Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel:

“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,

how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.”

—Exodus 19:3–4

On January 25, 1949, an aura of sanctity pervaded the new state. Israel had been independent for some eight months, and on that day, with the war essentially over, it held its first national elections.

Given that it had been two thousand years since the Jews had been sovereign, the symbolic significance of these elections was lost on no one. Rabbi Moshe Yekutiel Alpert, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, had served as the mukhtar (leader) of several Jewish communities in Jerusalem during the Mandate.

The time is 5:35 A.M. I woke up. Me, my wife and my brother R’ Shimon Leib, and my brother in-law Rabbi Netanel Saldovin and my son, Dov. After drinking our morning coffee, we dressed in our Sabbath attire in honor of this great and sacred day, “because this is the day God has made to be happy and rejoice.” (Psalms 118:24) Because after thousands of years or more of exile, that since the six days of creation, we have never been blessed with such a day, to be able to go and vote in a Jewish state. . . . “Blessed is the One who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this time.”1

Alpert finished his coffee, and armed with his Israeli identity card, set out to the polls, which opened at six A.M. “The entire way I marched along as if it was [the holiday of] Simchat Torah,* as if I was carrying the Torah scroll in my arms and doing hakafos, simply because my Israeli identification card was in my hands. There were no limits to the happiness and joy I felt that very morning.”

The first to arrive, Alpert waited just minutes before being handed a card, on which, along with his name, was stamped the number “1.”

And then I experienced the holiest moment in my life, a moment that my father and grandfather were not privileged to experience. Only I, in my lifetime, was privileged to be at such a holy and pure moment. “Happy and blessed am I, happy and blessed is my portion!” I made the shehecheyanublessing and I deposited the envelope in the ballot box.2

Only after he voted did Rabbi Alpert, who normally began his day with his morning prayers, return home to recite them.

Alpert was hardly alone in his enthusiasm. Tel Aviv was mobbed, but the crowds were patient. Police and ambulances who had been sent to one of the city’s central traffic hubs reported that they had nothing to do.3 In Netanya, as people waited in lines for the polls to open, they spontaneously began to sing “Hatikvah,” once the anthem of the Zionist movement and now the anthem of the Jewish state.

The 440,095 people who turned out to vote represented nearly 87 percent of those eligible. When the results were announced several days later, few were surprised that David Ben-Gurion’s party, Mapai, had received 36 percent of the vote, giving them 46 out of the 120 seats of the Israeli Constituent Assembly, which a few weeks later became the Knesset, or parliament.*

The coalition in Israel’s first Knesset was a broad-based one, including religious and secular, Jews and Arabs. It was composed of forty-six members of Mapai, two Arab members representing the Democratic List of Nazareth, sixteen members of the United Religious Front, five members of the Progressive Party, and four Sephardi List members. David Ben-Gurion—as head of the largest party—became prime minister and also assumed the role of minister of defense.* Ben-Gurion refused, in no uncertain terms, to include either the Communists or Menachem Begin’s Herut(“Freedom”) Party in the coalition; both, he felt, would undermine the very values of the newly born state.

Israel’s founders knew well that they owed everything to a man who had not lived to see the momentous accomplishment. So several months later, on August 17, 1949, Theodor Herzl’s remains were moved to Israel, to what is now the national cemetery named Mount Herzl. Thousands of people followed a procession of sixty-four vehicles on the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which was lined with even more people. The procession’s first stop was Mikveh Israel, where Herzl had first met with Kaiser Wilhelm in 1898. It then advanced to Rishon LeZion, where Herzl had spent his first night on the only visit he made to Palestine. Over the course of the journey to the capital, two hundred thousand—one-quarter of the country’s inhabitants—came to pay their respects.4 When the coffin finally lay in state in Jerusalem, some twenty thousand people lined up to walk past it. The entire cabinet and all members of the Knesset were present, as were some six thousand people who had been invited to attend. Herzl’s casket was then covered with 380 small blue and white sacks filled with soil from settlements across the Land of Israel.5 Herzl was then laid to rest on a hilltop in the capital of a newly founded state that was the product of his vision, for which he had given his life.

THE NEW NATION NEEDED a flag. Decades earlier, Herzl had written in The Jewish State, “I would suggest a white flag, with seven golden stars. The white field symbolizes our pure new life; the stars are the seven golden hours of our working-day.”6 On that score, Herzl did not get his way. In October 1948 the State of Israel adopted the flag that had represented the Zionist movement since the 1890s. A white background with a light-blue Jewish star in the center between two horizontal light-blue stripes, the flag was designed to evoke the image of the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. There were limits even to the hypersecularism of the new state.

