Still, 70 years of independence is barely a blip on the radar of Jewish history. And the Jews of Israel are highly aware of our role as a small link in a long chain of Jewish history. We are modern Israelis, of course, but our consciousness is one of ancient Jews. In survey after survey, more Israelis choose “Jewish” over “Israeli” as their main identity. And by this they do not refer to a religion (Judaism) but to a nation (the Jewish people).
Thus, when celebrating 70 years of statehood, we Jews must engage in a kind of balancing act. On one hand, we need to appreciate the great achievement of building this Jewish homeland in such a short time in such a hostile environment. On the other hand, we need to grasp the smallness of this achievement in the scheme of Jewish history.
The prophet Jeremiah described the Babylonian exile as a 70-year affair. We consider that short. In the second century BCE, the Hasmonean kingdom, widely viewed as the last period of Jewish political autonomy before the founding of Israel, lasted for about eight decades before it became client of the Romans. This kingdom is still today a source of Jewish pride, but it is also a cautionary tale: Most Israelis plan for a future that extends much further than merely another decade of statehood.
So being the luckiest Jew ever is a blessing and a burden. The more we have, the more obligated we are to guard it and the more afraid we are to lose it. We’re afraid for psychological reasons: Jews thought they were lucky in the past, and it often ended badly for them (remember Germany in the early 20th century). But we are also afraid because of indisputably dangerous circumstances: There are people out there who want to harm us, deny us what we have and destroy us, from Iranian leaders to Palestinian extremists to anti-Semites around the world.
And Israel faces other challenges, some of which are familiar to many countries: economic inequality, populism, homegrown radicalism and illegal immigration. Not even the lucky Jew can ignore these and other challenges that hover like clouds over the future of Jewish sovereignty and success.
Still, Israelis tend to be hopeful. In a survey taken a year ago, 73 percent of Israeli Jews said they were optimistic “about Israel’s future.” They must see something beyond the challenges that makes them so confident. One of them, I believe, is this sense of being lucky, of being born at such a good time.