But some perspective is in order. The 20th century was the most dramatic century in the dramatic history of the Jews. In its first half, we lost a third of our people. But the second half of the century was miraculous. In North America, we created the perfect diaspora, while in the land of Israel we established modern Jewish sovereignty. The Jews of the 21st century have today what their great-grandparents could only dream of: equality, freedom, prosperity, dignity. The persecuted people are now emancipated. The pitiful people are now proud and independent.
In Israel, the Jewish Renaissance was achieved by the remarkable success of Zionism. When Zionism was launched in 1897, approximately 50,000 Jews lived in the Holy Land. Now the Jewish population exceeds 6 million. In 1897, Jews living in Palestine represented only 0.4% of world Jewry. In 1950, we accounted for 10.6%. In 1980, 25.6%. Now we make up almost 45%.
Today, the Jewish community in Israel is one of the two largest in the world. Given current trends, by 2025 the majority of the world’s Jews will be Israelis. The fundamental Zionist diagnosis and prognosis proved to be correct.
Nowhere is this success more apparent than in the port of Tel Aviv. Here, on the banks of the Yarkon River, the first Jewish Olympic Games—the Maccabiah—were held in the spring of 1932, long before the founding of the modern state. Within a few weeks, a sports stadium was hastily constructed where thousands gathered to watch the hundreds of athletes who traveled to Palestine from 25 countries to prove that the Jew of the 20th century was a new Jew: athletic, muscular and strong.
Here, next to the Maccabiah stadium, five other Zionist projects were inaugurated before the end of the 1930s. The Bauhaus compound of the extravagant Levant Fair, the audacious Tel Aviv harbor, the renowned Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, the electrifying Redding Power Station, the pioneering Tel Aviv airport—all were outstanding breakthroughs of modern Zionism. They shared initiative, daring, innovation and a can-do spirit. They gave the emerging Jewish national home a unique economic and cultural might. As the great Arab-Jewish war was about to begin in Palestine and while catastrophe loomed over European Jewry, the Zionist pioneers laid in Tel Aviv the foundations for a sovereign, modern, creative Jewish existence.
Some 80 years later, as I walk south from the Tel Aviv airport on the promenade between the runway and the sea, I see the staff of a high-tech company having a day out in the sun. Twenty red-helmeted men and women ride by on red-wheeled Segways. Behind them are cyclists in sleeveless shirts and Lycra shorts with determined expressions on their faces. The joggers are more relaxed in their fluorescent running gear, sharing the path with willowy girls on skates, opinionated pensioners, amateur fishermen.
Before me is an Israeli Central Park on the shores of the Mediterranean, a Hampstead Heath in the Middle East—with all the calm and tranquillity that only free societies can accord their citizens. There is a sense of well-being here that the Jews have not had for nearly 2,000 years.
When I cross the Yarkon River and enter the port, I see all around me a feast of life. The cafes on the wooden decks are bustling with young families and singles, enjoying espressos and Champagne. Bicycles, skate boards, baby carriages. What a cocktail: an immigrant society and a warrior society against the backdrop of the blue sea. Jewish history and the Israeli present and blue skies.
In Israel, centuries of pain have burst out into gaiety and creation. Here is the demography of hope: an almost extinguished people renewing itself. Unlike the affluent societies of Europe, Israel’s affluent society reproduces and grows—we have babies in great numbers.
Israel is not the utopia it set out to be. It is flawed and maimed in many ways. It denies the Palestinians their rights and often betrays its own citizens. It has an unworthy political leadership, a dysfunctional political system and an unjust socioeconomic structure. Yet Israel is an amazing expression of vitality, of success against all odds. Once one steps back from the ongoing friction of a conflict reported daily around the world, one can see the transformation of the Jews in the Zionist century. We had to come here, and once we came, we did wonders.
The Jewish nation state has brought neither peace nor peace of mind to the Jews. But it has provided us with the intensity of life on the edge—the adrenaline rush of living dangerously. Threatened with death, we have built a spectacle of life. We have converged on this shore and cling to this shore, come what may.
—Mr. Shavit is a senior columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. This essay is adapted from his new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” published by Spiegel & Grau.