The Knesset met for the first time on February 14, 1949. As the parliament did not yet have a permanent home, it met in the Jewish Agency building in downtown Jerusalem. Its first matter of business was appointing the country’s president, Chaim Weizmann, who three decades earlier had been instrumental in convincing Lord Balfour to issue the Balfour Declaration. Though Israel’s presidency is a largely honorific position, Weizmann’s personal history brought gravitas to the office, and once elected, he rose to address the plenum.

Half a century earlier, in The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl had seen the renewal of a Jewish home as a model for people everywhere. “Whatever we attempt to accomplish there for our own welfare,” he wrote then, “will have its powerful effect, promoting the happiness and wellbeing of all Mankind.”7 Now, at the dawning of the state that Herzl had envisioned, Weizmann said something very similar; what the Jews had just accomplished, he hoped, would inspire other oppressed peoples around the world.

Today we stand on the threshold of a new era. We leave the dawn light of provisional authority and enter the full sunshine of ordinary democratic rule. . . . Let us not be over-arrogant if we say that this is a great day in the history of the world. In this hour a message of hope and good cheer goes forth from this place in the Sacred City to all oppressed people and to all who are struggling for freedom and equality.8

Weizmann then turned his attention to the “tens of thousands of our brethren from countries near and far who are entering the gates of the country which stand wide open to receive them.”9 He continued, “It is our whole prayer that this gathering of exiles will increase and embrace an ever-larger multitude of our people who will strike roots here and work side by side with us in building the state and making our unproductive places fruitful again.”10

A year later, on July 5, 1950, the Knesset enacted one of the most symbolic laws Israel would ever pass. It created the Law of Return, giving every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel. Another law then granted these immigrants full citizenship immediately upon arrival. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Robert Frost wrote in his poem “The Death of the Hired Man,”11 and for the Jewish people, the Jewish state was now that home. No longer would there be thousands of Jews in displaced persons camps in Europe with no one willing to take them in. Never again would ships loaded with Jews desperately seeking a place to live traverse the oceans. With the Law of Return, the era of the homeless, wandering Jew came to an end.

In the 1939 White Paper, the British had succumbed to Arab pressure and had essentially ended Jewish immigration; by outlawing the immigration that was necessary for the state to arise, the White Paper had for all intents and purposes revoked the Balfour Declaration. Now, by stating that there would be no limits on Jewish immigration to the State of Israel, the Law of Return was upending the British White Paper of 1939.

The Law of Return was also a symbolic overturning of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws; the Nazis had defined as Jewish anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, and the Law of Return used the same definition.* “If you were Jewish enough for the Nazis to seek to kill you,” the Knesset essentially said, “you are Jewish enough to be taken in and protected by the State of Israel.”

Jews began to migrate to the newly created state in unprecedented numbers. Between independence on May 15, 1948, and the end of 1951, no less than 686,739 Jews arrived in Israel. They hailed from seventy different countries and constituted, relative to the size of the population they were joining, the largest single migration of the twentieth century. It was, by any measure, one of the most extraordinary absorptions of immigrants in modern history:

100,000 new immigrants had arrived during the war, more than in any previous year. This was the first hint of what would happen later. In the first forty-two months of the state’s existence, the average monthly number of new immigrants reached some 16,000. All in all 690,000 immigrants arrived in Israel, and within three years the Jewish population doubled. The vast scope of this immigration relative to the size of the host population [was] unheard of in any immigrant country.12

Israel would continue to be a country built by waves of immigration.* In 1948, merely 6 percent of the world’s Jews lived in Israel; by 2015, that number had grown to some 46 percent, or almost half of the world’s Jews.

Many of them came from Arab countries in North Africa. In 1948, when its Jewish population stood at approximately 75,000, Egypt began arresting Jews and confiscating their property. Cairo’s Jewish Quarter was bombed. Jews left. In 1956, Egypt evicted another 25,000 of its Jews. Another wave of persecution in 1967 led to more emigration, and Egypt’s Jewish population dropped to 2,500. By the 1970s, just a few hundred remained.

Libya was home to some 38,000 Jews in 1948. After pogroms by the Nazis, who had taken over Benghazi, and then by the local population after the Nazis left, 30,000 Jews fled, most of them in 1949. Even more decided to leave, worried about what lay ahead, after Libya became independent in 1951. In 1967, when Jews were subjected to pogroms again after the Six-Day War, virtually all the remaining Jews left.

Morocco had a Jewish population of 265,000 in 1948. With Israel’s independence came riots and economic boycotts of Jews. By 1958, 65,000 Jews had left. In 1963, another 100,000 Jews were forced out of their homes. By 1968, only about 50,000 Jews remained. Similar stories unfolded in Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Some Jewish communities in Arab countries essentially ceased to exist; of the Jewish communities of Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, some 90 percent left within a decade of Israel’s founding.13 Between 1948 and 1951, a period of merely three years, over 37 percent of the Jews from Islamic countries immigrated to Israel.14

Even in non-Arab lands, similar patterns unfolded. Almost all the Jews of Bulgaria moved to Israel, and after the fall of Communism in 1991, nearly all the Jews of Albania did the same.

