David Ben-Gurion publicly pronounces the Declaration of the State of Israel in Tel Aviv. He stands beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art building on Rothshild St, May 14 1948.
Rudi Weissenstein / Wikimedia Commons

LESS than three years have elapsed since the state of Israel proclaimed its independence at the termination of the British Mandatory régime. Within the brief period of its national life, events have unfolded with a speed and intensity rarely equalled in the history of political institutions. Israel is still beset by all the preoccupations which attended its struggle for birth; but each of its three infant years has seen a marked shift in the primary center of its concern. The year 1948 was characterized by a struggle for sheer physical survival. Military experts had not placed a high estimate on the ability of Palestine Jewry to organize its defense against a combined and simultaneous onslaught by all the neighboring states; and these doubts were not resolved until the end of the year, when Israel's improvised forces passed from tactical defense to a victorious counter-offensive and swept the entire southern desert clear of hostile forces.

In 1949, with physical survival assured, the central theme became the struggle for international recognition. Surrounded on all its land frontiers by unreconciled Arab states, Israel was driven to compensate for its regional isolation by an attempt to establish strong links with more distant countries and to achieve a secure status in the organized world community. Membership in the United Nations was of particular importance to a state whose very right to exist was fiercely challenged by its neighbors and whose most vital interests were still to be the subject of international deliberation and judgment.

By the end of 1949, a tolerable stability had been won both in military defense and in political status. Between February and August of that year, Israel had concluded armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. These agreements established demarcation lines which not only separated the armed forces of the contending states, but also marked the clearly defined limits of their civil jurisdiction and thus assumed the character of political frontiers. According to their own provisions (ratified by the Security Council in August 1949) the armistice agreements could be superseded only by new accords based on the mutual consent of the signatory governments. The armistice lines thus rested both on bilateral obligations and on international authority. Behind them, the people of Israel were free to organize their society and to reach out toward the ideals which had inspired their arduous struggle for independence. The absence of clear-cut solutions for basic political problems no longer impeded the progress of the state or affected the increasingly tranquil routines of its daily life.

II

The dominant feature of Israel's life today is a rapid increase of population. When independence was proclaimed in May 1948, Palestine Jewry numbered 650,000. Within the ensuing two and a half years more than 500,000 Jewish immigrants have entered the country; and it is estimated that a further 600,000 will come during the next three years. Thus by 1954 this small country, beset by powerful adversaries, will have tripled its population in five years of intensive growth. This increase of population, coming at a time when most other migration movements in the world have spent their force, is considerable enough in its absolute dimensions. It is even more spectacular relatively; for the volume of new immigration will shortly exceed the size of the established community into which it has flowed. At the height of open-door immigration into the United States the population of that country never increased by more than 3 percent in any single year. Israel, with smaller area and more limited resources, will have achieved a threefold increase by immigration within five years. If this process is successfully accomplished, new and instructive lessons will have to be deduced concerning the absorptive capacity of small areas and the resilience of a political system which can bear the strain and shock of such rapid expansion.

The immigration of Jews to Israel derives its momentum both from negative forces operating against Jewish life in certain countries and from a power of attraction latent within Israel itself. The external factors which determine the pace and volume of this movement are to be found in those countries of Europe and the Arabic-speaking world where Jews lack the opportunity to live in conditions of individual or collective freedom. The Jews of Central and Eastern Europe are but the straggling survivors of a ghastly holocaust; 6,000,000 of their kinsmen were slaughtered by Nazi fury and their communal institutions were reduced to irrevocable ruin. The urge to leave the scene of agony and martyrdom is irresistible. It is reinforced by an inborn Jewish preference for a life of democratic freedom in a society which upholds as a focus of national pride the very Jewish connections which in Europe were the target of such brutal persecution. Again, in many parts of the Arabic-speaking world Jewish minorities have lived for centuries in squalor and discrimination or, at best, in the shelter of an intermittent and variable tolerance. In recent generations the rise of a strong national consciousness in the Arab countries, centered inevitably upon the Arabic language and the Moslem religion, has given the Jewish minorities a sharpened sense of isolation, separateness and insecurity. At the same time, echoes of the Zionist achievement have awakened dormant impulses of Jewish national pride and made those Jewish minorities increasingly unwilling to sustain a lot borne stoically by their ancestors. The clash between Arab and Jewish interests in Palestine--itself the outcome of these two original factors--has also had its disturbing effects.

