Israel at 70: Looking back and looking forward

David Ben-Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948 in Tel Aviv, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Photo: Rudi Weissenstein/Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

By Andrew Rehfeld

The 70th Anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel is an ideal time to reflect on the remarkable nature of Israel’s birth and what it means for the Jewish People in the years ahead.   The following essay reflects on the conditions that made its existence necessary, the success it has had since its founding, and the challenges it faces today.  It addresses a growing divide between a generation whose understanding of the past can impede their recognition of a new reality, and a new generation whose lack of understanding of the past, leaves them exposed to new threats that Israel continues to face.

I believe we need to develop a deep appreciation for why a Jewish state is necessary, to remain strong and vibrant supporters of the values upon which Israel was formed, and have the courage to address the challenges and opportunities of the future that are continuing to divide our Jewish communities today.  

Looking back to Israel’s Founding

To appreciate the remarkable nature of Israel’s birth, we should start not at 1948, but 70 years prior to Israel’s founding when the idea of Israel itself was little more than a dream facing enormous obstacles—no greater than from the Jewish People itself.

In 1878 we would encounter Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, as an 18 year old boy, raised in a secular, European household, fully committed to Jewish assimilation into European society.  At this point Herzl was far from promoting a Jewish State, considering instead widescale conversion of the Jews as a practical solution to the continued challenges to their full integration into Europe. As he grew into adulthood in the latter part of the 19th century, his role as a political journalist and writer forced him to confront European anti-Semitism that changed his views: Herzl saw the establishment of the Jewish State as the only permanent option for the protection and flourishing of the Jewish People.  He was originally ambivalent about where the Jewish state should be located—Argentina, Eastern Uganda and Palestine were among the possible options he considered and proposed.  His literary work to help imagine a new Jewish State and his organization of the first World Zionist Congress in 1897 laid the groundwork for the modern state of Israel.

Although Herzl’s ideas would gain credibility by the time Israel was founded just over 50 years later, they were initially met with significant opposition—most of all by his own people. 

The Jewish people have dreamed of and prayed for a return to their historic homeland for almost 2000 years.  Yet most resisted and opposed the call to form a Jewish State in the modern era.  Some Jews in Eastern and Central Europe opposed the creation of a Jewish state because they were committed to reforming political life in Poland and Russia through the creation of the secular Jewish Socialist workers party.  In Western and Central Europe, most Jews rejected the aspirations towards statehood as well, preferring either to integrate into European Society or maintain religiously separate communities within Europe.  Until well into the 20th century, Orthodox and Reform communities worked to oppose the creation of a Jewish State based on different religious principles.  And from 1880 to the 1920s, 2.5 million Jews would choose to leave Europe not to join the nascent settlement movement in Palestine, but to immigrate to North America instead.

Thus when Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress in 1897 the idea of a State of Israel was far from a sure thing, and greeted with skepticism by a very suspicious world. 

By 1917 when the Balfour Declaration established the first international support for a Jewish “homeland” (not yet a state), there were thus perhaps only 60,000 Jews living in Palestine in a land with over 600,000 Arabs.  Arab concentrations existed in cities like Haifa, Jaffa and Acre on the coast, and significantly in the hills of what we call the West Bank today, the historic biblical Judea and Samaria.  Initial Jewish Settlements were created on land purchased from Arab landowners, particularly in the coastal plain between Jaffa (next to Tel Aviv) and Haifa.  

Israel would emerge thanks to a determined group of men and women whose pioneering efforts created what they referred to as the “New Jew”: strong, self-reliant individuals, rejecting the ways of the past (many were secular atheists), in order to form a new nation by working the soil of their historic homeland. Their efforts were supported by writers, leaders and politicians whose names are now etched into our people’s history: Hess, Pinsker, Ben-Yehuda (who created Modern Hebrew), and Weitzman; Ahad Ha-am, Jabotinsky, Szold, Rav Kook, Bialik, Begin and Senesh, among many, many others.  And of course, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who along with Herzl was the most important founder of the modern state. 