While arriving in Israel was no longer a problem for Jews, leaving their host countries was in some cases becoming increasingly problematic. The Iraqi government decided to let Jews leave, but only if they agreed to waive their citizenship. Most had estimated that between 10,000 and 40,000 Jews would leave. But they were shocked and embarrassed when more than 120,000—almost 90 percent of the entire Iraqi Jewish population—migrated. When the Iraqi government began to take note, they froze Jews’ assets and began (in 1951) to prohibit Jewish families from taking their wealth with them. Almost overnight, they turned a previously affluent cohort of Iraqi society into a virtually penniless segment of Israel’s new population.

To complete the immigration, which was becoming ever more dangerous for Iraq’s Jews, Israel launched “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah”—named for the leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community who had led the return of Jews to Judea under Cyrus some twenty-five hundred years earlier. So eager was the Israeli government for Iraqi Jews to immigrate that the chief rabbinate—in violation of standard Jewish religious practice—allowed planes carrying the immigrants to fly on the Sabbath.

Ben-Gurion was keenly aware that the new country faced overwhelming financial challenges, but in a few areas, he was unwilling to let finances govern policy. One of those was immigration. Only massive immigration would give Israel the human capital it needed to survive, he knew, and he was committed to taking in Jews—wherever they might be coming from—without regard for what financial burden even an enormous immigration might impose on Israel. When Levi Eshkol, then the treasurer of the Jewish Agency (later to become Israel’s third prime minister) expressed concern about the massive Iraqi immigration, saying, “We don’t even have tents. If they come, they’ll have to live in the street,”15 Ben-Gurion remained adamant. Israel would take in every Jew who wanted to immigrate to Israel.

That passionate commitment to immigration led to operations of epic proportions. One was “Operation Magic Carpet,” in which the entire Yemenite Jewish community was flown to Israel between June 1949 and September 1950.* Yemenite Jews made their arduous way to prearranged collection points where DC-4 Skymaster planes, hired from Alaska Airways, flew them to Israel.16 Israeli medical staff awaited them at the collection points to prepare the immigrants-to-be for their journey to Israel. In a massive airlift, Israel flew 45,640 people in transport planes from which the seats had been removed, enabling each plane to carry some 500 to 600 people on each flight. An additional 3,275 Jews were flown in from the seaport city, Aden, by the Red Sea. Golda Meir would later recall,

Sometimes I used to go to Lydda and watch the planes from Aden touch down, marveling at the endurance and faith of their exhausted passengers. “Had you ever seen a plane before?” I asked one bearded old man. “No,” he answered. “But weren’t you very frightened of flying?” I persisted. “No,” he said again, very firmly. “It is all written in the Bible, in Isaiah, ‘They shall mount up with wings of eagles.’”* And standing there on the airfield, he recited the entire passage to me, his face lit with the joy of a fulfilled prophecy—and of the journey’s end.17

Many of the immigrants arrived needing urgent medical care; three thousand children from Yemen arrived in grave condition.18 Hundreds lost their lives en route.

The Israel to which these immigrants came had virtually no immigrant housing prepared for the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals. It had almost no money with which to provide food, medical care, employment, and other basic needs to the immigrants. It is impossible to understand the politics of the State of Israel in the decades that followed—including the eventual demise of Ben-Gurion’s party’s hegemony in the years to come—without appreciating the resentment of the prime minister and his autocratic nature that began to simmer in these early years.

At first, immigrants were housed in temporary camps, but conditions in them quickly became almost intolerable. The director of one such camp near Haifa, heartbroken that Israel was unable to do better, described the lives of these new immigrants:

The immigrants were locked in, surrounded by barbed wire fences, and guarded by armed police. At different periods the crowding in the wood and stone huts left by the British Army reached brutal levels. Three times a day they stood in long lines for their food ration. The lines wound for kilometers around the medical and customs services. On more than one occasion, the immigrants had to wait for hours for their turn in the bathhouses, while the latrines overflowed. There was not always sufficient water in the camp, there were frequent power cuts, and at night, the camp was in total darkness.19

Desperate to improve the conditions, the government began the construction of permanent housing in 1950. But Israel was a state with enormous challenges on many fronts, and construction lagged behind schedule. So Israel developed ma’abarot (“transit camps”), designed to alleviate the terrible conditions of the immigrant camps and to serve as temporary dwelling places until “real” housing was available.

