In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.
—David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister1
The Jew is being legislated out of Russia,” Mark Twain wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 1898.2 “Spain [decided] to banish him four hundred years ago, and Austria about a couple of centuries later. In all the ages Christian Europe has . . . curtail[ed] his activities. Trade after trade was taken away from the Jew by statute till practically none was left. He was forbidden to engage in agriculture; he was forbidden to practice law; he was forbidden to practice medicine, except among Jews; he was forbidden the handicrafts. Even the seats of learning and the schools of science had to be closed against this tremendous antagonist.”
Yet one Jewish man, Twain noted, had a strategy for ensuring that the Jews would have a future better than that past. “Have you heard of [Theodor Herzl’s] plan? He wishes to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own—under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose. At the [First Zionist Congress] last year . . . there were delegates from everywhere, and the proposal was received with decided favor.”
Twain spoke with admiration for what Jews had accomplished, with sympathy for their predicament in Europe, and even with some understanding of their renewed desire to create a state in Palestine. Yet Twain also had his reservations. “I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world were going to be made in a free country . . . I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore.”
TWAIN WAS MORE PRESCIENT than even he might have expected. The State of Israel was created exactly fifty years after his article was published in Harper’s, and is, in many ways, one of the most extraordinary human stories of all time. It would be hard to name a single other people that had been through such a calamitous period and that, in the space of a few short decades, accomplished so much and rose to such heights. Though very real, what has unfolded in Israel over the last century sometimes sounds like a fairy tale.
Israel is a story of a homeless people that kept a dream alive for millennia, of a people’s redemption from the edge of the abyss, of a nation forging a future when none seemed possible. Exiled from Judea by the Romans in 70 CE, Jews had dreamed for two thousand years of returning to their ancestral homeland. Their daily liturgy was replete with references to Jerusalem and with pleas that God restore them to Zion. When they prayed, wherever they were, they faced Jerusalem. They concluded the Passover Seder with the words Next year in Jerusalem. Never had the Jews left Zion willingly, and never had they ceased believing that they would one day return.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, small numbers of Jews began to move to Palestine, some because they were certain that Europe would soon erupt in violence against Jews, but others out of sheer ideology. In an era of European nationalism, they felt that the Jews, too, should have a state. Sadly, though, it was not the Jews’ prayers but the horrors of the twentieth century that transformed their dream into a reality.
Though the British had declared their support for the idea of a Jewish state in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, progress was slow. They turned from ambivalent to hostile; in the 1930s, the British began blocking Jews from immigrating to Palestine, frustrating Zionism’s fledgling hope that it could create a viable state. Then, between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis murdered 90 percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews—the most substantial Jewish community on Earth. All told, they killed one-third of the world’s Jewish population.
Partially because of that unprecedented genocide, international consensus slowly began to shift. The Jews, it became clear, simply needed a place to go. The Zionists continued to build their prestate institutions and, eventually, forced the British to leave. In May 1948, the State of Israel was born.
The early years were desperately difficult. The new state, with no financial reserves and very little infrastructure, suddenly had to absorb masses of immigrants much larger than its own population. Jews from North Africa, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere came to Israel by the hundreds of thousands when their host countries expelled them after the Jewish state was created; another one hundred and fifty thousand refugees from the Holocaust, bearing all the traumas of their horrific experience, also arrived at Israel’s borders. Formerly swamp-ridden and still uncultivated in some areas and a largely barren desert in others, bereft of natural resources, and almost completely out of cash, the state had few options for feeding and offering shelter to all these people and began to ration food. Just a few years after its creation, the country was in danger of financial collapse.
Israelis did not give up, though, in part because they had nowhere to go. American Jews, long ambivalent about the very idea of a Jewish state, sent Israel desperately needed financial resources. Then Germany paid Holocaust reparations, and Israel began its slow climb out of poverty and weakness. With time, it built an infrastructure of roads and manufacturing, a national water carrier, and much more housing. It flexed its muscles and emerged as a player even beyond its own region, collaborating with the United States, England, and France in complex international intrigue. Two decades after the creation of Israel, its successes and the different image of what it meant to be a Jew inspired Soviet Jews to demand permission to emigrate. A few decades later, Israel became an economic and technological powerhouse; the envy of much of the West, it had more companies listed on the NASDAQ than the entire European continent combined.
Everywhere, there were signs of Israel’s surprising flourishing. A country that had instituted food rationing in the 1950s was, by 2000, producing internationally award-winning wines by the dozens. A country that had had but one (government-controlled) television station for decades now had numerous channels and was producing films that competed for Oscars. A country home to many Holocaust survivors, the very picture of helplessness and passivity to some, became a military power. A people that had long sanctified learning brought that tradition to their newborn country, with extraordinary results, winning Nobel Prizes and setting international standards for research in numerous fields.
