JERUSALEM -- Israel is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary Thursday with parachutists descending from the skies, schoolchildren parading in the streets and the country's top performers chronicling the Jewish state's half-century in a gala of song and dance.
It's a birthday bash for a country whose founding fathers sought to keep secret the moment they would declare the new state, fearing an imminent attack by Arab countries, which came anyway. The moment of statehood arrived late on the afternoon of May 14, 1948, in a Tel Aviv museum. Independence Day is celebrated according to its Hebrew calendar date -- April 30, this year.
This 50-year mark has become a historical and social milestone for the country of 5.7 million that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, prevailed through five wars and prospered despite years of economic isolation. And this anniversary has become an occasion for reflection, debate and protest.
"To do what we have done in 50 years is unparalleled, there's no doubt about it, no lack of superlatives " said David Grossman, the curator of a recent graphics art exhibit on Israel's 50 years. "The ability to talk about our problems is the strength of our democracy."
Independence Day is being marked in ways that point up the condition of the modern Jewish state. The country's pride can be measured in the blue-and-white Israeli flags, bearing the Star of David, fluttering around the country.
But there are other signs:
More than a dozen peace groups and kibbutz organizations have called on Israelis to spend Independence Day at a picnic for peace outside Jerusalem. The park bears the name of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a religious Jew who opposed Israel's peace with the Palestinians. It is located along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a famous bloody battleground in the 1948 war.
"There is no independence without peace," the activists said in an Israeli newspaper advertisement.
On the same day, Israelis who plan to live at the site of a controversial housing project in predominantly Arab southeast Jerusalem hope to gather 10,000 people there to lay a cornerstone at the site. The 1997 groundbreaking at the project known to Israelis as Har Homa led to a breakdown in the peace process that many Israelis and Palestinians hoped would bring them security.
War and peace
Today, 50 years after its founding, the country still confronts issues of war and peace. Israel commands the Middle East's best fighting force, but terrorism remains a threat and angry young Palestinians still hurl stones at Israeli soldiers patrolling the occupied territories west of the Jordan River and along the Gaza Strip.
Now that the Palestinians have an armed force of their own, the confrontations have the potential to be worse than stone-throwing.
Conceived as the place that would transform the Jews of the European ghettos into the pioneers and leaders of a modern Jewish state, Israel remains a society beset by religious, ethnic and political conflicts. And yet the wrangling that goes on in many ways attests to the vibrancy of the Jewish state and the democracy established here.
Israel's existence here is based on an ancient claim, but it is a new land, and its accomplishments in five decades outpace those of its Arab neighbors, who possess more land, people and natural resources.
The nation that started with 600,000 now is home to nearly 6 million. The Jewish homeland settled initially by Europeans now reflects the many parts of the Diaspora -- Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, along with Russians and Ethiopians.
"In 1948, when the state was founded, I was 15," said Benjamin Navon, a survivor of the Holocaust who later became Israel's ambassador to Germany. "In my wildest dreams I never thought there would be 5 million Jews here-- a million, maybe, but five? At that time, the Israeli economy was based on growing more oranges, more bananas, maybe here and there a bit of small industry. That we would have more than 30 billion dollars of exports, half of which is high-tech, never entered my mind."
But there's divisiveness, too
There is much to celebrate, and Israel has dedicated the year to doing just that. But like many Israelis, the 65-year-old Navon acknowledges that Israel isn't altogether adept at nation-building.
"I didn't believe that there would be such a brutal divisiveness among our people -- especially between secular, Orthodox and Haredim," he said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe only the laws of the Bible should govern. "It is a gap that is unfortunately unlikely to close. There is a total lack of tolerance one for the other."
Navon is talking about the disproportionate influence of the religious parties in Israel's political life, power that affords them increasing control over the daily lives of most Israelis, including whether they can shop at a mall or drive on a main street on the Jewish Sabbath.
But there are other schisms.