Soon, though, conditions in the ma’abarot were just as bad as they had been in the immigrant camps, and for many immigrants, the ma’abarot became permanent housing. In the years to come, some of the ma’abarot morphed into small cities, and often, into Israel’s poorest cities. As most of the residents of the ma’abarot were Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews, these camps created a groundswell of resentment that would fester for decades. That resentment and the growing number of Mizrachim would eventually make them a powerful political force with which the Labor Party would have to reckon.

Even with limited resources, another issue to which Ben-Gurion was deeply committed was free childhood education. Long the foundation of Jewish community life, education had been a focus of the early Zionist congresses. The Yishuv had built dozens of educational institutions, and if the new state was to thrive, education was going to have to continue to play a major role. In 1949, the Knesset enacted the Compulsory Education Law, one of its first laws, which called for free education for all children between the ages of five and thirteen. The state adopted the three existing parallel systems for Jewish children—a general school system, a politically socialist school system (which was abandoned shortly later), and a religious Zionist school system. A school system for the ultra-Orthodox community was established and the state took responsibility for the already existing Arab education system.

Prior to 1948, schools for Arab children had been run through the British government for public schools and through a variety of religious institutions for private schools. Even as late as 1948, however, only 30 percent of Arab children were enrolled, most of them in elementary school; there were only ten Arab high schools. Israel changed that situation entirely when it applied the Free Compulsory Education Law to Arab children as well.20

DECADES EARLIER, THE OFTEN-PRESCIENT Herzl had written that “if the Jews should indeed return home, the next day they would discover that for many years they have not belonged together. They have been rooted for centuries in their homelands, nationalized, different from each other.”21 He was right. In ways that would color Israel’s emerging society and its politics for decades, the massive and unprecedented flow of immigration created cultural clashes as well.

Some of these became evident even before the new immigrants landed on Israeli soil. On one transit ship, the Pam Crescent, the Hungarian girls frequently sunbathed in their bikinis to the shock and dismay of Moroccan men who came from communities where women were never so exposed.

Even those arriving from the Middle East—and grouped together under the terms “Mizrachim”—were actually very different from each other. As one historian notes:

From Iraq, the professional and educated elite departed. From Kurdistan, virtually all the immigrants were illiterate. In Egypt, Jews considered themselves to be part of the “European” community. They were both the mainstay of the business elite and the founders of the Communist party. In Yemen, they were artisans and peddlers who embraced Zion with a messianic expectation.22

Different though they were in many respects, these Jews often encountered a widespread condescending worldview on the part of the European immigrants who had been part of the previous major aliyot, who had developed the Yishuv and who were now running the country. The issue was not racism—it had nothing to do with skin color. It was a matter of cultural elitism, a genuine belief that European culture was the more developed of the cultures, and that it would be best for the newborn country if that elite culture would be the one that was taught to all.

It did not help, of course, that most of the Mizrachi immigrants had brought meager financial resources to the fledgling state. Some had long been poor in their countries of origin, while others had been stripped of their wealth by the countries that expelled them. Even when they did manage to arrive with some assets, the state often assumed that immigrants from North African countries or Iraq were destitute.

Ben-Gurion, the great advocate of Jewish immigration, was no exception to this elitist tendency, and wrote

The dispersions that are being terminated [that is, entire communities, such as the Bulgarian and Iraqi Jews, that were liquidated through immigration to Israel] and which are gathering in Israel still do not constitute a people, but a motley crowd, human dust lacking language, education, roots, tradition or national dreams. . . . Turning this human dust into a civilized, independent nation with a vision . . . is no easy task, and its difficulties are no less than those of economic absorption.23

Determined to make the state as culturally advanced as it could possibly be, Ben-Gurion went so far as to suggest segregating schools and educating Mizrachi and Ashkenazi children separately, worrying that Israel would become “Levantine” and “descend” to be “like the Arabs.”24

To avoid having Ashkenazi children “descend” to the level of Mizrachim, many new communities had an unwritten rule of segregation. New residents to these forming communities had to be approved, and not surprisingly, many of the new Mizrachi immigrants were denied a place. They were simply told that they were “not attuned to the community.”25

This dimension of Israel’s early years, aside from sowing the seeds of later political seismic shifts, was recognized by many even in the Ashkenazi world as far from Israel’s finest moment. Leading Ashkenazim in the entertainment world understood that Israel, though admittedly beset by numerous financial and other challenges, was not living up to its vision of how it would treat incoming Jews. Perhaps the best-known treatment of this issue in popular Israeli culture was the 1964 Israeli film Sallah Shabati, directed by the satirist Efraim Kishon (himself an immigrant from Hungary and a survivor of the Holocaust, including the Sobibor concentration camp). The film, interestingly, was the first from Israel to garner international recognition and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Sallah Shabati is the name of the main character of the story (though his name, ostensibly a Mizrachi name, was also a play on the words for selichah she-bati, or “forgive me for coming”), who upon arrival in Israel is tossed into a transit camp. Mired in challenging living conditions and subject to a dismissive European culture he does not understand, Sallah Shabati struggles to make sense of his new life in the Jewish state. The movie traces his often-hilarious attempts to both earn a living and to restore the sense of dignity he had had in his native country (presumably Yemen, as Sallah Shabati is meant to sound like a Yemenite name).

