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Hitting age 60, Israel turns nostalgic

Members of the Hagana underground movement, the forerunner of the Israeli army, are seen in the shelter of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, in May 1948. Israel is set to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state starting Wednesday night through Thursday. Shershel Frank / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Israel celebrates its 60th birthday, Israelis have their gaze set firmly backward.

Turn on the TV and you'll see grainy archive footage and old-timers reminiscing about desert wars and pioneering days on the kibbutz. Radio stations are busy with musical retrospectives and the hottest new CD features contemporary singers covering Israeli favorites from decades past.

The love affair with the past comes at a time of unease — Israelis have much to be proud of but aren't sure what they have to look forward to.

"It's no secret that in our country the present isn't great and the future is always scary, so if you want to feel good, it's more fun to look back and ignore the problems," said Shaanan Streett, frontman for the Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nahash. The name roughly translates as "the fish is a snake."

"It's just like when people turn 60," he said. "Their relatives throw a party and show slides of them when they were younger and better looking."

In one typical anniversary project, a newspaper and television station decided to pay homage to photographs from Israel's history by recreating them with their original participants. One 1949 shot of soldiers jubilantly hoisting an improvised Israeli flag against a backdrop of barren hills became a color photograph of a group of elderly men around a flagpole.

The new photographs — deflated, drained of traces of heroism and myth — came across to many as an unintentional tribute to the country's current state of mind.

As it celebrates its 60th birthday Thursday, Israel has never been richer or stronger. It has weathered assaults that would have crippled some societies and has even thrived.

Israelis feeling alienated
But Israelis are increasingly alienated from a political system that suffers from deadlock and corruption and seems devoid of leaders able to garner the public's respect. An end to Israel's conflict with its Arab neighbors, which appeared around the corner a decade ago, is now widely seen as a naive dream. And having jettisoned its Spartan, socialist ideals, the country has yet to agree on a positive vision to replace them.

"The nostalgia exists because we have an emptiness today — that's the root," said lawyer Eliad Shraga. Shraga, a reserve paratroops officer, fought in Israel's Lebanon invasion in 1982 and then in Israel's war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon two years ago. For nearly two decades, he has headed a group called the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

"When I see what's happening with my prime minister, I miss people like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, like Golda Meir, people who lived in two-room apartments and made do with very little," Shraga said. "Even if you didn't agree with them, you knew they were ethical."

Less than a week before the anniversary, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was questioned by police on corruption suspicions. The new inquiry is the fifth into Olmert's activities since he took office. Embezzlement allegations forced his finance minister to step down, and another of his political allies was convicted of sexual misconduct. And that's an abbreviated list.

"When we think about ethics and leadership, it's not just our imagination — things really were different once," Shraga said.

Cynical about peace prospects
The failure of peace talks with the Palestinians in 2000 and the violence that ensued have left Israelis deeply cynical about prospects for resolving the conflict. Olmert is holding talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but polls have shown that a majority of Israelis doubt anything will come of them.

"Today, most Israelis don't believe in peace anymore. This wasn't the case when the country turned 50," said historian Tom Segev.

While they indulge in nostalgia, most Israelis don't really long for a return to the past, Segev says. They live better today than they ever have, he said, adding: "Anyone can leave the country if they want to, but they don't."

"People don't believe in politicians, they're not interested in the news or in ideology, but in life," he said. "There isn't anything more normal than that, and that normalcy is precisely the Zionist dream."

In an anniversary poll published in the daily Yediot Ahronot, 91 percent of Israelis said it was "fairly good" or "very good" to live in Israel. Those who said life in Israel was "fairly bad" or "very bad" numbered only 9 percent. The poll, carried out by the Dahaf Institute, included 500 respondents and had a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Ruth Gefen-Dotan was 23 when Israel was founded, and remembers men on her kibbutz fashioning mortars out of irrigation pipes to battle Arab forces. Over the years, her son and a half-dozen members of her extended family have died in the military.

Now 83, she lives at Ayelet Hashachar, a kibbutz in northern Israel. If there is something that has changed for the worse, she said, it's that "people put 'me' first instead of 'us.'"

"We have to understand that things are in our hands. Everyone must give what they can," she said.

But that's as nostalgic as Gefen-Dotan allows herself to be.

"I look at my kibbutz — it was destroyed in the fighting in 1948, and everything here was yellow and dead. Today I'm sitting in a flowering garden full of children and young people," she said. "What am I supposed to miss?"