Fifty years ago, the independence of Israel was declared, with David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, echoing an old Zionist slogan: "It is the right of the Jewish people, like other nations, to determine its history under its own sovereignty."
Not even the harshest critic would today deny that Israel has been an astonishing achievement of human will and spirit. For all the continuing anxieties and difficulties and the incidental injustices, Zionism has accomplished breathtaking feats. But has it accomplished its main objective?Despite Ben-Gurion's words, the one thing Israel is not, and never has been, is a nation like others.
It was born in the late 19th century, the heyday of European nationalism, of which it was seemingly an offshoot. And yet Zionism was quite as much a psychological and social as a political project.
Its aim was "to straighten their backs" - to redeem the Jews from what the Zionists considered their degraded condition after centuries of persecution. Labor Zionists preached a gospel of honest toil, redemption through hewing rock and tilling fields, which came to pass.
So did the plan of the Revisionist Zionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who wanted Jews to be soldiers as well as farmers and artisans.
Further redemption was to come through statehood. In "The Jewish State," written in 1896, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, said he had found "the answer to the Jewish Question." The question he had in mind was not traditional persecution but the inability of Jews to win full acceptance as members of the societies in which they lived.
Herzl's remedy was to create a Jewish nationalism. But while he recognized that many Western Jews did not want to go and live in the country of his dreams, he did not see that another migration, to the United States, was already adding an important chapter to Jewish history by establishing a great community in America, numerous, prosperous, self-confident - and with, at first, little enthusiasm for Zionism.
In this period, opposition to establishing a Jewish state came from a wide spectrum of the Jewish community, including Orthodox rabbis, revolutionary socialists and prosperous Jews who were loyal citizens of the countries where they lived.
It is easy to see why that opposition disappeared. While it is untrue to say, as some do, that "Hitler created Israel," there is no question that Hitler did something else: He ended Jewish anti-Zionism in its many forms.
After the Holocaust, the worst catastrophe in the history of the Jewish (or any other) people, it became morally impossible for most Jews to reject the idea of a Jewish state. Today Israel is, as The New York Times recently said in an editorial, "an idea that inspires millions of Jews around the world."
But history has a knack for taking unintended and unforeseen courses. No one who remembers the exalted atmosphere after the Six-Day War in 1967 could possibly deny that the mood has since altered. A crucial change came 10 years after the war, when Menachem Begin came to power - a man whom Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook and other Jewish intellectuals had called a "terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist" leader of an ultranationalist form of Zionism that they thought akin to fascism.
Today there is a new wave of hostility toward the Israeli government, expressed more harshly in Europe, perhaps, than in the United States. Isaiah Berlin, the distinguished philosopher who died last year, did not disguise his contempt for Benjamin Netanyahu. Jonathan Miller, the British writer and stage director, recently said he was "ashamed of Israel." This is not the way the Western Jewish intelligentsia used to talk about Israel and its leaders a generation ago.
American criticism has been more muted, but there is a gulf between the two great Jewish communities. Since 1948 most Jewish Americans have identified with Israel and wished it well. But very few have gone to live there.
This doesn't mean there has been bad faith in the relationship. But there has inevitably been a degree of tension between Western Jews embarrassed by Israeli harshness in Lebanon or on the West Bank and Israelis irritated by a sense that American Jews are fair-weather friends.
It is reminiscent of the exchange Lord Melbourne, the English prime minister in the 1830s, had with one of his colleagues. Like that colleague, Jewish America says to Israel, "I shall always support you when you are in the right." And, like Melbourne, Israel replies, "What I want is men who will support me when I am in the wrong."
In some ways, Israel's very successes have widened the gulf. Take the revival of an ancient language, Hebrew, as the everyday tongue of more than 5 million people, which may be the greatest single creative achievement of Zionism. And yet the curious fact is that more Palestinian Arabs than Jewish Americans now speak Hebrew.
In other words, however much American Jews salute Israel, they realize, today more than ever, that it's not their country. For all they admire the Israelis, they also recognize that they are a different people. Western Jewry has given a great deal of support to Israel and has received a great deal of emotional sustenance in return. But Jewish Americans have found their own answer to the "Jewish Question" in a country where a poor Jew could live without fear and a rich one without shame. The triumph of Jewish America has been in its way as great as that of Israel.
In any case, Israel's success has involved a huge paradox. This "nation like others" is about the size of Vermont and has about the population of North Carolina. And yet it probably has had more newspaper column inches devoted to it in recent decades, and more television air time, than India or Latin America. That is hardly the sort of normality Ben-Gurion envisioned.
If anything, it is the Jewish state that now needs the help of the Diaspora if it is truly to normalize itself. Is it too much to hope that by the time Israel reaches its 100th birthday it really will be a nation like all others, and that we shall read and hear no more about it than about Denmark or Costa Rica?