It was precisely because Sallah Shabati struck such a powerful nerve that it became such a success. Its skewering of the kibbutzim for not being more open to immigrants aroused the resentment of kibbutz members—but probably because they recognized themselves in its portrayal. Sallah Shabati was, even more important, a reminder to Israelis that getting Jews to Israel was only the state’s first step in living up to its obligations to these people who now made the Jewish state their home.

THE MASSIVE IMMIGRATION PRESENTED Ben-Gurion with the challenge of forging a state out of such different masses of people. He grew determined to impress on Jews of all backgrounds not only the state’s political authority, but its moral and cultural centrality as well. In his mind, it was imperative that everyone and everything be subordinate to the newly formed state. “A state is more than a formal entity, framework, regime, international status, sovereignty, or army,” he said. “The state does not exist unless it has been internalized inside people’s hearts, souls, and consciousness. A state is mental awareness, a sense of responsibility . . . [that connects] all the people, the citizens of the state.”26 He even created a term for what he was trying to create: mamlachtiyut. There is no adequate English translation of the term, but “statism” or “state consciousness” comes closest.

It was in the realm of mamlachtiyut—his absolute determination to build a national culture with the state at its core—that Ben-Gurion’s genius as well as his tendencies to the autocratic were most on display. With astonishing determination and wisdom, Ben-Gurion led the charge to build the state’s institutions and culture. The Histadrut, which he had helped lead decades earlier, became a powerhouse, responsible for workers’ rights, education, health care, some banking, and more. To many workers, the Histadrut was the way that Ben-Gurion’s government cared for them. As one laborer noted years later, “Just as the religious believe that God protects them, I knew that the Histadrut was taking care of me.”27

At the same time, so determined was the new prime minister to build the new state, so convinced was he that only he could do it, that many other considerations became secondary. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, for example, had stipulated that the Knesset would ratify a constitution by October 1, 1948. But Ben-Gurion also understood that a constitution might well create a judiciary that could strike down laws, would entrench the electoral system of proportional representation that made it impossible for a party to win a majority, and could, in myriad ways, curtail the powers of the prime minister.* For the long run, he favored a role for the prime minister that would be governed by standard democratic limits, but for the time being, he felt that he needed the broad powers that not defining his role allowed him.* So he delayed the adoption of a constitution—a document that to this day Israel has never ratified.

Worried that the Palmach, the Yishuv’s most elite military unit, was too linked to the political Left and determined to create an apolitical military whose sole loyalty would be to the state, Ben-Gurion dismantled the Palmach in September 1948—to the great dismay of many, who felt he had undone one of the great institutions of the Yishuv.

For all intents and purposes, Ben-Gurion also banned television and he refused to allow the establishment of a government TV station. Even when Yigal Yadin, who had been a senior officer in the Haganah and was now the IDF’s chief of staff, claimed that television could help immigrants as an educational and unifying medium, Ben-Gurion refused to back down. He claimed that television’s lowbrow culture would be terrible for society as a whole.* The government also controlled the airwaves. The two bodies that governed radio broadcasting—the Broadcasting Authority and the army radio station—were both under the aegis of the government.

There was a vibrant press, but even there, Ben-Gurion exerted pressure. Ben-Gurion made clear to the press that if they cooperated with the government, they would get information that they could not find elsewhere, sometimes from the prime minister himself.28 The press was often merciless in attacking Ben-Gurion; that tradition of skewering the political echelon persists to the present. Ben-Gurion, in turn, sought to use what power he had to try to shape how certain issues were reported.

No issue better illustrates the perception of Ben-Gurion’s heavy-handed commitment to mamlachtiyut than the accusation—never proven but passionately believed by many in the Yemenite community—that the government took babies born to Yemenite mothers shortly after their arrival in Israel between 1949 and 1952, when they were living in ma’abarot, and gave them to Ashkenazi families.29 Over time, the government established three commissions to investigate the charges and concluded that there were no cases where this had clearly happened. As late as 2001, a government commission looked into over 800 cases of missing infants and concluded that 750 of the children had died. The other 56 of them remain a mystery.30 Many Israelis, including Yemenite families, remain convinced that their children were stolen and given to families of higher socioeconomic standing for the “children’s benefit.” Whatever the case, the mere accusation is a reflection of how life felt to those who became Israel’s underclass in the country’s trying early years.

