A new state for an ancient people; independent, yet under siege; a refuge from hatred, at war with its neighbors; democratic, yet beset by conflict: Israel, as it attains its 60th anniversary, resists easy definition. Sixty years ago, on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister, declared independence, to which American and Soviet recognition was forthcoming the next day, following the expiration of British rule. Tel Aviv was bombed from the air by Egyptian aircraft and Ben Gurion’s first address to the nation was delivered from an air-raid shelter.
Any reckoning on Israel, its successes and failures, is also inescapably interwoven with the verdict one gives on the animating philosophy of the state, Zionism, which itself recently celebrated its 110th anniversary.
Zionism, in its classical form, was visionary and emancipatory. It foresaw a collectivity of Jewish labor redeeming a patrimony lost in antiquity. It envisioned a national solution to that age-old disease, anti-Semitism, a gentile illness which has often been fatal for Jews, conscious of the fact that time was running out for Jews in Europe. It intended, at any rate hoped, to attract the great mass of Jews around the world, although its priority was providing a home to the idealistic and visionary, then the persecuted and endangered. The Ottoman world into which it launched its first efforts was crumbling, and a pious hope prevailed in early days of harmonious integration with the neighboring population in mutual independence. Some Zionists entertained even more visionary hopes, such as the new Zionist enterprise becoming a spiritual and rejuvenating center of Jewish life. Theodor Herzl, its founder, even thought it might prove the antidote to anti-Semitism, though he doubted the possibility of reviving ancient Hebrew as a spoken language. He once asked rhetorically, “Who amongst us knows enough to purchase a railway ticket in that language?”
IT REQUIRES ONLY a little knowledge of history to know that Zionism both succeeded and failed in conspicuous measure in realizing the hopes of its founders and pioneers. As it happens, Herzl was wrong on both counts. The national language was revived, a feat that still eludes other peoples seeking to emulate Israel’s success, like the Irish, while anti-Semitism, far from having been extinguished, is very much still with us. Anti-Semitism has gained a hearing in places where almost no Jews live, like Japan, and is positively commonplace in Saudi Arabia, which Jews may not even enter.
Anti-Semitism is discouraged and institutionally fought in most democratic societies but, 60 years on, Israel existence has wrought no discernible reduction in its incidence elsewhere; in fact, it has provided a new focus of animosity. The widespread revilement of the Jews in pre-state times was replicated when the UN General Assembly resolved in November 1975 that Zionism, uniquely among national movements around the globe, was a form of racism. That was always a lie, as every representative democratic government knew when it joined the dissenting minority of voting states. Not only are Israel’s Arabs citizens, but its record in assisting African countries in the medical, educational and agricultural spheres was already impressive and well known. Nor has skin color since proved a barrier to Israel opening its gates to Ethiopian Jews and Vietnamese gentiles. No, the resolution’s sponsors were despots and opportunists, its advocates hate-mongers and its beneficiaries terrorists. That artificial, contrived and delinquent international consensus was consigned to the dustbin of UN history in 1991. But by no stretch of the imagination can Israel be said to have solved the problem of anti-Semitism.
Quite the contrary: Israel became the focus of renewed anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Zionism, a distinction without a difference insofar as the target remains Jews, with discrimination now applied to sovereign identity rather than individual rights. Israel solved anti-Semitism in the sense that it permitted Jews to cease being timorous petitioners to foreign governments and permitted those in need or desire of joining the national enterprise to do so. In the span of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth nearly two millennia ago, that is likely to remain Israel’s biggest achievement and calling card.
IN FAILING TO SOLVE what anti-Semites used to call the “Jewish question,” Israel has managed, then, the more limited but indispensable goal of providing a refuge for captive and persecuted Jewish communities. In fact, nothing better evokes today, if only fleetingly, the lost pioneering ethos of Israel than latter-day efforts to rescue Jews in distress, from endangered Ethiopians to traumatized Russians. This is but a continuation of the process that began in Europe last century and embraced the Arab Middle East in the 1940s and 1950s when pan-Arabism and Muslim supremacism combined to depopulate virtually each and every established Jewish community in Arab lands. Unlike their European counterparts in the 1930s, however, these Jews did have somewhere to go. That is what Israel, at its practical core, is really about.
