Israel at 75: Where It’s Been and Where It’s Going

20 April 2023

What a holiday season it has been. As Israelis and Palestinians celebrated Passover, Ramadan, and Easter, we witnessed an escalation of violence that harkened back to the dark days of May 2021. And this time, Israel’s government has extremist leaders in key positions who are eager to stoke the flames. 

As many of us saw, gruesomely recorded on video, Israeli police brutally attacked Muslim worshippers as they prayed at al-Aqsa mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. Shortly after that, in a horrific murder, a Palestinian gunman killed a British-Israeli mother and her two daughters as they drove through the West Bank. In the ensuing days, things continued to deteriorate, as militants in Gaza and Lebanon launched rockets at Israel, and Israel carried out airstrikes in retaliation. On the ground, an Arab citizen of Israel rammed into a group of tourists on Tel Aviv’s beach promenade, killing one and injuring several more. In the West Bank Israeli soldiers shot and killed multiple Palestinians, including two children. There were, horribly, too many tragic acts of violence to include here.

After two weeks of escalation, the ratcheting up of violence seems to be on hold. But the uneasy calm that has washed over Israel and the occupied territories belies the untenable status quo. While the headline-grabbing attacks have largely subsided, Palestinians face the daily indignities of living under occupation and pro-democracy Israelis wait in apprehension of what anti-democratic laws Netanyahu and his extremist allies will put forth when the next legislative session begins in ten days.

With all of this in the background, we’re approaching Yom Ha’atzmaut, marking 75 years since Israel was established. It’s a moment for us to reflect on the past — the good and the bad — and to decide on the Israel we want to see emerging in the future. 

Together with our fellow members of the Progressive Israel Network, we hosted a special event earlier today to commemorate Israel’s 75th anniversary. It was a heartfelt and touching event featuring panels with leaders on both sides of the ocean like Omdim Beyachad-Naqef Ma’an (Standing Together)’s Sally Abed, Rabbis for Human Rights’ Avi Dabush, Rabbi Andrea London, and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, among others. They spoke frankly about the deep concern they have for Israel’s democracy and their hope for the future — a future where all Israelis and Palestinians  enjoy true equality, justice, and democracy.

We also grappled with the past, acknowledging that Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a celebration for everyone. We listened to powerful testimony about the Nakba (the “Catastrophe,” the term Palestinians use to refer to their dispossession during Israel’s War of Independence) and the multigenerational impact it has had on Palestinians in Israel, in the Occupied Territories, and in the diaspora. There’s a German word — Vergangenheitsbewältigung — that loosely translates as “coping with the past” or “working off the past” that refers to collectively and honestly working through the problematic parts of our history. Just as there has long been debate  here in the United States about the contradictions inherent in our nation’s founding, I hope that so too can Israelis begin to “work through the past” and reckon with the parts that some might prefer to forget.

Ultimately this commemoration of Israel’s 75th birthday was emblematic of what we do best: holding all of Israel’s complexity, bringing together Israelis from all walks of life, and serving as a bridge between Israelis and American Jews. All of the speakers and panelists — Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Americans — are united in their commitment to Arab-Jewish partnership for an Israel that is democratic, equal, and just for all.

I’m not naive, but there really are reasons for hope. We are seeing a mass movement for democracy unheard of in Israel’s recent history. It’s heartening to think that we are now in the fourth month of weekly protests that bring out hundreds of thousands of Israelis — many of whom have never protested before. And we are seeing many people — including in Israel’s mainstream — beginning to recognize the connection between Israel’s democratic backslide and the corrosive effects of the almost-56 year old occupation. 

We have a long way to go before we achieve our vision for equality, justice, and democracy for all. But I am heartened by the growing movement for democracy — and the increasing understanding that democracy means democracy for everyone. The New Israel Fund will continue doing what we know how to best — supporting the civil society leaders and activists working day in and day out to make that vision a reality.