Letter: Celebrating freedom

By David Johnson

Next Wednesday, hundreds will gather on the Quad to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, known in Hebrew as Yom Ha’atzmaut. But why? What’s special about the founding of Israel? Why aren’t there huge picnic parties on the Quad celebrating say, Mongolia or Ghana?

To be sure, many of the people celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut are Jewish, a large constituency here at the University. Israel is, both in the Hebrew meaning of its name and the function of its existence, a homeland for Jewish people. It was born primarily of worldwide anti-Semitism, which peaked in the Nazi Holocaust that took place just a few years before Israel’s founding. Thus, Israel represents a safe haven, a life preserver to any Jews who face discrimination. This has led to the fact that relative to the size of its population, Israel is the greatest immigrant-absorbing nation in the world.

Thus, Israel is a critical symbol of hope for Jews around the world. But American Jews have it great. Jews face little to no discrimination in the United States. So why the attachment to Israel? Why take a whole day for a public celebration?

The biggest reason is simple: solidarity. Perhaps we have family members who survived thanks to Israel. Perhaps we’ve spent time in Israel and realize our important connection to the land and people. Maybe we enjoy the culture. Or perhaps, we’re simply aware of our good fortune and understanding of the hardships of the others; a few minor flips in the course of history could have landed us in Israel, fighting for our lives. American Jews live in sheltered comfort, while Israeli Jews must serve in the military to protect their country from the perpetual onslaught of violence it has faced since its birth.

But Israel isn’t just about Jews or anti-Semitism. It is a symbol of freedom and ingenuity. Israel has a 20 percent minority, composed of Muslims, Christians, Baha’i, and Druze. And all citizens are equal before a court of law and have full democratic representation, meaning Israel is a multi-ethnic democracy that should serve as a model to the rest of the Middle East.

The creativity and productivity of Israel have enriched all of our lives, Jewish or not. If you use a Motorola cell phone, chances are the chips were designed in Israel. If you use a computer with an Intel Centrino processor, MMX technology, or Windows NT, you’re using Israeli products. An Israeli high-tech startup company made ICQ, the technology behind AOL Instant Messenger. Speaking of high-tech, Israel has the most companies listed on the tech-heavy NASDAQ exchange after the United States and Canada, and has the largest total number of high-tech startups after only the United States. And the medical and biotechnology advances from Israel are too numerous to list. Pretty impressive for a country that by most measures is smaller than the Chicago area.

This incredible productivity has propelled a war-torn Middle Eastern nation with few natural resources to a per capita product nearly equal to the United Kingdom’s. This should garner pride and respect from anyone. Ultimately, these things paint a picture of the important bond between the United States and Israel. Both are nations that prosper from immigration. Both value creativity. And most importantly, both value ideals such as freedom and equality. So come to the Quad Wednesday and celebrate. No politics, just music, food, and fun.

Of course, it is hard to speak of Israeli history without talking about the Palestinian people. Palestinians have suffered for over 50 years; first, living in land controlled by Egypt and Jordan and secondly, left in limbo after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. More recently, Palestinians have suffered as Israel has tried to take steps to protect its own population from terrorism. But there’s reason for hope. This year, Palestinians held their first democratic election. The connection between peace, prosperity and democratic freedom mean we’re at a turning point. Freedom and peace would benefit everyone in the region, so it is everyone’s hope. This bright future summarizes Israel; on Wednesday, Altgeld’s bells will play Israel’s national anthem, Ha’Tikvah: “The Hope.”