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Israel at 50 still a work in progress

By the reckoning of the Hebrew calendar, Israel celebrates its golden anniversary as an independent nation April 30, and, like any 50-year-old, it is experiencing both the problems and satisfactions that come with middle age.

It is often forgotten that when Israel, the Middle East's only democracy, entered the family of nations in 1948, it was one of more than 100 new states to gain independence after World War II, a time of unprecedented assertion of national sovereignty and dynamic global decolonization.

Fired by the ideas of national liberation and political self-determination, such diverse states as India, Pakistan, Ghana, Barbados, Guyana, Zimbabwe and Israel have all attained independence from British rule since 1945.

The birth and growth process of human beings is never simple, predictable or painless. The same holds true for nations. Few, if any, nation-states are "immaculately conceived" or peacefully born.

Like so many other countries, including the United States, an independent Israel came into the world amid war, pain, blood, invasion and agony, as well as with inner strength and a powerful collective will to survive.

In addition to the natural desire of any newborn to stay alive, Israel's independence was fueled by an attempt to reverse 1,800 years of Jewish homelessness and dispersion throughout the world.

Israel was, and remains, an attempt to end the Jewish powerlessness that often resulted from being a pariah people, living in many nations but truly belonging to none.

Israel sought to restore Jewish political independence _ something existing only twice before in ancient history. But Israel also aimed to create a spiritual renaissance and a sense of self-esteem among the Jewish people, who had endured long centuries of persecution, hatred, expulsion and genocide that culminated in the Holocaust.

Other new nations born after World War II eventually achieved peace or at least peaceful co-existence with their neighbors, but not Israel. Born in the bubbling caldron of bitter conflict, Israel, as a nation, has never had a moment of true peace. Instead, the Jewish state has only known continuous wars, both large and small.

Sadly, 50 years later, several Arab neighbors, most notably Syria and Iraq, are still officially in a state of war with Israel. This perpetual state of war is a corrosive national burden filled with pain, loss and death.

I hope the long and tortuous diplomatic process that achieved formal peace with Egypt and Jordan will finally break the bleak pattern of war, and bring Israel peace with the Palestinians and the remaining Arab nations.

Within its borders, Israel's citizens, a good number of whom survived the Holocaust, wonder whether they can trust the world community after the trauma of Auschwitz.

Israelis vigorously debate what kind of society they desire. What is the proper balance between socialism and a free market economy? Can it accommodate the demands of those who want a religiously dominated society with those who desire a secular nation? And living as a majority in their own land, how can Israeli Jews provide full rights to Israeli-Arab citizens, some of whom still remain unreconciled to Israel's existence.

Israel has successfully absorbed into its midst millions of Jews who have "come home" from more than 120 countries. Israel's remarkable economic growth, especially in science and technology, stems not from vast natural resources but from its extraordinary human resources. And I experience great joy knowing that because Hebrew is Israel's official language, more people speak that tongue today than at any other time in history.

Has modern Israel fully achieved its lofty goals during its first 50 years? Of course not, but then neither has any other nation or person.

All nation-states, including the United States, and all individuals are always "works in progress." We never quite become what we really want to be, and we constantly ask: "What will I be when I grow up?"

Happily, certain nations and peoples, despite severe problems, do reach many of their goals by 50. Israel is one of them.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.