In ordinary times the Jews of Europe and of the Arab countries would have had either to bear their disabilities or be crushed by them. But these are not ordinary times in Jewish life. They are times of pride and exaltation--of "thunder and lightnings and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud." An alternative to passive resignation or submergence now presents itself. There exists today a sovereign state which has as a central purpose the absorption and integration of Jewish immigrants. The flood of immigration which in consequence pours into Israel is one of the spontaneous and irresistible mass movements which have revolutionized the history of peoples and changed the face of continents. In recent months the apparent imminence of war has added a new incentive. The quest for sanctuary in Israel now appears to many Jews living elsewhere in conditions of insecurity as a race against time. There is a desperate urge to find shelter while liberty of access still remains.

Of the 510,000 Jews who have so far entered Israel since the proclamation of its independence, 280,200 have come from Central and Eastern Europe, and 208,000 from North Africa, Yemen and Iraq. The Jewish community of Yemen, numbering 44,600, has been totally transferred to Israel in a memorable air-lift from Aden lasting over 18 months. More than 100,000 of the 120,000 Jews in Iraq have registered for emigration to Israel and 40,000 have already arrived. Almost the entire remnants of Bulgarian and Jugoslav Jewry have come to Israel, where they furnish valuable reinforcement of the country's agricultural and industrial strength. The total immigration figures during the period of Israel's independence are: 1948, 119,000; 1949, 239,000; 1950, 169,000. Thus the immigration into Israel during 30 months of statehood exceeds that which took place into Palestine during the previous 30 years.

III

It is obvious that a country which increases its population by 85 percent in two and a half years cannot hope to increase its productivity in the same degree. Jewish communities abroad, which share with Israel a deep sense of responsibility and concern for Jewsh refugees from Europe, Asia and Africa, have contributed substantially to meeting immigration costs, both by gifts and investment. However, these external sources of capital have not been sufficient to bridge the gap between the limited resources of the country and the needs of a rapidly growing population. Thus the major sacrifice has come from the Israel community itself. Increased savings have been extracted from the Israel population by reduction of consumption, by heavy taxation, and by governmental control of imports, giving deliberate preference to capital goods as against consumer goods. These measures, designed to overcome the lag between the increase of population and the inevitably slower increase of production, have imposed a régime of austerity and self-denial such as no population would suffer except in voluntary pursuit of a cherished ideal.

In most other migration movements of history, prospective immigrants have had to prove their capacity to enhance or, at least, not to prejudice the standards of welfare achieved by the existing population. In Israel this principle is reversed. The welfare of the existing population is subordinated to the supreme and unrestricted right of immigration. These moral and humanitarian attributes of Israel's immigration policies have impressed liberal opinion everywhere and have elicited powerful movements of sympathy and support throughout the world; but they have also created a severe economic crisis. This can be most vividly illustrated by reference to the balance of payments.

During the first 11 months of 1950, the value of imports to Israel was £I 88,000,000.[i] Exports, both visible and invisible, amounted to only £I 16,200,000. The balance had to be made up by receipts of funds from Jewish institutions abroad; the import of goods under credits extended by the Export-Import Bank; and the release by the United Kingdom of sterling assets accumulated by Palestine Jewry during World War II. Since many of these balancing factors are either variable or non-recurrent, the Government of Israel is obliged to seek more stable remedies and has conceived a Three Year Development Plan designed to bring about substantial reductions of imports by increasing local productivity both of food and of manufactured goods. Agricultural production has already increased considerably since the establishment of the state; and the new agricultural program will lead to an over-all equilibrium of costs between food imports on the one hand and domestic food production on the other. At the same time, the expansion of industrial output will supply the home market with an increased flow of consumer goods, thus reducing the volume of imports to be paid for in foreign currency. Domestic manufacturers and merchants will also help stabilize the balance of payments by earning foreign currency through exports. The main effort will lie in the increase of citrus exports, the exploitation of Dead Sea mineral products, the expansion of chemical and textile industries and the establishment of precision industries based on the relatively large reserves of technical skill available.

The success of these plans, however, depends upon large additional investments both in agricultural and industrial development. The total sum required for the absorption of 600,000 new immigrants and the economic consolidation of the state is estimated at 1.5 billion dollars, of which one-third will be raised by local taxation and investment and the remainder from Jewish funds, the sale of Israel bonds and such inter-governmental aid as Israel can secure on the basis of its contribution to the economic development of the Near East and the consolidation of democratic institutions there.

