When reading Tom Brokaw’s sweeping “The Greatest Generation,” which paid homage to his father’s generation, I couldn’t help comparing the American experience with the Israeli one, covering the same years.
My conclusion was that the true greatest generation, maybe the greatest generation of all time, in terms of what they endured and achieved, was the Jewish generation from central Europe born around 1920.
Has any other generation in history had such an extraordinary ride?
Think of the action, most of it unwelcome, packed into their lifetime.
Born into a Europe-wide depression following World War I. Raised amid growing anti-Semitism, which in Germany and Austria meant being rejected from school, forbidden from swimming pools and public parks, leading to random rituals of humiliation.
My own grandmother was one of those forced to clean the streets of Vienna with a toothbrush.
Dwell on that for a moment.
Then most Jews were transported to labor and death camps to be killed or to survive amidst unimaginable cruelty and suffering. Post-war survivors were deloused and warehoused in Displaced Persons Camps, most of them in Germany, some for years.
It is an historic irony, and a kick in the dentures of Hitler, that there were more Jews in Germany after the war than before, because surviving Jews from all of Europe were sent to these Displaced Persons Camps. Many made their way illegally to Palestine, defying the British blockade. Some joined the Jewish underground to rid Palestine of the British mandate, while preparing for the inevitable war against the Arabs.
Finally, something to celebrate: They were among the founders of the Jewish State and at last could dance with joy in the streets celebrating the new Jewish homeland.
But not for long. A quarter of all the Jewish dead in the war of 1948 were concentration camp survivors.
But alongside their new Israeli compatriots, they helped build a state almost from scratch. In 1950, one in four Israelis was living in tents. The population trebled in 20 years. Schools, hospitals, homes, roads, transport, an entire infrastructure system had to be built on the fly. Measured in material goods, it was a nation of the poor. A man said to me, “In those days we were all in it together. We all wore sandals. And if you were rich, you wore better sandals.”
But in terms of motivation, innovation fueled by necessity, and the determination to face all challenges united, young Israel was the wealthiest of nations.
The same European transplants were led by their new government into a futile war in 1956. Then another war of survival in 1967. The youngest even fought in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. In between they fought Arab guerrillas. And all the while, this same generation built a nation that by 1967 had the highest per capita production in the Middle East, became recognized as a formidable military power, and led the world in agricultural innovation.
Today, Israel is the only country in the drought-ridden region that exports water. It is the only country in the world that had more trees in the year 2000 than in 1900.
Along the way, Israelis made mistakes. Oh, did they! But who wouldn’t, with such extraordinary deadly challenges from neighbors who denied their very right to exist to the crushing social problems of an instant melting pot of cultures, values, and languages.
Today, looking back at my parents’ generation, I can only shake my head in wonder and admiration. No way could I have done it.
But it saddens me, too. The resurgence of anti-Semitism which forces Jews all over Europe today to hide their identity in public places; the hypocrisy of organizations like BDS that feed on half-truths and complete lies; the gleeful pouncing on any Israeli misstep as further proof of the evil state.
Does Israel have problems? Yes. Must they be solved urgently? Yes. Are they being addressed in Israel? Barely.
Is that different from any other nation? No. Yet is it true that the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned Israel more often than the rest of the world combined? Bizarrely, yes.
Please! Israel as a pariah nation? On what planet, by what true measure, except in the minds of the blinkered hateful?
There are not many left of the Europeans who formed part of Israel’s founding generation, and whom I call the world’s greatest generation. Their story is not one they would have chosen, but their story chose them, forced upon them by the hateful.
It is our duty today to resist this new tide of haters: peacefully, politely, but forcefully and in the spirit of our greatest generation.
British journalist Martin Fletcher was a war correspondent in the Middle East for NBC News for 26 years. His latest book, “Promised Land,” was a finalist for this year’s National Jewish Book Award.