THOUGH IT IS A STORY of a country, the story of Israel is also the story of a revolution. Zionism was a movement committed to transforming the existential condition of the Jew. It was time, Zionists insisted, for the Jewish people to be reborn.
In many ways, Zionism was a rebellion against the Judaism of old. As European Jews were attacked repeatedly and marginalized constantly, Zionist leaders began to argue that while Europe was obviously to blame, so, too, were the Jews. It was time for the Jews to refuse to be victims on call, living wherever they might call home until their host country decided to evict or murder its Jews. England evicted Jews in 1290; Spain, in 1492. And then came violent European anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, complained Zionist leaders, Jews remained passive, weak, fearful, and huddled over ancient, sacred texts instead of defending themselves and taking history into their own hands.
That, said many early Zionist thinkers, was what had to change. It would be hard to overstate the revolutionary zeal of these early Zionists. Zionism was in many ways about severing their connections to what had come before them. So desperate were the Jewish people to fashion a new kind of Jew that they even changed their names. Israel’s first four prime ministers were a case in point. David Ben-Gurion had been born David Gruen. Moshe Sharett was born Moshe Shertok; Levi Eshkol was originally Levi Shkolnik. Golda Meir (Israel’s first female prime minister) had been Golda Meyerson. Altering their names was a way of saying “no more”—it was time for a new Jewish worldview, a new Jewish physique, a new Jewish home, new Jewish names. It was time for a “new Jew,” a Jewish people reborn.
In the State of Israel, that new Jew has emerged. In fact, many forms of the new Jew have emerged. Part of what makes Israel fascinating is the ongoing conversation about what Judaism and Jews should be and become. Sometimes that conversation is polite and restrained; at other times, it erupts into heated battles on Israel’s many political fronts. All the vitriol notwithstanding, on that front Zionism succeeded—and admirably. Jews today are not the cowering, fearful Europeans of yesteryear. That Zionism succeeded in creating a new Jew is beyond doubt.
Zionism was also a revolution against the very possibility that there could be Jews who would have no place on Earth to call home. When mid-twentieth-century Europe erupted in a paroxysm of genocidal hatred, many Jews had nowhere to flee to. The United States closed its borders. So, too, did Canada. The British blocked Jews who sought to go to Palestine. Boats loaded with hundreds of Jews sailed the seas, desperately seeking a place to dock, often unsuccessfully. On occasion, ships that set sail from Europe loaded with Jews fleeing the Holocaust had to return to Europe, or were purposely sunk by enemy ships, simply because no one wanted “surplus Jews.” Zionism was determined to change that; it was committed to a world in which Jews would never again be homeless. On that front, too, the creation of Israel brought a dream to fruition.
After centuries of Jews languishing in exile, Zionism was about restoring the Jewish people to the cultural richness that a people has when it lives in its ancestral homeland, speaks its own language, charts the course of its own future. If the Jews had been scattered to what their liturgy called the “four corners of the earth,” Zionists hoped to gather them back together once again. If millennia of exile had reduced Hebrew, once spoken and vibrant, to a language used only for sacred and liturgical texts, Zionism would breathe new life into that ancient tongue. The Jewish people would produce music, art, literature, and poetry like all other peoples. There would be high culture and popular culture. Jews would live in the cities that their ancestors had known, would walk the same paths that had been home to their biblical forebears. Jewish leaders would make policy on war and peace, economics, health care, and immigration. Zionism succeeded in all that, and more. How Israel reflects this rebirth of the Jewish people is part of the story that this book tells.
Not all of Zionism’s aspirations have been realized, of course. People like Theodor Herzl and Israel Zangwill believed that the Jews would bring such progress to the Middle East that they would be welcomed by the people already living there. A Jewish state could be established, they hoped and thought, entirely without conflict. That dream, tragically, was naive. Israel has been locked in a bitter and painful conflict since even decades before it was established, a conflict that sadly shows no signs of subsiding.
Theodor Herzl, in many ways the architect of the modern State of Israel, also believed that once the Jews had a country of their own, anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere in the world would be a thing of the past. That hope, too, was naive. In some ways, Israel has actually complicated the world’s view of Jews and the condition of Jews in Europe. The rise and fall, the ebb and flow, of Israel’s stock in the international community is a critical part of Israel’s story, and this volume will examine that, as well.