Herzl had a poet’s visionary imagination, a prophet’s ability to foretell, and the confidence to ignore opposition.  In 1897, referring to the location of the first World Zionist Congress, he wrote:

“At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.”

Remarkably, Herzl’s vision came true, almost to the day.

The Moral Necessity and Obligations of a Jewish State

The current vitality of the Jewish people in 2018 may cause us to forget or minimize just how precarious our situation was prior to Israel’s founding. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel, we begin by looking back even before 1948, recalling the catastrophes that confronted our people, and necessitated and justified Israel’s creation. 

After suffering persecution in Russia, France, Ukraine, Poland and Germany simply for begin Jewish and having been denied entry into our people’s historic homeland by the British beginning two decades before the slaughter of the Shoah, the United Nations in 1947 recognized the formation of a Jewish State side-by-side with an Arab State of Palestine. Israel accepted this proposal despite the small amount of land that the U.N. plan had designated for it, which excluded most of the biblical land of Israel. Tragically, the Palestinians rejected the proposal that would have created their own independent state. Instead, Israel was attacked by Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia seeking to eliminate it as a national entity. 

Astonishingly, in that first war of self-defense the Jewish State prevailed and significantly expanded its territory beyond the U.N. charter.  Arabs living in what is now the West Bank and Gaza found themselves stateless, occupied instead by the Jordanian and Egyptian governments for most of the following two decades. Rather than living as free citizens in their own state today, the 700,000 or more Palestinians displaced by the Israelis in the War of Independence and their descendants continue to be classified as “refugees” from that conflict 70 years ago. 

Israel’s existence today was thus made necessary by the existential threat that anti-Semitism posed to the Jewish people starting well before the Shoah. Thanks to Israel’s existence, after 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews from Northern Africa could find refuge there after they were banished from homes where they had lived for centuries. Israel has thankfully remained a refuge for Jews around the world ever since, including the Soviet Union and Ethiopia in the 1990s.  

Of the almost 5,000 “peoples” in the world, with the creation of Israel in 1948, the Jewish people became one of the very few that enjoy the privilege of exercising self-determination in the form of a nation-state. With that privilege, Israel has promoted the flourishing and vibrancy of Jewish life. Like other ethno-cultural states, including Ireland, Greece, Turkey and Romania, Israel creates and enforces rules that favor and protect the majority culture and people. Israel’s official calendar follows the Jewish calendar, state functions respect Jewish dietary laws, and its flag, national anthem, and other key symbols of the state reflect and reinforce Jewish themes. And Israel’s immigration laws provide a “right of return” for any Jew to receive immediate citizenship in Israel. 

From its founding Israel has recognized the moral responsibility that all ethno-cultural states have to become “just” by achieving a balance between favoring its majority population while protecting the rights of minorities. This important moral feature of the modern State of Israel is built into its very Declaration of Independence, and sometimes—often—gets lost among its critics.  

The first 70 years: A story of remarkable progress and achievement 

The Jewish people have used the rare privilege of having its own state to become a dynamic nation contributing to the welfare of humanity well beyond its relatively small size of about 8.5 million Jewish and Arab citizens. It has implemented a democratic form of government granting significant freedom of the press, worship for all religions, and, since 1966, extending full political and civil rights to all citizens who live there. It remains the only democracy in the Middle East, providing stability on a framework of realizable justice in a region notorious for its consistent human rights abuses against women and minorities. 

Israel’s military threats have also significantly changed. Where it had three times before faced the combined armies of its neighbors seeking to eradicate it, Israel has now built a lasting peace with Egypt for almost 40 years and with Jordan for almost 25 years. Because of Israel’s military supremacy (including the possession of nuclear weapons), it is no longer facing existential threats from conventional military invasion by its other neighbors. It is in strategic alliances with Saudi Arabia and continues to receive the unambiguous military support of the United States—something it did not enjoy in the first decades of its existence. 