Ben-Gurion’s focus on mamlachtiyut clearly led to excesses, and Israeli society has been grappling with the implications of many of those policies ever since. Yet Ben-Gurion also faced enormous challenges. He had founded a state and now had to build a country out of new citizens who had long seen governments as entities that one evaded, deceived, and cheated. That was certainly true of the Middle Eastern Jews who came to Israel, and even those from Europe had come to Palestine and then to Israel with no love for the governments they were escaping. Life under the British during the Mandate had imbued the Jews of the Yishuv with much the same sentiment. Fashioning a coherent, stable, and unified society and democracy out of that variegated human raw material was not going to be easy, and Ben-Gurion understood that. There were excesses, but there was also vision and great genius. Given all the trials Israeli society was yet to face, it is quite possible that it was precisely Ben-Gurion’s sometimes heavy-handed determination to create a society with a devotion to state and government at the center that enabled a fledgling Israel to survive.

ANOTHER POPULATION THAT PRESENTED Ben-Gurion with significant challenges was the religious community. In the early years of political Zionism, long before the state was established, Europe’s ultra-Orthodox Jews had refused to participate in the movement to create it. Theologically, some of their leaders argued that Zionism was forcing God’s hand; faithful Jews should wait for God to end the exile, rather than trying to end it (by returning to Palestine) on their own. Others saw in Zionism’s overt secularism an outright abomination. These Jews, who call themselves Haredim,*also created a political party, which was vehemently opposed to anything that smacked of Zionism. They expelled dissidents, often dividing families in the process. Leaving for Palestine, its leaders said, was utterly forbidden and a violation of everything Judaism stood for.

It was Hitler who changed that. By the end of the Holocaust, many Haredi communities had been destroyed, some literally without a trace. Hundreds of thousands of Haredi Jews had been murdered, gassed, and burned. Though they found the Yishuv’s hypersecularism misguided, even abhorrent, the Haredim could no longer deny that the Zionists had been right about Europe.

So their stance regarding Zionism began to soften, and they moved from a vehement anti-Zionism to an ambivalent non-Zionism. They continued to rail against Zionism’s secularism, comparing Mapai to the Hellenized Jews of the Greek period. And Ben-Gurion, they were convinced, was intent on waging ideological war against them. If they did not push back, the state would educate their children in mainstream Zionism’s nonreligious (actually antireligious) tradition and would pressure them to change their way of life.

Grudgingly, they entered Israeli politics. They signed the Declaration of Independence. Once the state was established, they would have preferred to stay apart from the state’s institutions, but doing so would have precluded them from having a role in shaping Israel’s policies and character. Gradually, they became increasingly involved in Israel’s political process.

Ben-Gurion, for his part, did not have a long-term plan for how to handle the Haredim, for he was convinced that their ultra-Orthodox way of life was but a vestige of European Jewish life that would soon disappear. He did not need yet another battle on his hands, and so—not terribly concerned about their long-term role in Israeli politics—he agreed to maintain the status quo on matters of religion to which he had agreed in 1947. The Sabbath would be a public day of rest, government and army kitchens would be kosher, religious law would govern matters of personal status such as marriage, divorce, and conversion, and the religious communities would maintain their autonomy in matters of education.

Politics made for very strange bedfellows. Because Ben-Gurion was deeply suspicious of the political Left and the Communists—and refused to even consider including Menachem Begin’s Herut Party in the coalition—he had little choice but to include the third-largest party, the United Religious Front, which was actually an amalgam of two religious Zionist parties and two religious non-Zionist parties. The Haredim used their leverage (by leaving the coalition, they could bring the government down and theoretically force new elections) to establish an independent school system (in which students were taught virtually no non-religious subjects) and to procure an exemption from military service for their sons so that the young men could continue studying in yeshivot and be spared exposure to the secular Jews they would undoubtedly encounter during military service.

Ben-Gurion was wrong about the Haredim disappearing. Their numbers ultimately grew dramatically, and they now constitute a massive economic and political force in Israel. They exert significant political pressure on governments both left and right, while still refusing (with rare exception) to have their members serve as ministers so as to prevent them from giving tacit approval to government decisions that go against Jewish law.