The riddle of Israel's future is whether its political and military victories can now be crowned by economic success. It would be idle to underestimate the difficulties. No political or social unit in history has ever carried such burdens as those which Israel has voluntarily assumed. However, the omens are propitious.

First, it is significant that Palestine Jewry, before the great wave of unrestricted immigration began, had already achieved economic equilibrium while maintaining a European standard of life far above the regional levels. Second, while the increase of productivity in the last two years has inevitably fallen behind the population growth, it has nevertheless been extremely impressive by absolute standards. Agricultural production has increased more than 80 percent; the consumption of electrical power for industry by 51 percent; building (at a rate of over 1,000,000 square meters per annum) within one year by 100 percent. New agricultural settlements to the number of 255 have been established within two and a half years, as against 270 founded between 1880 and 1948; and promising industrial projects have been initiated. Third, the fact that 35 percent of current imports are accounted for by capital goods holds the promise for increased productivity in the future. The Export-Import Bank's grant of credits to Israel on a commercial basis to the extent of $135,000,000 in two years shows that the most exacting financial authorities have been convinced of its productive potential. Fourth, the investment of the equivalent of $280,000,000 in Israel in 1950 illustrates the country's power of attracting investments, even though their volume still does not correspond to the needs of an expanding population. Fifth, there is ample evidence that Israel's determination to fight its way toward economic equilibrium is ardently shared by Jewish communities throughout the world.

In this struggle, as in others in the past, Israel seeks to supplement its material resources by less definable qualities--a strong sense of national discipline and a capacity for self-sacrifice. It also relies on the special élan which comes from a consciousness that this is the creative hour in Israel's long and tormented history. These imponderable qualities may well convert immediate sacrifice into ultimate gain. Mass-immigration, which appears to orthodox economists as a short-term liability, will certainly prove an asset in the long run, for it will increase Israel's productive capacity as well as its military security. Currently, the blockade imposed by the neighboring states may have an adverse effect on Israel's economy, for it cuts off potential sources of supply and nearby markets for industrial production. On the other hand, it has forced Israel to attain agricultural self-sufficiency and to build a network of trade agreements and commercial connections outside the immediate region. In the final resort, then, the incentives and challenges of the regional boycott may well make Israel more self-reliant and economically autonomous than it would have been if it had become accustomed to dependence on its neighbors.

Even today there are many signs of successful productive activity to be seen against the background of temporary shortage and austerity. New villages and townships spring up almost overnight. The immigrant transit camps are being replaced by work camps (ma'abaroth) in which the newcomers are engaged in lucrative work even before they are permanently absorbed into the labor market. Irrigation pipes carry the zone of cultivation ever deeper into areas which had been arid and desolate from time immemorial. Modern Israel has even had the startling experience of seeing water gush forth in the most primeval wilderness of recorded history, extending south from ancient Sodom between the Dead Sea and Eylat (Aqaba). The hills and roadsides are becoming fringed with belts of saplings, foretelling dense and verdant forests in the future. In short, Israel is a country of versatile talents and restless energies. Future hopes count more there than present difficulties.

IV

The immigrants who have entered Israel in the past three years have brought with them a bewildering variety of languages, social backgrounds and spiritual outlooks. The task of welding these heterogeneous elements into a single national culture is an intricate educational and cultural task. The difficulty is increased by the fact that the established community in Israel had itself not fully accomplished its own cultural unity. However, the unifying effects of the Hebrew language, the Hebrew school system and a common attachment to Jewish ideals, whether religious or secular, have been surprisingly strong. The children of immigrants swiftly cast off the dividing influences of their previous backgrounds. It is doubtful whether this sense of cultural cohesion could have been achieved if Israel had really been a new nation, engaged in the creation of its basic cultural forms. The state is indeed new; but the people are the heir of a cultural tradition sufficiently potent to have nourished the kindred streams of Christianity and Islam while maintaining their own native sources perennially fresh. This sense of a lineal connection with Israel of old affects the national life of Israel today more than is commonly realized. It gives background and depth to a national sentiment which might otherwise have been doomed to superficiality. The deep aspiration for a Hebrew renaissance, the profound interest in archeological discovery, continually remind the infant state of its venerable antecedents. Nor is the search for ancient roots and origins confined to the traditionalists alone. The coins and stamps which recall the ancient eras of Jewish independence, even the tendency to Hebraize European names, are superficial signs of the deep desire to achieve a cultural unity patterned after the old inheritance.