Jewish labor and nation-building has had a much more checkered history. The utopian idealism of the kibbutzim is a thing of the past, although still the only voluntary socialist system to have been devised and implemented. But the heroic age of free Jews draining swamps is gone. The statist socialist foundations of the Israeli economy remain remarkably resistant to change, though that is now occurring faster than ever before. The incorporation in 1967 of the West Bank and Gaza into Israeli control during the Arab-inspired Six Day War has seen the emergence of cheap “Arab labor” which would have been deplored by Israel’s founding fathers, although the current hostilities has somewhat reversed that trend.
The Oslo peace process, conceived as project of political normalization coupled with economic separation, long ago foundered in bloodshed. That failure was inherent in Israel’s attempt to produce a two-state solution with Yasser Arafat and his successors, who remain dedicated to a one-state program. With it was also lost the previously expanding realm of Arab-Israeli trade and economic co-operation that had been one of the few untarnished dividends of Oslo.
The Oslo years were ones of Israeli flexibility, American diplomatic enthusiasm and European largesse. Ample opportunity existed for the Palestinian Authority (PA) that emerged from Oslo to come to terms with Israelis, build a rule of law society and lay the foundation of a firm economy bolstered by the world’s highest per capita level of international aid — one that has actually increased since the hostilities began in 2000. Instead, the PA squandered it on building up militias and lining the pockets of officials from Arafat down. Terrorist groups commenced suicide bombing Israel while in the PA-controlled media, mosques, schools and youth camps, incitement to hatred and murder of Jews and glorification of terrorism as a religious and national duty became the order of the day.
To this day, PA maps and atlases pretend Israel does not exist, PA-salaried clerics call for murdering “the sons of monkeys and pigs” (preferred usage for Jews), TV and radio, popular songs and poetry extol the glories of suicide attacks, textbooks teach that Israel is a colonial usurper, unfit to live, and streets and colleges are named for suicide bombers. Palestinian society is radicalized and morally defunct, split between the Hamas fiefdom of Gaza and the Fatah holdout of the West Bank.
ISRAEL MAY HAVE PROVIDED Jews a home and developed a leading regional economy, but it has a more modest record of success in the millenarian vision of an “in-gathering of the exiles.” The in-gathering was always going to be a combination of voluntary and involuntary immigration, but it is only the heroic age of Zionism that can boast a solid core of idealists. In each succeeding epoch, the persecuted, the endangered, and the expelled have predominated. Few nations are primarily composed of people (or descendants of people) who either involuntarily left their native homes or who would have gone elsewhere given the chance. Yet there is no mystery about this. It is a special breed of person who deliberately courts danger, disease, climatic extremes, economic uncertainty, material scarcity and neighboring hostility in preference to a settled life in a relatively tranquil society. As a consequence, Israel’s population has always drawn in the main from European emigres, Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands or former Soviet Jews let free in the last days of the Bolshevik empire in a stream still continuing to this moment. Zionism has been only a peripheral magnet for free and enfranchised western Jews in countries like the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Brazil, Argentina or Australia who, if they move at all, are as likely as not to move between each other as to Israel.
One remarkable success, however, is the realization of an early Zionist idea: to produce a new, sovereign Jew at home in his own country. Diaspora Jews often notice that Israelis do not share what Jean-Paul Sartre would have called the “over-determined” character of the Jews, a result of centuries of Jewish dependence on gentile goodwill. The Israeli is refreshingly free of untoward concern for the opinion of others or the belief that in whatever he may do, he is somehow representative of all Jews, and is being judged accordingly. He has been normalized to the extent that he feels he belongs somewhere without qualification and that in this way he is like most other members of the human family. If he meets someone who dislikes him, it is not his problem, as it still remains for even the freest and most established Western Jew. He needs no communal security apparatus, anti-defamation league, hate monitors or communal advocates. He has all of these in the forms of the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, and an elected, sovereign government. He can leave the job, if not always confidently, to the professionals.
