Independence Day: Israel's First 70 Years Surprised the World

(Bloomberg View) -- In November 1947, one day prior to the expected United Nations vote on partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the CIA urged President Harry Truman not to throw his weight behind the idea. America would have to defend the new Jewish state when it faltered, the CIA’s secret memorandum warned, adding that “the Jews will be able to hold out no longer than two years.”

Several months later, David Ben-Gurion was about to declare the establishment of the State of Israel. Seated among the dozen or so men who would determine the fate of the state-to-be, he famously turned to one of his top military commanders, Yigael Yadin, and asked him if he thought a new Jewish state would survive the military onslaught that the Arabs would inevitably launch. Yadin, who would later serve as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, replied that he thought the Jewish state would have a 50-50 chance.

Today, those bleak assessments feel like ancient history. As the modern Israeli state celebrates 70 years, the prevailing sentiment is one of extraordinary accomplishment. American Jewish leaders were incensed in 1948 when Ben-Gurion came to the U.S. and spoke about the fledgling state as the new center of the Jewish world; today, that status is nowhere in doubt.

In 1948, there were some 650,000 Jews in Israel, who represented about 5 percent of the world's Jews. Today, Israel’s Jewish population has grown ten-fold and stands at about 6.8 million people. Some 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel; this population overtook American Jews several years ago and is now the world’s largest Jewish community. Israel’s birthrate, even among secular Jews, is higher than that of any other OECD country, and significantly higher than that of American Jews (who now account for some 34 percent of Jews worldwide).

Beyond mere survival, the other challenge that the young Jewish state faced was feeding and housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were flocking to its borders. At times, financial collapse seemed imminent. Food was rationed and black markets developed. Israel had virtually no heavy machinery for building the infrastructure that it desperately needed. Until Germany paid Holocaust reparations, the young state’s financial condition was perilous.

Today, that worry also feels like a relic from another time. Israel is not only a significant military power (and in the region, a superpower) but also a formidable economic machine. A worldwide center for technology that has more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any country other than the U.S., Israel’s economy barely hiccupped in 2008. The shekel, its currency, is strong. Like other countries, Israel has a worrisome income gap between rich and poor, but fears of an economic collapse have vanished.

Israel has become an important cultural center, vastly disproportionately for a country whose population approximates that of New York City. When the five finalists for the Man Booker literary prize were announced last year, two were Israelis who write in Hebrew: David Grossman and Amos Oz. Grossman won. Ever since S.Y. Agnon received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966, the Israeli literary scene has been punching far above its weight.

When the state was founded, Ben-Gurion sought to block television altogether; he thought it would have a deleterious impact on Israeli education and culture. He failed in that attempt, but for decades, Israel had but one television channel. Today, Americans and Europeans alike wait hungrily for new episodes of Israeli shows like "Fauda," while others (like "Homeland" and "The A Word") have been remade into American and British series.

On the occasion of Independence Day, Israelis are fully conscious -- and deeply proud -- of the fact that their country has exceeded the ambitions of the men and women who founded it seven decades ago.

Yet some of the initial worries and troubles of those early years persist. Militarily, the looming enemy is not the Palestinians (with whom peace remains utterly elusive), but Iran. The Israeli military is bracing for a possible Iranian missile or drone attack. International support for Israel remains a concern: In 1948, many American Jews were deeply conflicted about the creation of a Jewish state. Solidarity eventually grew -- but today the relationship has become increasingly fraught.

And Israelis got a stark reminder this week that some of the social ills that have long plagued the country persist. Several days ago, Haaretz, Israel’s “paper of record,” asked its writers which Israeli song they most despise. When one replied that he hates the national anthem, a furious Twitter discussion ensued. At one point, a woman annoyed at having her focus on security dismissed by the Haaretz editors, tweeted, “It’s thanks to my ideology that you live like a king in this country and can write and distribute your absurd newspaper with no impediments.” Amos Schocken, Haaretz’s editor and the son of its previous editor, retorted (in a tweet he subsequently deleted): “You insolent woman. My family was leading Zionism when you were still climbing on trees. Haaretz has been in the Schocken family for 83 years; we did fine without your ideology and will continue to.”

Seventy years after its founding, Israel’s once-ruling Labor party has virtually no political influence. There are many reasons for that, but its reputation as an elitist, out-of-touch clan of European intellectuals is prime among them. Neither the Haaretz crowd nor the Israeli non-European majority is likely to alter its views of the other. Despite the many questions surrounding the Jewish state as it enters its eighth decade, what seems almost certain is that it will be not Ben-Gurion’s founding Labor party but the once marginal and now powerful political right that will rule this still young and fascinating nation for the foreseeable future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

To contact the author of this story: Daniel Gordis at dgordis@bloomberg.net.

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