It was in the matter of exemptions from military service where the folly of Ben-Gurion’s decision was most apparent. Whereas in Ben-Gurion’s time, 400 exemptions from military service were given each year, by 2010, the number of Haredim excused from military service through the same arrangement would reach 62,500 annually—an increase of 15,000 percent, when Israel’s population had grown only 1,200 percent in the same period.31

AFTER THE WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, the Arab population of Israel numbered 156,000, about 20 percent of the country’s total population. Most lived in the Negev (those were largely the Bedouin) and in the Galilee, in an area known as the “Little Triangle” (which had been transferred to Israel by Jordan as part of the armistice agreement). Poorly organized as they had been under the Ottomans and the British, they had had no effective leadership. To make matters worse, whatever leadership they did have between the early 1920s to the late 1940s had fled abroad, leaving behind those who were, on balance, poorer, less educated, and less capable of playing leadership roles. That flight of Palestine’s Arab leadership would shape the plight of Israel’s Arabs for decades to come.

Israel’s Arabs posed a significant challenge for Israel. The Declaration of Independence, of course, had promised “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions,” and there is little doubt that Ben-Gurion was committed to that ideal. At the same time, Israel’s leaders recognized that it was only accidents of history—who had fled and who had not—that determined who was now a Palestinian refugee residing in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and who was an Israeli citizen living inside the borders of the newborn state. For that reason, Israel’s Arabs had never been drafted into the army. In 1954, the government decided to draft Arabs, and after the decision was reported in the press, some sixty thousand Arabs volunteered to join the IDF.32 In the end, though, the country got cold feet. Would Israeli Arabs really go to war against armies on the other side of the line that included—quite literally—members of their own family? The government therefore never drafted Israeli Arabs in large numbers. With time, the reasons for why shifted. In the early years of the state, the Jewish majority was worried about their loyalty. Decades later, very few Arabs even wished to serve.

The worry about Israel’s Arab population and its loyalty to the new state had much more far-reaching consequences than the military draft. Much of Israel’s leadership was understandably worried that the Arabs inside Israel were no less hostile to the new state than were those who had fled it and who now lived in enemy countries. Could they be trusted? Were they already, or might they become, a fifth column and undermine Israel’s security? Ben-Gurion was convinced to impose a military government on Israel’s Arabs. It was an ironic decision, given that the military government Israel imposed was based on the British Mandate Defense Laws that had been used against the Yishuv. Under the military government, Israel’s Arabs were tried by military courts and their freedom of movement was restricted (they had to obtain permission to leave their villages), opportunities for higher education were de facto severely limited, and employment in the center of the country was difficult to find. Even elementary education was affected; under the military administration, the security services determined who could teach in Arab schools, and not always on the basis of their pedagogical skills.33 With the exception of the Communist Party, Arabs were for the most part not included in Jewish political parties.34

As Israel became more secure and less worried about an internal fifth column, many Israeli leaders—including Menachem Begin, whom Ben-Gurion was still portraying as a fascist—insisted that given Israel’s commitment to democracy, the time had come to end the military administration that then governed Israel’s Arabs. Years later, in 1966, under Levi Eshkol’s much softer premiership, Israel abolished the system.*

The military administration over Israel’s Arabs was a response to a very real challenge. Yet it had a long-term effect on Israel’s Arabs and their attitude to the state, and would thus color Israel’s politics and policies for decades.

SURPRISINGLY, AT LEAST TO Ben-Gurion, there was one major Jewish community virtually unaffected by the veritable miracle of the fulfillment of the ancient vision of the “ingathering of the exiles.”* As hundreds of thousands of Jews were streaming to Israel from Europe and Arab countries from which they had been banished, fewer than two thousand came from the United States, which had a Jewish population of over five million.

Ben-Gurion, an ideologue to the very core, was disgusted. Years after Israel’s creation, Ben-Gurion recalled with some bitterness, “For hundreds of years, a question-prayer hovered in the mouths of the Jewish people: would a country be found for this people? No one imagined the frightening question: would a people be found for the country when it would be created?”35 Jews in dangerous places or in places where they could not stay came to Israel. Those who were comfortable did not come.

While Ben-Gurion compared American Jews to the Jews of Babylonia who preferred to stay in exile after King Cyrus had permitted them to leave, American Jews did not think of themselves as being in exile. Rather, they claimed that after two thousand years of not living in Zion, dispersion was now a normal dimension of Jewish life. Why did Ben-Gurion believe that they had some obligation to uproot themselves from a secure, increasingly prosperous existence and move to a country that was barely surviving?

In fact, precisely because they did not believe that they were in exile, despite the fervent support among many American Jews for the budding state, some leading American Jews had actually been opposed to the idea of the creation of a Jewish state. The American Council for Judaism, then a national American Jewish organization, existed primarily to argue against the creation of the state; it not only engaged in virulent anti-Zionist propaganda, but also helped Arab spokespeople prepare their speeches at the United Nations when the decision on partition was pending.