For all this revolutionary innovation in the life of the Jews, even here there are limitations on success. A Jew is still likely to live a safer life in Manchester, Miami, Melbourne, or Montevideo than in Ma’alot. Jewish sovereignty has not come cheaply, nor has it been maintained without vigilance. The Arab-Israeli conflict has subjected generations of Israelis to years of military service and reserve duty, and the civilian front has often been far from tranquil. Indeed, Palestinian terrorists have made killing and maiming ordinary Jewish civilians in the largest possible numbers a special priority. For most of the Muslim world, a theological calamity occurred with Jewish statehood. Muslim supremacists, whether Islamist or not, work overtime to ensure that the Jew, largely a figure of contemptuous docility in Arab collective memory, can be again relegated to Islamic subject status on ‘liberated’ Islamic land.
MODERN ISRAEL IS BOTH the newest and oldest of lands. The very distant or very recent past is abundantly in evidence. What is missing are the intervening two millennia. Arab conquerors constructed the Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. But successive conquerors have left few monuments beyond crumbling Ottoman structures. The British left some fine public buildings and trademark red mail boxes. Tel Aviv, the first Jewish city of modern times, was once a pleasant coastal city, now much over-crowded. Palestinian rococo and modernist German architecture of the 1920s and 1930s can still be glimpsed in its older quarters. Jerusalem makes an atmospheric, pious, and other-worldly contrast to the secular, mercantile, Mediterranean city. Israel has succeeded in the limited goals of restoring Jewish speech and geography to the national life. But the national culture is as yet unsettled, almost destabilizing in its diversity, with the chronic tension between religious and secular culture apparent in every branch of public and private life. The unity of the people has at times been sorely tested by the issues that divide it. Violence between Jews has been limited, but public discourse is often envenomed, and a prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a nationalist extremist in 1995.
Perhaps, with so much conflict, internal and external in origin, Israel’s great achievement is the resilience of its democratic life. By temperament, Israelis are the most democratic of peoples. They have a low threshold of tolerance for any pretense of social superiority. Informality is the norm. Some people think this goes a little far. As any visitor knows, graceful manners are in short supply. The army is the most respected national institution for obvious reasons, yet has almost no chivalric tradition. Generals and privates wear the same uniforms. There is no ceremonial dress uniform and an economy of military and civilian honors, which makes military ceremony on national occasions all the more haunting for its accessibility and austerity.
This tremendous achievement, too, cannot be celebrated with abandon. Israel’s judiciary is fiercely independent, yet its Supreme Court’s radically activist orientation and virtually self-selecting confirmation process places it almost outside parliamentary purview, perhaps beyond the point of recall. Court judges are not appointed by the government or the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, but by a panel in which unelected judges and lawyers are the majority. This has entrenched an activist orthodoxy, unmitigated by the changes of administrations and Congresses that serve to achieve judicial diversity in the United States.
Vigorous debate and parliamentary procedures are alive and well, but proportional representation in the Knesset has balkanized politics, impeded resolute central government, defied the requirements of stability, and held majorities hostage to capricious minorities. As a result, Knesset members hold office courtesy of party lists, not electors’ votes, and are beholden to party whips, not to constituencies. This has engendered at once fluid loyalties, lack of accountability, and public cynicism. Worsening matters still further is Israeli bureaucracy which, in its untroubled inefficiency, is typically Mediterranean. Press freedom somewhat mitigates the picture, since Israeli journalists are not inclined to self-censorship. Foreign correspondents congregate in the country, free to report without fear or favor, and often show little but disfavor. Corruption scandals — including one with current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as its subject — are far from rare, though the country’s president, Shimon Peres, recently offered a consoling thought — “Better a democracy with scandals than an authoritarian system without scandals.”
