care beds, the Heart and Internal Medicine Institutes, all surgical and medical treatment divisions, including all treatment surgical suites and all surgical, medical and cardiac intensive care units. Campaign Co-chair Judy Swartz added, “Surely this magnificent building can be seen as a gift to all mankind; to Jerusalem; to the State of Israel. It will represent pioneering medicine for today and for the future.”

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