Israel's culture is not yet in stable equilibrium. The rival claims of religious tradition and of progressive modernism have not yet been reconciled. On the other hand, nothing could be more eccentric than the charge of "theocracy" which some critics have levelled against the Israel system. The state does not impose a single religious obligation of any kind. It treats observance, agnosticism and atheism with complete toleration. Not a single law or practice affecting religious observance has been newly enacted to mark any divergence from the previous Mandatory law. All that can be said is that there has been no initiative toward abolishing the rights of religious bodies in the spheres of personal status--rights which have been maintained in all Near Eastern countries for centuries past.

Israel is governed by an elected single-chamber legislature, the Knesset. The election of Dr. Chaim Weizmann as the first President of the state in 1949 symbolized Israel's concern for international prestige and its devotion to the principles of scientific humanism which have inspired the President's long career. The system of proportional representation was adopted in deference to a United Nations resolution, which hoped to ensure the protection of minority rights, and in continuation of the procedure whereby the Zionist Congresses were elected before the establishment of the state. Many students deprecate the adoption of an electoral system which encourages the proliferation of parties and imposes the vagaries of coalition government. Yet the system serves the interests of small parties, and thus can be changed only in the unlikely event of its beneficiaries combining to secure their own doom. Even so, the first Parliament, composed of many parties, none of which has a clear majority, showed a considerable talent for cohesion. There was usually a sufficient sense of crisis--military, political or economic--to produce an underlying unity. The current crisis, on the issue of religious education, will probably be resolved in a new election to be held in the summer. It is probable that a coalition wider than that composed of the Labor Party (Mapai) and the religious bloc will now emerge. Basing their opinions on the results of recent municipal elections, some observers predict that the middle-class party (the General Zionists) will soon achieve a position in which it will have to be associated with Mapai in the governing coalition. In any case, it is likely that there will be a tendency toward wider crystallizations, and that the electorate will continue to turn away from programs which draw most of their appeal from the rancors which marked the termination of Mandatory rule. A Communist party competes freely and legally--and with complete failure--for the allegiance of the electorate. Political thought is more abstract in Israel than in most countries; but in the final resort the pull of interest as well as of sentiment ensure a strong bias in favor of political democracy. Israel needs capital funds, goods and supplies, and can obtain them nowhere but in the Western World. Moreover, few other democracies contain so many citizens who have tasted the fruits of totalitarian régimes and found them bitter.

The fact that a coherent system of parliamentary democracy is already at work in Israel is of more than local significance. Unlike other democratic systems, it has not evolved in the course of generations by the patient processes of trial and error; it has sprung to full maturity within a period of three years. Nor can it find much encouragement in its regional environment. The Near East is still governed for the most part by monarchic or oligarchic systems. The capacity of the Israeli democracy to sustain itself in such difficult conditions of both time and space may have a substantial effect on political thought in the Near East and Asia.

Most of the national movements in the Asian continent have achieved constitutional freedom with little or no corresponding advance toward social and economic liberation. Behind the flags and the constitutions, the parliaments and cabinets, which serve as emblems of political freedom, the old social apathy lingers on with its accompanying heritage of poverty, illiteracy and disease. This disparity between political freedom and social backwardness is perhaps the basic cause of political and social unrest throughout Asia. Men have come to realize that they may be free in every political sense, and yet lose the essence of their freedom in the throes of want. Democracy can flourish only where political freedom is accompanied by expanding horizons of welfare and development. The fact that Israel regards statehood merely as the external framework for the social and cultural content of its national life entitles it to be regarded as a pioneer in the political emancipation of the continent. The states of the Near East will not remain hermetically sealed off from contact with each other forever. New examples may in the course of time influence political development throughout the area. At any rate, Israel's political institutions are an original expression of its people's mind. There is something unusual in the degree to which free enterprises live side by side with the most advanced forms of coöperative and collective organization. The labor movement is itself a large owner of industry; while powerful private corporations operate close to agricultural villages which apply collective principles to every aspect of individual and social life.

VI

The economic and social difficulties of building the state of Israel are increased by the regional and international tension. Until recently the primary objective of Israel foreign policy was to protect the state from Arab hostility while striving by all means to achieve an Arab-Israel accord. Today the preoccupation is with plans for securing minimal conditions of prosperity and stability in a world overshadowed by the clouds of international crisis. The two anxieties impinge upon each other. If the Near East were at peace with itself, it could the more easily organize its security on a basis of regional coöperation. So long as it is rent by internal conflicts it can consolidate its defenses and its supply facilities only with the utmost difficulty.

