THE BIRTH of the state of Israel 60 years ago this week was an astonishment. It is not unheard of for a nation to vanish from the map and later reappear. Poland, for example, was partitioned out of existence in 1795 and regained its independence in 1918. But the restoration of Israel was unlike anything the world had ever seen.
Jews had been deprived of their homeland for nearly 2,000 years, ever since the Roman devastation of Judea in the first and second centuries A.D. That upheaval had been cataclysmic. By the time the fighting ended in 135, half of Judea's population was dead. Of those who survived, hundreds of thousands were sold into slavery or expelled. Not until the Holocaust 18 centuries later would the Jewish people experience a more shattering catastrophe.
Yet through all the generations of dispersion that followed, the Jews never lost their self-awareness as a nation or their connection to the land of Israel. They expressed their longing for it in daily prayer and turned toward it when they worshiped. They collected charity to support the minority of Jews who had never left the land; and over the years others made their way back as well, often in response to Christian or Muslim persecution. By the 1860s, a majority of Jerusalem's population was Jewish once more. Zionism - an organized movement to renew Jewish independence in the Jewish homeland - was formally launched in 1897. Five decades later, against steep odds and every historical precedent, Israel was reborn.
It was an incredible achievement, made even more incredible by the fact that it occurred in the wake of a genocide that had wiped out one-third of the Jewish people.
Within hours of declaring its independence, the newborn state of Israel, with a population of just 600,000, was invaded by five Arab armies. They were intent, in the words of Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, on waging a "a war of extermination and a momentous massacre." The ovens of Treblinka and Auschwitz had barely cooled, and Jews were again being threatened with annihilation. Yet the fledgling state survived and thrived, a triumph of life and hope over the forces of hatred and death.
It was more than an astonishment; it was a miracle. For many, the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty after the blackness of the Holocaust thrillingly evoked Ezekiel's vision in the valley of dry bones. "These bones are the whole house of Israel," God had told the prophet. "They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off.' " But before Ezekiel's eyes, the bones reassembled and the skeletons came back to life - and so, God said, will the vanquished and exiled Jews: "Behold, I will . . . raise you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel." To millions of Christians and Jews, the creation of modern Israel was nothing less than the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. That is part of the reason that a country so tiny - Israel is smaller than Lake Michigan - seems to loom so large.
Under siege since the day it was born, Israel has never known a day of true peace. It is the only nation in the world whose legitimacy is routinely called into question. It still has enemies who want it wiped off the map. Uniquely, the Jewish state came into being with the imprimatur of both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Yet time and again it is told it has no right to exist. Of course that is fatuous; few nations can present a birth certificate as storied as Israel's. Nonetheless, Israel's fundamental right to exist doesn't derive from UN votes, or promises in the Bible, or its own Declaration of Independence.
For the right of statehood ultimately accrues only to those who can fashion and sustain a nation. "The land of Israel belongs to Israelis," Yale's David Gelernter wrote in 2002, "for the same reason America belongs to Americans: Because Israelis conceived and built it - and what you create is yours. If you want a homeland, you must create one. You drain swamps, lay out farms, build houses, schools, roads, hospitals . . .
"That's how America got its homeland. And that is why Israel belongs to the Israelis."
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.