Celebrating interdependence on Israel's Independence Day

The following article was published in Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel:
By Ori Nir, APN Spokesman

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Israel's Independence Day is a good time to revel in what such a small country has achieved in such a short time and under such trying circumstances. But it is also a time to resolve to do more.

On the former point, Israel's achievements are indeed amazing. With a population of seven million citizens, Israel is no less than a technological, academic, medical, cultural, artistic, and scientific super-power. And this is not just on a per-capita basis but in absolute terms. It is bursting with ingenuity and creativity.

But for me, these creative developments are secondary to what stands as one of the preeminent achievements of modern-day Israel: the revival of the Hebrew language. This sleeping beauty, which for hundreds of years was used for religious worship only, was breathed to life by the Jewish Haskalah (revival) movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, and then thoroughly resuscitated and made-over by the Zionist movement, led by the father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda.

Unlike the Sleeping Beauty of the fairy-tales, modern Hebrew didn't simply live happily ever after within the walls of a palace. It took on the very hard work of serving a fast-growing country, a society, and a culture; it grew at an amazing pace into a thriving, creative, and delightful language.

As it tried to adapt to a modern world, modern Hebrew found that it lacked words to denote a number of basic concepts. One of them was a term for independence. Most Hebrew speakers would probably be shocked to learn that, until the early 1930s, there was no word in the Hebrew language to denote political independence. At that time, with a growing momentum around the yishuv's state-building enterprise, Eliezer Ben Yehuda's son, Itamar, coined the Hebrew neologism atzma'ut (whose root "a.tz.m," denotes among other things "self," and whose suffix, "ut", denotes an abstract concept).

Literally, the word translates into "self-ism" (as in self-reliance) but colloquially it means independence. This newly coined word immediately became ubiquitous and for the next two decades dominated the pre-state Yishuv's discourse. Once it achieved political independence in 1948, Israel made self-reliance, particularly in its military form, a cardinal ideal and a primary objective.

That too was a success story. With a superior military, with excellent intelligence, and with sophisticated Israeli-made or Israeli-upgraded weapon systems, Israel won wars, deterred aggression, and curbed terrorism.

Of course, Israel has never been entirely self-reliant militarily. While it never relied on others to fight its wars, Israel has always relied on massive external military aid, particularly from the U.S. The Israeli popular perception, however, has always been one of complete military self-reliance.

This perception in turn produced many popular misconceptions. One of them is that military action is the most reliable and dependable tool with which to address Israel's ongoing conflict with its Arab and Palestinian neighbors. Another is that Israel is free to act militarily without regard to the interests and considerations of its allies or world public opinion.

Every Israeli prime minister has of course experienced the humbling limits of unilateral military action, the unintended consequences of military force, and the need for -- at the very least -- parallel diplomatic action.

But increasingly, Israelis are experiencing the limits of their independence. While their country gains military might, they find that their vibrant, export-oriented economy, dependent on a globalized world community, makes them vulnerable to an international community that is increasingly refusing to accept Israel's ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The international community has made it increasingly clear to Israelis that only the realization of the Palestinian national dream of independence in Palestine can secure the Zionist dream of an independent, democratic, Jewish state.

In other words, Israelis are increasingly compelled to come to terms with the realization that Israel is not truly independent as long as it denies the Palestinians their own independence. It is not fully independent because its well-being, current and future, depends on its ability to rid itself of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Increasingly, that notion resonates in Israel, which gives me hope. To be sure, the recognition within the Israeli public that the status quo is not sustainable has not yet reached fruition. It has not yet prompted the public to demand government action to resolve the conflict. But that is still possible. Public opinion surveys show that ultra-nationalists and religious zealots, on both sides, are losing ground, that their exclusivist, maximalist, zero-sum doctrine is giving way to a growing recognition that mutual independence is actually a win-win.

Israeli extremists have distorted the very positive concept of atzma'ut. They stretched it beyond its reasonable boundaries of self-reliance, and turned it into unlimited "self-ism." In the name of atzma'ut, they have turned disregard of the other -- both Israel's neighbors and the international community -- into a value. Israel simply cannot afford that kind of crooked atzma'ut. In this globalized world, no country that wishes to thrive can turn "self-ism" into a national ethos.

So on its 63rd birthday, I would like to celebrate Israel's Independence Day by saluting the sober, pragmatic, and responsible interpretation of atzma'ut. I celebrate by saluting Israelis and their friends worldwide who are striving to make Israel truly independent, to liberate it from the occupation and its many ills, and to at last implement a two-state solution. I celebrate by saluting those who work to both liberate the Palestinians and grant future generations of Israelis the true independence that was the dream of their country's founders, and that Israelis are yet to experience.

Ori Nir, formerly a correspondent with Israel's Haaretz and the Forward, is the spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now.