Israel is a complex and dynamic place. It is a country filled with sacred places but also a secular (some would say profane) thriving bar and music scene. It is a deeply traditional society in some ways, and hypermodern in others. It is home to ultra-Orthodox Jews who shun much of modernity and one of the world’s high-tech capitals. It is home to Jews of different colors, Jews of different ethnic backgrounds, Jews who speak different languages, Jews both secular and religious—and many non-Jews, as well. Most of the many immigrants that Israel absorbed (and per capita, Israel has absorbed more immigrants than any country in the world) came from countries without a democratic tradition; yet Israel has always been a democracy, and a thriving one, at that. And though a tiny country in terms of both size and population, Israel and its story are constantly at the center of the world’s attention. It is essentially impossible to understand today’s world without understanding the Jewish state—with all its vibrancy but also its complexity.
AS MUCH AS ISRAEL has captured the world’s attention, there has been, until now, no single historically rigorous and balanced volume to tell Israel’s story to a broad audience the way that this book does. There are, to be sure, several excellent one-volume histories of Israel. But many of them are two or even three times as long as this book, if not longer, and unlikely to appeal to general readers. And while the greater length of those books affords them the opportunity to delve deeper into some of the issues only touched on here, or to discuss issues and events not addressed in these pages, that often obfuscates the overall “story” that this book tells.
Many of those books tell what happened without providing adequate explanation of why it happened or how all the various components of the story add up to a coherent whole. Yet Israel figures too centrally in world affairs for us not to understand it. So this book tells the story of the ideaof a Jewish state—where that notion originated, how it was preserved, and how the dream was transformed into reality.
As it tells the story of what happened, this book focuses especially on why things happened. Where did Jews get the idea of going to Palestine and building a country there? Why did the Zionists insist that their country had to be in Palestine, of all places? When and why did the world get behind the idea? How did people who came from mostly nondemocratic countries build a democracy that has chugged along admirably since its inception? Why do Israelis seem so hopelessly and vehemently divided on so many issues? Why have the Israeli and American Jewish communities long been so split on many critical issues? What lies in Israel’s future?
This book also recounts many of the stories that are central to how Israelis understand themselves and their country. Just as the stories of Paul Revere’s nighttime ride, George Washington against all odds crossing the frozen Delaware River, and the courageous fight to the end at the Alamo are central to the story that Americans tell about themselves, so too are the stories Israelis tell about their own history. These memories are key to understanding Israelis’ mind-set, the way they view their history, their state, and how the world sees them; so this book tells the most important of those stories, as well.
Also introduced here are the formidable, passionate, and quirky people behind all this history. In the aim of being relatively brief, though, this book covers many events in Israel’s history from a bird’s-eye view. When it comes to Israel’s wars, for example, this book focuses on why Israel was drawn into particular wars, the essentials of what transpired, and what happened to both Israel’s society and its international standing because of a specific war. There are other books that document the military exploits of each of Israel’s wars; that is not our purpose.
Some other issues remain virtually untouched. The economic history of Israel, for example, is fascinating, but with the exception of moments such as German reparations, which saved Israel economically, or Israel’s improbable high-tech boom, this book does not devote much attention to Israel’s economy. Of necessity, many events and personalities are not included in a brief history such as this.
ANY RELATIVELY BRIEF BOOK about a country as complex and fraught as Israel is, by nature, a work of interpretation. Even some seemingly “objective” facts are still the subjects of passionate disagreement, and to be sure, the motivations and intentions of key players are even more difficult to determine.
Beyond debates over facts, however, there is the larger matter of which “narrative” about Israel is the most fair. No two people would write a book of this sort in quite the same way. How much to celebrate the accomplishments, when and how to spotlight the mistakes and the disappointments, what to include and what to omit, what to assume about why certain people took the decisions and made the choices that they did, and how to put it all into a single, coherent perspective are the kinds of issues about which many readers will invariably disagree.
I have tried to be sensitive to these many positions, and at the same time, to tell the story in a way that I believe the facts support. By focusing on both the accomplishments and the missteps, the extraordinary history and the worrisome future, the well intentioned as well as the malevolent, I have sought to convey the history of Israel not as an amalgam of facts, but as a story. As in any great story, there are characters who develop and fade away, who make mistakes but also reach for greatness. The characters in this story are people, movements, political parties, states, and more. I have sought to tell the story in both as compelling and as fair a manner as I could.
Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn tells the history of a tiny country and the ancient idea from which it springs. It tells the story of a country that has long beaten the odds, but which still faces frightening—some say insurmountable—enemies and hurdles. It is the story of a people reborn, but at great cost. Israel’s story is a complicated one, both dramatic and sad. It is a wondrous and inspiring story, one that affects our world almost everywhere we turn.
Now is the time to tell the story, to understand what has transpired, and even more important, why.