The harmonious integration of Israel into the life of the Near East thus remains a crucial objective of international statesmanship. The hope that the armistice agreements would be swiftly succeeded by definitive peace settlements probably took insufficient account of the deep psychological impulses aroused through the region by the emergence of the new state. In Israel itself, the memory of the recent attempt to extinguish the state by armed force dominates all thinking on security and political problems. But while the core of Arab opposition remains unbroken, Israel has been at great pains to strengthen its links of mutual recognition and coöperation with other Asian states such as India, Indonesia, Turkey, Burma, Thailand and Iran. Israel does not despair of a peace settlement with the Arab states; but it is completely resigned to the prospect of living without such a settlement if that is the consequence of the Arab League's attitude. It is comforting to reflect that the mutual interest of Israel and its neighbors in reaching a peace settlement is already so strong that pressures have to be exerted by the Arab League to prevent that interest from asserting itself. For example, so long as the Kingdom of Jordan lacks normal relations with Israel it is denied commercial access to the Mediterranean and loses its only natural market for its surplus production of perishable foodstuffs. Both lacks could be made good by a peace settlement. Arab countries suffer greater financial loss than Israel does through their refusal to permit the movement of oil through the Iraq-Haifa pipeline, or by tanker through the Suez Canal. Regional development schemes which would increase the strength of all Near Eastern states--and of the Near East as a whole--must be renounced so long as the Arab policy of nonrecognition is maintained.

It must be hoped that the weight of mutual interest and the common fear of a world conflict--which threatens all the Near Eastern states far more than any one of them can threaten another--may bring this sterile conflict to an end. Israel occupies a territory only one one-hundredth the size of that in which the Arab states have achieved political sovereignty. Its independence is no real derogation of Arab freedom. In any case, its existence and progress are permanent Near Eastern facts. Israel's true mission is to be a bridge, not a wedge. It could well assist the Near East as a whole to benefit from the interflow of Eastern and Western influences which has quickened the mind of the area and awakened its spirit. The deep historic affinities between the Hebrew and Arab cultures are an appropriate background for the renewal of this natural collaboration in modern times. Apart from the supreme psychological barrier, the actual conflicts of interests to be resolved between Israel and the Arab states are of minor proportions. The United Nations has now fully accepted the view that a solution of the refugee problem created by the Palestine war must be sought by processes of integration within the entire area. The states concerned have lived for two years under armistice systems which have become crystallized to such a degree that any possible territorial changes would be minor.

But whether or not this vision of peace is fulfilled, Israel will pursue its own course as heretofore. It will strive to maintain its lifeline across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to its sources of sustenance and nourishment in the Western World. The active sympathy and material support which Israel enjoys abroad could, in better circumstances, become available for the wider benefit of the Near East. But it may well be that Israel will have to prove its strength economically, as it already has done militarily and politically, before its own region of the world will regard the fact of its emergence and existence as irrevocable. Here lies a further incentive for a swift economic consolidation.

While Israel gravitates naturally toward the policies which commend themselves to other liberal democracies, a desperate concern for the preservation of peace, without which a new organism cannot possibly become strong, has made Israel prominent from time to time in the field of international conciliation. Since it has no commitments or alliances except under the comprehensive roof of the United Nations, it has made the international organization the chief vehicle for its political activity and thought. There is a universal as well as a national theme in Israel's tradition, and both are reflected in modern Israel's international policies. With an eye to the international situation, public opinion in Israel hopes that more attention will be devoted to the need for strengthening the will and capacity of the Near Eastern region to defend itself. Israel has an available combatant manpower of 200,000--a figure constantly being increased by immigration--and a varied industrial plant. As such, it must be regarded as a central factor in any estimate of the area's capacity to maintain its freedom and integrity against any attack. Independence and the maintenance of democratic institutions are causes for which the mass of Israeli citizens are prepared to struggle to the end. This is not so universally true of all states in the world--or in the Near East--as to be without import in the calculations of the greater Powers. Concern for the defense of world democracy must surely include concern for the preservation of the new democracy growing to strength and vigor at the crossroads where three continents meet.

Israel has arisen suddenly out of the shadows of history in testimony to the positive faith which endows men with full capacity to shape their own ends.

[i] The exchange rate is £I (Israel pound) equals $2.80.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now