Pitiful or powerful, will the real Israel please stand

Who are we, after all?

Are we a "nebbish among the nations," an embattled, isolated community in crisis, surrounded by enemies, and perpetually beset by a whole plethora of social, political and financial problems?

Or are we a modern miracle in the Middle East, a proud over-achiever who has reclaimed an ancient homeland and turned it into a high-tech wonder, a country whose deserts now bloom and whose military record is nothing less than astounding?

It is an appropriate question to ask as Israel prepares to celebrate its 52nd anniversary, starting at sunset Tuesday.

The answer, of course, depends upon who is being asked.

Most Israelis — at least when they interface with the world at large — will no doubt speak proudly of our steady progress over the last half-century and trumpet the many accomplishments of the Jewish state.

But there is a whole other segment of the Jewish people who consistently prefer to accentuate the negative, to dwell on our foibles and failings, playing up our problems and fears while choosing to virtually ignore our many successes.

For proof of this, one need look no further than the many international organizations charged with raising funds for Israel. Their solicitation letters all too often are a study in unabashed negativism: Israel is portrayed as a needy society, unable to survive without outside assistance. It is a still-tenuous neophyte that remains haunted by the specter of war and terrorism.

By their reckoning, people tend to give more generously when they feel they are helping the down-and-out. So it is to their benefit to perpetuate the following myths about Israel as:

*A poor country — despite our significant hard currency reserves and consumer consumption.

*A dangerous place — despite our relatively low-crime statistics.

*A land struggling to house its inhabitants — despite the nationwide building boom and the proliferation of luxury homes.

I experienced this attitude of gloom-and-doom first hand last year when I was asked to deliver the keynote address at an Israel Bonds dinner.

The organizer approached me before the speech and, gently but firmly, asked me to remind the audience that Israel is still at war with Syria and Lebanon, that Ethiopian immigrants still live in primitive mobile-home camps, and that any day now, we may be asked to take in another half-million Russians whose absorption we simply cannot afford.

I politely refused, preferring to take the high road and accentuate all the positive aspects of Israeli life. I urged the listeners to be part of a historic adventure, to become full partners in a winning investment.

And I threw in a little guilt, too, telling them that if they could not bring themselves to live here, at least they could join hands with those who do.

There is a problem with always seeking the dark cloud behind every silver lining. I have no doubt that aliyah from the West is so historically dismal due, at least in part, to the way Israel has traditionally been portrayed.

Who would want to live in a country that is presented as eternally at war, within and without? Who would choose to move to a place where life is seen as callous and grinding, a grueling, day-to-day course in survival of the fittest?

And can you blame the 70 percent of American Jews who have never even set foot on Israeli soil? How many of them have this frightening picture in their minds of an Israel where buses routinely blow up or riots break out?

Anyone who has come across the first-time traveler to Israel can testify to his or her utter amazement at seeing how modern, well-stocked and civilized this little country of ours is.

Moreover, how do we expect to stand proud among the elite of the world if we continually downplay our stature? If we want to be treated as equals by the leaders of the global community, we have to remind them that our standard of living rivals their own and that our achievements in virtually every field of human endeavor are of world-class caliber.

We are no longer a people seeking pity and pathos, as we may have been a half-century ago. We have come of age, and we deserve some respect from the world at large. If we are to achieve it, we had better start with some self-respect from our own fellow Jews.is no longer pitiable