The Israeli Arabs — a minority of approximately 20% — have been an increasing special challenge to the country. Most of the Arab sector spent Israel’s first years under military rule before participating normally in Israel life. Trade union membership followed in 1960. Political representation has always been a feature of Israeli Arab life, with Arab Knesset members sitting in governing coalitions; one, Raleb Majadele, is currently a minister in the government of Ehud Olmert (though he refuses to sing the national anthem, Hatikvah). Arabs represent Israel abroad in the diplomatic service, the staunchly loyal Druze population has enjoyed a harmonious relationship to the state, its youth even serving in elite units of the armed forces. Knowing the limits of the human condition, Israel has not imposed army service on its Arabs (though volunteers are taken), just as the U.S. did not deploy Japanese Americans in the Pacific theater of operations during the Second World War. One result of this, however, has been that, in a country in which national service is often a prerequisite for good employment and economic opportunities, Arabs have lagged behind.
The Israeli Arab impetus for integration, such as it was, has eroded dangerously in recent years, perhaps the worst long-term consequence of the Oslo process. One need only consult the position papers of various Arab advocacy groups to see in print rejection of the Jewish character and symbols of the country and demands for binationalism. Israeli Arab Knesset members have visited neighboring states still at war with Israel, praised terror groups murdering their fellow citizens and even advised them on ways to further harm Israel in both war and peace. How Israel deals with these dangers remains to be seen. Oslo advocates used to speak of decommissioning the conflict and thereby easing its attendant home front tensions. In reality, the opposite has occurred.
IT IS IN THESE circumstances that Israel enters its seventh decade. Its oldest citizens are the last alive who can maturely recall the pre-state days, the early privations, the flush of vision and pre-sovereign innocence. With their passing, the last link to Israel’s youth will be lost forever, probably over the next ten years. (Yossi Harel, commander of the refugee ship, Exodus, and inspiration for the protagonist in Leon Uris’s eponymous novel, died at 90 less than a month ago.) Revisiting the national record has been constant with Israeli historians, now boasting a discrete group of revisionists keen to debunk alleged nationalist orthodoxies. As often happens in historical writing, revisionists, keen to dislodge old orthodoxies, end up creating a new one. It is not uncommon today to see or hear of Israeli academics lambasting their country’s defense and rationalizing Arab aggression. Some of the revisionists are also at the forefront of a campaign to efface national particularity, a phenomenon termed “post-Zionism,” a peculiarly heedless conception that confuses political normalization with regional assimilation.
But post-Zionism, so popular abroad, is in retreat at home. Seven years on from Arafat’s so-called second intifadah, Israelis are largely recovered from the shock of terror and scorching hostility to which they awoke in 2000, like a cancer patient in remission experiencing a returning malignancy. Polls consistently show Israelis to be more sober of Palestinian intentions and skeptical of diplomatic designs, whether drawn up at home, Washington or elsewhere. The fusillade of rockets from Gaza permit few beyond the far left to pretend that the Gaza unilateral withdrawal was successful or that negotiated retreats would prove more so. The current government that mismanaged the 2006 Lebanon war — itself the product of an earlier, unilateral withdrawal — continues to preside, insulated from electoral pressures for the moment.
But then winning the war for Israel’s acceptance, like nation-building itself, is not the work of a couple of generations. I very much like an anecdote about the veteran leader of Zionism, Chaim Weizmann. In giving testimony to the Peel Royal Commission in 1937, convened to seek a solution to the conflict in the land then under British tutelage, Weizmann was asked by one of the Commissioners, Sir Horace Rumbold, if he could ever envisage a fully formed Jewish state. He replied “never.” Astonished, Rumbold queried why Weizmann could not foresee the completion of Zionism’s work. Weizmann replied that, just as Britain had been evolved over centuries so that it was impossible to determine when it had been fully formed, so too, it would be impossible to know when the Jewish state was built up and the task at an end.