Most Jewish groups, though, did not go that far, even if they shared some ambivalence about what statehood would do to Judaism and to the position of American Jews. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), perhaps the most important and powerful American Jewish communal institution at the time, did not reject the idea of a Jewish state and would certainly not act against it—but neither was it willing to grant to Israel the role of the center of the Jewish world. Even Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, told his membership that when the AJC agreed to support the 1947 partition plan, that was largely because a Jewish state would solve a demographic problem. “We had cooperated” in the approval of partition, he said, “in the conviction that [a Jewish state] was the only practicable solution for some hundreds of thousands of the surviving Jews of Europe.”36 Ben-Gurion saw Israel as a rebirth of Jewish peoplehood; many of American Judaism’s leaders either opposed the idea of a Jewish state, or saw it as merely a solution to the challenge of resettling Europe’s homeless Jews.

Indeed, no lesser a figure than Albert Einstein, as close as one could get to Jewish royalty in the United States, told celebrants at a Passover Seder before World War II, “My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power.” History had changed the Jew, he felt. “I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain—especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our ranks. We are no longer the Jews of the Maccabee period.”37 Even Israel’s creation changed his view only marginally. “I have never considered the idea of a state a good one, for economic, political and military reasons,” he told a friend. “But now, there is no going back, and one has to fight it out.”38 It was hardly an inspiring endorsement.

After the state was created, Blaustein made clear to Ben-Gurion that the leadership of the American Jewish community would not tolerate Israel overstepping its bounds. In a major position paper, he wrote:

American Jews—young and old alike—Zionists and non-Zionists alike—are profoundly attached to this, their country. America welcomed our immigrant parents in their need. Under America’s free institutions, they and their children have achieved that freedom and sense of security unknown for long centuries of travail. We have truly become Americans, just as have all other oppressed groups that have ever come to these shores.

We repudiate vigorously the suggestion that American Jews are in exile. The future of American Jewry, of our children and our children’s children, is entirely linked with the future of America. We have no alternative; and we want no alternative.39

Since America was not exile, Blaustein warned Israel, pleas to American Jews to immigrate to the Jewish state were both misplaced and bound to fail. As for Ben-Gurion’s claim (and that of many of Israel’s leaders) that Israel was now the center of the Jewish world or the spokesman for Jews everywhere, Blaustein was equally direct:

[T]here can be no single spokesman for world Jewry no matter who that spokesman might try to be.40

Blaustein’s statement was a direct attack on many of the assumptions of both the Zionist movement and many of Zionism’s leaders. Ever since the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Zionists had seen themselves as the central address for the world’s Jews. As the Nazis had eradicated Polish Jewry, American Jews were now the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world—and they were warning Israel to back off that sentiment. As for immigration, Blaustein was equally clear: the Jews who would move to Israel would be mostly those who had nowhere else to go. Most American Jews were unlikely to budge.

In many respects, despite a shift in rhetoric, not much has changed. American Jews have never moved to Israel in significant numbers, and the disproportionate majority of those who did make aliyah were from the Orthodox community, which comprised about 10 percent of American Jews. Ninety percent of America’s Jewish community has never produced any statistically significant immigration to Israel.

American Jewish attitudes to Israel did warm considerably in the late 1960s (after the Six-Day War) and the early 1970s, and commitment to Israel became one of the pillars of American Jewish identity. With time, however, Israel’s role as a centerpiece of Jewish identity in the United States began to wane. The rise of Palestinian nationalism, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, and American Jewish concern over Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank would later erode some of that enthusiasm. The phenomenon that so distressed Ben-Gurion in the state’s early years would persist for generations to come.

HIS DISAPPOINTMENT IN AMERICAN Jews notwithstanding, Ben-Gurion presided over a project of immigrant absorption of unprecedented proportions. Never in human history had such a small population absorbed so many immigrants so successfully. The ma’abarot were built, but eventually dismantled. With time, Mizrachim began to assert themselves and made their way into the center of Israeli culture and political power. Military administrative rule over Israeli Arabs was ended. And out of the motley mass of Jews from all across the globe, many indigent and illiterate, Ben-Gurion built a state and a society. Nothing was more astounding than the numbers of immigrants relative to the population—“unheard of in any immigrant country”—and the fact that a new democracy had been forged out of immigrants who came mostly from nondemocratic countries. Of the many states created after World War II, Israel is among the very few that has remained democratic to its core.41

Life in Israel would remain complicated and dangerous for many decades, but most Israelis continued to believe that, whatever the challenges, they were part of a project so surprisingly successful that it seemed—even to many secularists—almost cosmically extraordinary. Nor would they lose sight of the fact that their state might never have come into being were it not for the uniquely talented and visionary leader the country had in David Ben-Gurion, not only its first prime minister, but in more ways than could be counted, the man who against all odds had turned Herzl’s dream into a state.

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