The duality of this high-tech Athens yet tough Sparta helps explain the intense, polarizing, sometimes-hysterical emotions the country often stirs. And this defining paradox also results in two different ways of periodizing its history, telling its tale. The conventional approach tells Israel’s story as the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict going from war to war, and peace prospect to peace prospect, starting with the 1948 Independence War until today’s no-real-peace-no-real-war stalemate. But that narrative of war-making and peace-processing must be complemented with a happier story, showing how the society grew from the austere 1940s and 1950s to the lush and plush 2000s and 2010s.
When David Ben-Gurion first declared the state on May 14, 1948 (Israel’s birthday celebrations are keyed to the Jewish calendar), the state’s prospects for surviving looked dim. Despite the excitement triggered by the United Nations’ decision on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine and create a Jewish State, many believed that once Great Britain withdrew from the region, the Arabs would overrun the Jews. As Ben-Gurion read Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, five Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, joined the local Arab irregulars hoping to destroy this new state.
Israel was badly outgunned and outmanned, underfed and underfinanced. But with the slogan “Ein Breira,” there’s no choice, the 600,000 Jews of Palestine-now-named-Israel fought to victory. The price was steep – including 6,000 deaths, one percent of the population; the loss of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, dividing the Jewish people’s ancient capital; and hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees, spawning a problem that remains unsolved.
Thereafter, this country, forged amid gun blasts and mourning wails, remained besieged. In the 1950s, Fedayeen, guerillas from Egypt, continually raided Israeli settlements in the South, culminating in the 1956 Sinai campaign, wherein Israel overran the Sinai Peninsula, but then withdrew under American pressure. Tensions in the 1960s culminated in Arab vows to push the Jews into the sea in the tense spring of 1967. Instead, Israel’s Six-Day War victory that June resulted in a dramatic expansion geographically, as Israel seized control of the Sinai in the south from Egypt, the Golan Heights in the north-east from Syria, and the West Bank including Jerusalem, due East from Jordan, which had controlled the territory without international approval for nineteen years.
The Six-Day War polarized positions in the Middle East. The humiliated Arabs embraced the “Three No’s of Khartoum”: no negotiation, no recognition, no compromise. And the triumphal Israelis believed they did not need to compromise. Moreover, Israel’s decision to develop Jewish settlements in the 1967 territories has proven to be explosive. Some settlements are for security, some reflect ideology, some reestablished overrun settlements and some contain Israel’s population overflow. But Western critics and the Palestinians defined all as obstacles to peace, changing the moral calculus for many.
The 1970s shook the region up in three ways. First, the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack in October 1973 represented the last major conventional military attempt to eradicate the Jewish State it almost succeeded but the Israelis fought back in three bloody weeks of battle. Second, the Palestinians, led by Yasir Arafat, used spectacular terrorist attacks to improve their diplomatic and popular standing. And finally, the Yom Kippur War’s aftermath, by boosting Egyptian pride, propelling Egypt from the Soviet orbit into the American orbit, and convincing Egypt’s military leaders that their undermotivated invading army would never destroy the Jews who were defending their home, encouraged Egypt President’s Anwar Sadat to visit Jerusalem in 1977.
The resulting Camp David Accords of 1978 and Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, followed by the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994, helped the Israel-Arab conflict morph into more of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Increasingly, Palestinians spearheaded the fight, militarily and ideologically. The 1993 Oslo Accords triggered what now seems to be a perpetual peace process, with the great waves of optimism from the early 1990s producing a Palestinian Authority with some power over Palestinian lives, a Palestinian return to terror in the early 2000s, and today’s seemingly perpetual stalemate.
On this sixty-fifth birthday, Israel is stronger than ever militarily. The peace treaty with Egypt has survived the Egyptian revolution so far. Most Israelis recognize the Palestinians as a legitimate nation and two-thirds in most polls approve the creation of a Palestinian state, as does Israel’s incumbent “right-wing” prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and respects the Palestinian Authority’s authority over many aspects of most West Bank Palestinians’ lives. Yet, Israel feels insecure, with Iran rushing toward nuclear power while threatening to wipe out the Zionist state, Hamas running Gaza while threatening to wipe out the Zionist state, and the PA sometimes cooperating with Israeli authorities economically and even militarily but nevertheless still demonizing the Zionist state.
