A vibrant nation still in search of itself

By Steven Gutkin and Josef Federman

Associated Press

JERUSALEM — The story of Israel at 60 is the tale of a little town named Sderot whose children play indoors because of Palestinian rockets, of a world-class tech industry that pioneered Wi-Fi and instant messaging, of a nation filled with pride and fierce patriotism, yet living in fear of annihilation from abroad and of a demographic time bomb at home.

Six decades after fighting six Arab armies to realize the ancient dream of a Jewish return to Zion, Israel is still searching for its identity and place in the world, lacking recognized borders and a way of sharing the land with its Arab inhabitants, the Palestinians.

This existential struggle plays itself out every day in the Holy Land, whether in the furious construction of Israeli homes on disputed territory, or the touch-and-go attempts to make peace with moderate Palestinians while clashing daily with the militants in the Gaza Strip.


Geut Aragon has a piece of shrapnel permanently lodged in her brain from a rocket that struck her home in Sderot, the southern town near Gaza, three months ago. She keeps her two young sons indoors.

"Since they were born they know nothing else," Aragon says. "Sirens, sheltered rooms — they don’t play like regular children." Although she still suffers from headaches and dizziness, she vows to stay in Sderot and even plans to celebrate on independence day, May 8, the Jewish calendar date for Israel’s declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948.

Just a 90-minute drive away, in a Jerusalem studio, cutting-edge technology is putting together "Wild Bunch," Israel’s first feature-length 3-D animated film for Hollywood. It has nothing to do with rockets, religion or revenge. It’s a family comedy about a flower meadow taken over by genetically modified corn.

Erel Margalit, the Israeli venture capitalist behind the film, says he wants to make the ancient city of Jerusalem a modern day "hub of creativity."

The plight of Sderot and the innovation at Jerusalem’s Animation Lab illustrate the central struggle of Israel at 60: its quest for normalcy in a neighborhood that’s anything but normal.

Rising from the ashes of the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews, Israel finds itself unable to resolve the contradictions at the core of its existence. European or Middle Eastern? Religious or secular? A specifically Jewish state or a multicultural state for all its citizens, 20 percent of whom are Arab?

Israel has given the world Natalie Portman of "Star Wars" fame, an annual gay parade in the streets of Jerusalem, and microscopic cameras that can be swallowed in a pill. It also has Ovadiah Yosef, a politically powerful rabbi who says Hurricane Katrina was "God’s retribution" to the U.S. for supporting Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

It’s a vibrant democracy where untrammeled free speech fills the airwaves 24/7 and where Arabs serve in Parliament and government. But it has occupied another nation for 41 years, and has suffered constant censure from the U.N. and human rights monitors.

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