Courtesy Reuters

Israel after Heroism

A MIDLIFE CRISIS

Israelis were surprisingly subdued, even ambivalent, about the 50th anniversary of the Jewish state. At first glance this seems bizarre. How could the citizens of this tiny country fail to marvel at their extraordinary accomplishments -- the rebirth of a state after almost two millennia of exile, their military prowess in the face of overwhelming odds, and their success in developing a high-tech economy that has brought European standards of living within a generation? For some, the answer lies in the unsettled state of the Middle East peace process, especially the stalemated negotiations with Israel's first and most problematic opponent, the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine. For others, Israeli discontent results from a fractious political system ridden with mediocre leadership and savage infighting. For still others, it simply reflects the cussedness of one of history's most stubborn (or as the Bible puts it, "stiff-necked") peoples.

There is some truth in all these views, but none satisfies. However slow Israel's accommodation with its Arab neighbors has been in coming, it is far beyond where it was 20 years ago; however nasty its political disputes, they are no more so than in earlier days; however contrarian its people's temperament, they have demonstrated a capacity for unaffected joy on occasions as varied as the declaration of the state in 1948 and the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry decades later.

No, the malaise has deeper roots. More than a century ago, the historian Frederick Turner argued that the closing of the American frontier -- both the real frontier and, no less important, the myth of the frontier -- marked the end of an epoch in the history of a new nation. Something similar is happening in Israel as it turns 50. For a century, neatly divided by Israel's birth in 1948, Zionists undertook and believed in two epic struggles: creating a defensible state for a stateless people and gathering in communities of Jews sundered by distance but united by faith and destiny. At 50 -- middle age for a

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