Looking back, the UN General Assembly’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution appears to be another significant turning point from the 1970s, providing international legitimacy to a systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel and Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement that founded the country. As a result, many both in the Middle East and beyond, are far more pessimistic about prospects for an outcome than they should be, given the relative quiet and growing consensus favoring a two-state solution of the last few years.
Beyond the conflict, and despite the conflict, Israel has thrived. During the 1950s, Israel was overwhelmed with the task of absorbing 850,000 Jews from Arab countries, turning these refugees into citizens overnight but taking much longer to help them become Israelis. By the 1960s, Israel’s economy had more than doubled in size and stabilized by Israel’s fifteenth birthday in 1963, 97 percent of Israelis had running water, 93 percent had electricity a remarkable accomplishment few of its neighbors matched. Israel was also the toast of the international community, with its communal farming settlement, the kibbutz, seen as its defining institution. Moreover, fulfilling the vision of Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, who dreamed of helping to liberate Africa once the Jewish State was established, Israelis were working on development projects in dozens of new African countries an initiative squelched in Israel’s twenty-fifth year, when Libya and Saudi Arabia used petrodollars to bribe poor African countries into boycotting Israel.
In 1977, Israel experienced an electoral revolution, as Menachem Begin’s Likud replaced the Labor Party, which had ruled since the state’s establishment. Despite being Polish-born, Begin appealed to the “Sephardim,” the Jews from Arab countries who were more religiously traditional and socially marginal. Begin also favored a more capitalist approach, which ultimately would reorient Israel’s agriculturally-based economy, resulting in the high tech miracle-maker of today.
Today, more than being the world’s beaten-up nation, Israel has become the start-up nation, an incubator for new companies and new inventions, new technologies in computers and cell phones, for new medicines and new surgical techniques. “Born in Israel Used Everywhere” is a popular post, circulated online, showing the Microsoft Windows NT Operating System, Intel’s Pentium MMX Chip, Instant Messenger Software, a USB Flash Drive disk on key, Firewall internet security software, a radiation-free breast cancer diagnostic test, drip irrigation for farmers, and large-scale solar electricity grids, among other wizardry. The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, has researchers who helped develop seven of today’s top-25 biotech drugs, including Enbrel® against rheumatoid arthritis, Copaxone® against multiple sclerosis, and Erbitux® against cancer, an astonishing contribution from only one research center in such a small country.
As Israel celebrates its sixty-fifth birthday, some things have not changed. Israel’s Declaration of Independence rooted the Jewish State’s story in its Biblical heritage, while also promising all its inhabitants civic equality and dignity; sixty-five years later, Israel still juggles between its unique mission as the only Jewish State and its more universalist aspiration to be a civic democracy like the United States or Canada. Twenty-one parties, each with their own newspaper, competed in the first Knesset election; 65 years later, Israel’s democracy remains dynamic and chaotic. Within Israel’s first three years, 690,000 immigrants doubled the country’s population; sixty-five years later, Israel is integrating new immigrants, this time from Ethiopia and from the former Soviet Union as it collapsed ten years ago. And, alas, Israel still seeks peace with its neighbors.
Like India and China, Israel has built a modern country rooted in its ancient civilization. You hear it in the medley of liturgical tunes wafting through various windows in so many neighborhoods on the Sabbath especially with the usual perpetual background rumbling of cars minimized or absent. You see it in the twenty-first-century traffic and glittering lights of modern Jerusalem set against the backdrop of the Old City’s wall or the beautiful mosques of Jaffa juxtaposed against the Tel Aviv skyline. You feel it in the chaos of the food markets that are as crowded as the sleek supermarkets. And you express it in Hebrew, the Jewish people’s resurrected old-new language, used by all Israelis, including Christian and Muslim Arabs, in a day-to-day arrangement that could always be improved but is far more functional than hysterical headlines and venomous propagandists suggest.
Israel remains this extraordinary time capsule. The Bible relates that nearly four thousand years ago, the Lord promised this land to Abraham. More than one hundred years ago, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl imagined a modern, cutting-edge Jewish state. Today, some believe Zionism is over, having achieved its goal in establishing the country. But many others recognize that the real work of perfecting the state, of making it live up to its founding hopes, is only just beginning.
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