Israel now stands as a global leader in innovation, technology, agriculture, communication and health care, enhancing and saving the lives of millions of people around the world. 

Its achievements in education and research are unparalleled. Its rate of Nobel Prize winners per capita is 50 percent greater than the United States. It has become a major economic power and innovator—the “Start Up Nation!” As important, Israel regularly advances humanitarian aid outside of its borders. It assists victims of natural disasters around the world as it did in Haiti, and other projects, like Save a Child’s Heart, deliver lifesaving health care to children in developing countries, including those in Syria and Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.  

Over the last 70 years, Israel has become a vibrant center of Jewish flourishing, rivaling any other period in our people’s history. 

Secular and religious centers of learning have proliferated, including the resurgence of the traditional yeshivot that had all but been extinguished in the mid-century destruction of Eastern European Jewry. Israel has fostered new expressions of Jewish culture through the visual arts, music, theater and dance. Its cultural institutions and artists have taken their place on the world stage in a remarkably diverse way, and include Gal Gadot, Itzhak Perlman, Gene Simmons and Daniel Barenboim, to name just a very few. And Israel has established itself as an eclectic pluralistic Jewish society, seeing a resurgence of ultra-Orthodox communities, even while Tel Aviv has become a global center of gay culture, with its mayor publicly calling in 2015 for Israel to accept same-sex marriage. 

These achievements testify to Israel’s continued tenacity, decency and inclination to pursue justice based on the prophetic values of the Jewish tradition. They express the aspiration of the Jewish people to be a light for all nations.  

Current generational divides 

As we reflect back upon these truly remarkable achievements of Israel’s first 70 years, we thus recognize that Israel of 2018 is not the Israel of 1948. Israel’s strength and vibrancy have come so quickly, that a new generation has arisen that does not fully appreciate the challenges and sacrifices Israel faced and still faces. Similarly, an older generation has been slow to recognize the significant challenges that a stronger more stable Israel now faces as it seeks to realize its aspiration as a just, ethno-cultural state. We are thus seeing a generational divide between this younger generation that seems to ignore the past and minimize current threats, and an older generation that can find it difficult to face the moral challenges Israel faces today. 

For an older generation, Israel is seen through the founding conflicts that imperiled and defined the new state. Some may remember the War of Independence and still feel the visceral sense of doom felt at the onset of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars of 1967 and 1973, respectively.  These wars were truly existential wars: there was reason to fear that a Jewish State that was supposed to protect against a second Holocaust would now be the site of it. 

And so, understandably, this older generation today tends to view Israel’s current challenges through those same eyes. Many from this older generation still hope for a two-state solution with the Palestinians as Israel’s founders had envisioned. However, they are more likely to be skeptical of its practicality because the Palestinian leadership continues to condone terrorism and denies the legitimacy of the Jewish State and the Holocaust. While this older generation recognizes that no government is perfect, it views disagreement with Israel as something to be done privately, if at all.

And at the same time, a younger generation born in the mid-1960s and later tend to see Israel as a strong, stable and vibrant democracy, capable of the achievements listed above. They see it as a regional military superpower with nuclear weapons and an economy so strong that the global economic downturn of the last decade barely registered.  This generation is more likely to be motivated by its commitment to the universal aspirations of the Jewish prophetic tradition and takes pride in Israel’s support of humanitarian crises around the world. But they are thus more likely to be unsettled by Israel’s continued rule over 2 million or more Palestinians in the West Bank who are not afforded full political, civil or legal rights, and live in extremely difficult conditions. Where an older generation may see walls that protect the Jewish State from terrorism, this younger generation sees walls of division and exclusion; walls that take land from a future Palestinian state. 

Let us fully recognize that this younger generation tends to discount the reality of anti-Semitism in the world today. They tend to minimize the danger of the neighborhood in which Israel operates geographically and views the vows of Israel’s enemies to wipe it off the planet—whether from Hamas in Gaza or the leadership in Iran—as political rhetoric. Proceeding from a perceived position of strength, this younger generation views their protest of, and advocacy for, specific policies as the very expression of Jewish prophetic values, an expression of love of Israel, not a repudiation of it. Just like they approach politics in America. 

