Next week in the National Stadium outside Tel Aviv, Israeli Jews will gather to mark 40 years of tumultuous nationhood. And in keeping with their history of scarcely interrupted warfare with their Arab neighbors, the occasion will have a distinctly military flavor. A pageant featuring some of the Israel Defence Force’s proudest units will fill the stadium. There will be an air force flypast and songs by army choirs and popular entertainers. At the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, the Declaration of Independence and other early state documents will be on display. The events will recall the moment in 1948May 14 according to the Western calendar, but April 21 this year because of the fluctuations of the Jewish calendar—when Israel was born out of the wreckage of British-mandated Palestine.
But the national celebration will likely be tempered by the bloody four-month revolt by the Arabs of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Wars: Since its violent inception in 1948, the state of Israel has fought five wars with hostile Arab neighbors and, despite the current U.S. peace initiative, the prospects for more war remain.
Still, during that time Israeli Jews have managed to transform an ancient, backward land into a modern, technologically advanced democracy. “Israel is a great celebration of resilience and vitality,” said veteran Israeli statesman Abba Eban in an interview with Maclean's last week. But, he said, “I enter this fifth decade in a very sombre mood because, although we show great progress in every material, economic and quantitative sense, we are in very deep confusion about our structure and values.” Added Eban: “The problems that remain to be solved are even more complicated than those we have solved.” The successes of the nation of 3.7 million Jews and 700,000 Arabs are immediately evident. Measured in real terms, the gross domestic product is now 12 times what it was in 1950, when the first official statistics were compiled. In agriculture, one of Israel’s greatest success stories, the area under cultivation is now 2.8 times what it was in 1948, and farm production has risen 1,500 per
cent. In the past 30 years industrial production has risen 800 per cent. In 1948 Israel had two universities with a total of 1,635 students. This year it has 67,200 students in seven universities.
Dream: The very existence of Israel is the realization of the age-old dream of Jews to return to the biblical Promised Land of their forefathers. That yearning gained political expression in the late 19th century with the founding of the Zionist movement. During the First
World War, which brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Zionists found a diplomatic opening for their claim to Palestine as a national home. In 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared his country’s support for the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine—although without prejudice to the rights of its Arab inhabitants—and that concept was incorporated into the mandate over Palestine, granted to Britain by the League of Nations in 1922.
At the time of the so-called Balfour Declaration, about 85,000 Jews lived in Palestine, a territory west of the Jordan River encompassing 34,493 square miles,
along with several hundred thousand Arabs. But by 1947 the flood of immigration-legal and illegal—caused by the rise of nazism in Europe had brought the Jewish population to 600,000. Palestine’s British rulers attempted to placate Arab resentment by limiting Jewish entry, but that only infuriated the Zionists. Jewish guerrillas engaged in sabotage against the British and ran ships full of illegal immigrants into Palestine, until finally the British pulled out.
On Nov. 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted 33 to 13 to partition the area of Palestine west of the Jordan River. There was to be a Jewish state and an Arab state, leaving Jerusalem under international administration. But while the Jewish community accepted the decision, the Arabs took up arms, plunging Palestine into civil war. As the British withdrew, the Jews gained the upper hand, and on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, proclaimed Israel a sovereign state.
Armies: But the creation of Israel took more than a declaration. Over the next year the fledgling state found itself fighting a war of independence against the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. When the conflict ended with armistice agreements in 1949, the Israelis held the majority of Palestine— from Galilee in the north to the Sinai Peninsula in the south— I leaving to the Palestinian Arabs à only the land east from Jerusalem to the Jordan River—the socalled West Bank—which came under Jordanian rule, and the Gaza Strip, along the Mediterranean coast, which came under Egyptian control.
Tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors continued. Purportedly to prevent the launch of terrorist strikes from Gaza—but in collusion with Britain and France in their dispute with Egypt over the nationalization of the Suez Canal— Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 and occupied Gaza and the Sinai. The following year U.S. pressure forced Israel to pull back to its 1948 borders. But the Israelis vowed never again to withdraw without getting something in return. That was the decision in June, 1967, when Israel— its frontiers threatened by massed Arab
armies —launched pre-emptive air strikes against Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, starting the so-called Six Day War. When it was over, the Israelis held the Golan Heights, Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank. And they annexed East Jerusalem, proclaiming the reunited city the nation’s capital.
Under the historic 1979 Camp David peace treaty, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin returned the Sinai to Egypt. But 21 years after the Six Day War, the West Bank and Gaza remain occupied. And the future of 1.3 million Palestinians in the occupied territo-
ries—whose dreams of their own homeland have fuelled the current uprising —remains Israel’s biggest problem.
Society: For the once-hawkish, now moderate Israeli Labor politician Ezer Weizman, Israel has become a “siege society.” As Weizman told Maclean's last week: “Creating a nation here was not an end in itself. The result of nationhood should have been to produce a secure Jew, physically, economically and in the enjoyment of his tradition.” He added: “We created the fighting Jew, something totally different from what was known in Europe. But the most important ingredient in defence today is an understanding with our neighbors, and that is where we have
failed. If we don’t have peace, we can go back 20 years, back to war.”
Clash: On its 40th anniversary Israel faces another major problem. It is the so-called war of the Jews—the culture clash between secular and moderately religious Israelis on the one hand and their militant and politically powerful Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox compatriots on the other. In their Declaration of Independence, Israel’s secular founders did not mention the word “God.” But due in part to the country’s proportional representation electoral system, which gave rise to many small
political groupings, the major parties have traditionally had to rely on religious parties to form a government.
In return for political support, Israeli leaders gave Orthodox rabbis the sole power to perform marriages, grant divorces and conduct funerals. As well, on Saturdays and other holy days the national airline, El AÍ, is grounded, and public transportation is banned in much of the country. But beginning with the Six Day War victory—which many Israelis saw as a miraculous restoration of Israel’s biblical boundaries —the influence of the religious parties increased dramatically .
That influence reached its peak following the 1977 election of Begin and
his right-wing Likud bloc. To gain religious support, Begin placed restrictions on abortions, organ transplants and other practices opposed by Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Still, religious purists in Jerusalem—objecting to what they call violations of Hebrew law—have set fire to bus shelters displaying swimsuit advertisements and stoned cars on the Sabbath.
Another extreme group, the zealots of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), spearheaded the drive to build permanent Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. In their messianic
mission to reclaim the lost biblical areas of Judea and Samaria—the West Bank—from the Arabs, some Gush Emunim men have resorted to terrorist acts against West Bank Palestinian mayors and Arab students.
Prophecy: In retrospect, Chaim
Weizmann made a telling comment in 1949. As the infant nation took its first uncertain steps, Israel’s first president declared, “I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs.” As Israel prepares to celebrate 40 years of existence next week, that prophecy seems to be truer than ever.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.