This year Israel is celebrating . . . a series of accomplishments that have surely exceeded the expectations of its most visionary founders. It is one of the most powerful small nations in history. . . . [It] has tamed an arid wilderness [and] welcomed 1.25 million immigrants. . . . The Israelis themselves did the fighting, the struggling, the sacrificing in order to perform the greatest feat of all—forging a new society . . . in which pride and confidence have replaced the despair engendered by age-long suffering and persecution.
So Life magazine described Israel on the occasion of its 25th birthday in May 1973. In a 92-page special issue, "The Spirit of Israel," the magazine extolled the Jewish state as enlightened, robustly democratic and hip, a land of "astonishing achievement" that dared "to dream the dream and make that dream come alive."
Life told the story of Israel's birth from the Bible through the Holocaust and the battle for independence. "The Arabs' bloodthirsty threats," the editors wrote, "lend a deadly seriousness to the vow: Never Again." Four pages documented "Arab terrorist attacks" and the three paragraphs on the West Bank commended Israeli administrators for respecting "Arab community leaders" and hiring "tens of thousands of Arabs." The word "Palestinian" scarcely appeared.
There was a panoramic portrayal of Jerusalem, described as "the focus of Jewish prayers for 2,000 years" and the nucleus of new Jewish neighborhoods. Life emphasized that in its pre-1967 borders, Israel was "a tiny, parched, scarcely defensible toe-hold." The edition's opening photo shows a father embracing his Israeli-born daughter on an early "settlement," a testament to Israel's birthright to the land.
Would a mainstream magazine depict the Jewish state like this today, during the week of its 64th birthday?
Unlikely. Rather, readers would learn about Israel's overwhelming military might, brutal conduct in warfare and eroding democratic values—plus the Palestinians' plight and Israeli intransigence. The photographs would show not cool students and cutting-edge artists but soldiers at checkpoints and religious radicals.
Why has Israel's image deteriorated? After all, Israel today is more democratic and—despite all the threats it faces—even more committed to peace.
Some claim that Israel today is a Middle Eastern power that threatens its neighbors, and that conservative immigrants and extremists have pushed Israel rightward. Most damaging, they contend, are Israel's policies toward the territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, toward the peace process and the Palestinians, and toward the construction of settlements.
Israel may seem like Goliath vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but in a regional context it is David. Gaza is host to 10,000 rockets, many of which can hit Tel Aviv, and Hezbollah in Lebanon has 50,000 missiles that place all of Israel within range. Throughout the Middle East, countries with massive arsenals are in upheaval. And Iran, which regularly pledges to wipe Israel off the map, is developing nuclear weapons. Israel remains the world's only state that is threatened with annihilation.
Whether in Lebanon, the West Bank or Gaza, Israel has acted in self-defense after suffering thousands of rocket and suicide attacks against our civilians. Few countries have fought with clearer justification, fewer still with greater restraint, and none with a lower civilian-to-militant casualty ratio. Israel withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza to advance peace only to receive war in return.
Whereas Israelis in 1973 viewed the creation of a Palestinian state as a mortal threat, it is now the official policy of the Israeli government. Jewish men of European backgrounds once dominated Israel, but today Sephardic Jews, Arabs and women are prominent in every facet of society. This is a country where a Supreme Court panel of two women and an Arab convicted a former president of sexual offenses. It is the sole Middle Eastern country with a growing Christian population. Even in the face of immense security pressures, Israel has never known a second of nondemocratic rule.
In 1967, Israel offered to exchange newly captured territories for peace treaties with Egypt and Syria. The Arab states refused. Israel later evacuated the Sinai, an area 3.5 times its size, for peace with Egypt, and it conceded land and water resources for peace with Jordan.
In 1993, Israel recognized the Palestinian people ignored by Life magazine, along with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the perpetrator of those "Arab terrorist attacks." Israel facilitated the creation of a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza and armed its security forces. Twice, in 2000 and 2008, Israel offered the Palestinians a state in Gaza, virtually all of the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. In both cases, the Palestinians refused. Astonishingly, in spite of the Palestinian Authority's praise for terror, a solid majority of Israelis still support the two-state solution.
Israel has built settlements (some before 1973), and it has removed some to promote peace, including 7,000 settlers to fulfill the treaty with Egypt. Palestinians have rebuffed Israel's peace offers not because of the settlements—most of which would have remained in Israel anyway, and which account for less than 2% of the West Bank—but because they reject the Jewish state. When Israel removed all settlements from Gaza, including their 9,000 residents, the result was a terrorist ministate run by Hamas, an organization dedicated to killing Jews world-wide.
Nevertheless, Israeli governments have transferred large areas to the Palestinian Authority and much security responsibility to Palestinian police. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has removed hundreds of checkpoints, eased the Gaza land blockade and joined President Obama in calling for the resumption of direct peace talks without preconditions. Addressing Congress, Mr. Netanyahu declared that the emergence of a Palestinian state would leave some settlements beyond Israel's borders and that "with creativity and with good will a solution can be found" for Jerusalem.
Given all this, why have anti-Israel libels once consigned to hate groups become media mainstays? How can we explain the assertion that an insidious "Israel Lobby" purchases votes in Congress, or that Israel oppresses Christians? Why is Israel's record on gay rights dismissed as camouflage for discrimination against others?
The answer lies in the systematic delegitimization of the Jewish state. Having failed to destroy Israel by conventional arms and terrorism, Israel's enemies alit on a subtler and more sinister tactic that hampers Israel's ability to defend itself, even to justify its existence.
It began with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's 1974 speech to the U.N., when he received a standing ovation for equating Zionism with racism—a view the U.N. General Assembly endorsed the following year. It gained credibility on college campuses through anti-Israel courses and "Israel Apartheid Weeks." It burgeoned through the boycott of Israeli scholars, artists and athletes, and the embargo of Israeli products. It was perpetuated by journalists who published doctored photos and false Palestinian accounts of Israeli massacres.
Israel must confront the acute dangers of delegitimization as it did armies and bombers in the past. Along with celebrating our technology, pioneering science and medicine, we need to stand by the facts of our past. "The Spirit of Israel" has not diminished since 1973—on the contrary, it has flourished. The state that Life once lionized lives even more vibrantly today.
The article originally appeared May 15, 2012,in The Wall Street Journal.