And you know what? We have a responsibility to make room to see Israel from both perspectives. For the biggest threat that Israel faces from our community is not disagreement, but growing apathy and disengagement. We need to help an older generation recognize that Israel of 2018 is not Israel of 1948 (or 1967 or 1973); and to help a younger generation recognize the necessity of a Jewish State and the threats to its constituted existing that remain. 

The courage to confront hard truths

The generational cleavages we are facing threaten our ability to build a common vision and purpose necessary to sustain our communities. They are leading to anger, frustration, and incrimination. Worst of all, they are leading many to disengage. 

To counteract this trend we must educate in a way that challenges but does not stigmatize, the perspectives that each generation comes to the table with. We must support continuing education in a more thorough and courageous way. “Thorough,” because we must help our communities understand not only the history of the past but also the situation Israel is now in. And “courageous” because the work will require leadership and patience to sit in places that may feel uncomfortable and unsettling. 

We have to teach a younger generation about the historic nature of anti-Semitism and the threats that Israel faces based on past history. We need to help them understand that 2018 in the Diaspora is, in some ways, very similar to 1878 (or 1928) in Europe. We have to redouble our efforts to deepen our own people’s understanding of the Holocaust and what “never again” really means: that we should dismiss any national leader who publicly denies the Holocaust or calls for the destruction of Jews. 

We also have to provide more serious opportunities for them to learn about the democratic soul of Israel—where Christians and Muslims are free to worship, and Arabs serve in the Knesset (its Parliament) and on its Supreme Court. We have to help them recognize the disproportional way that Israel is singled out for disapprobation in the U.N., targeted for boycotts by some who want to eliminate a “Jewish State,” and engaged with a Palestinian leadership that promotes and condones civilian attacks and seems incapable of saying “yes” to peace. 

But we also have to have the courage as a community to recognize the validity of their criticism of Israel’s government and leadership based on a commitment to Jewish prophetic values of social justice. We thus have to provide opportunities for an older generation to see the world as the younger generation sees it: that the continued expansion of Israeli settlements dashes the possibilities of a two-state solution; that the continued military rule of the West Bank creates oppressive conditions of injustice and worse; and that the continued treatment of Arabs as second-class citizens in Israel is out of sync with Israel’s own declared aspirations values. 

Learning here in North America goes only so far. We have to bring our communities to Israel to see the conditions in which the people of Sderot (located right next to Gaza) live in fear of the terrorist tunnels that had been dug underneath them by Palestinian terrorists and rockets shot overhead. And we also have to take them to Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, built on land purchased by Jews in the 1920s and ’30s, and from which they were forcibly removed by Arabs in 1948 after a massacre killed 129 soldiers and residents. 

We need to take our communities to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leadership and understand the conditions in which Palestinians live and work. We have to educate them on the dual effects of the joint Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza—the security that it ensures for Israel (and Egypt) even as it creates desperate conditions for the Palestinians who live there. We need to take them to see how an Israeli checkpoint secures Israelis from harm and also the significant burdens it places on Palestinians. And even if we view Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank as a legitimate reclamation of God-given land to the Jewish people, we need to help our communities see how their existence brings Israeli soldiers into regular conflict with Palestinians. 

Let us also take our communities to the sites of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that killed more than 70 civilians in Israel during the first years of this century, and to meet with their victims to help them understand why a security barrier was reluctantly erected by Israel after almost 40 years to stop this harm. We also need to take them to Palestinian communities that have now been divided by that concrete wall to see the lives that are currently affected. 

It takes leadership, strength and courage to approach these issues directly but if we care about Israel, we must recognize the urgency of doing so. With an understanding of the challenges Israel now faces and a commitment to not stigmatizing others, we will inspire a next generation to engage with Israel and the Jewish people for 70 and more years ahead. 

Andrew Rehfeld is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.