Israelis were surprisingly subdued, even ambivalent, about the 50th anniversary of the Jewish state. At first glance this seems bizarre. How could the citizens of this tiny country fail to marvel at their extraordinary accomplishments -- the rebirth of a state after almost two millennia of exile, their military prowess in the face of overwhelming odds, and their success in developing a high-tech economy that has brought European standards of living within a generation? For some, the answer lies in the unsettled state of the Middle East peace process, especially the stalemated negotiations with Israel's first and most problematic opponent, the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine. For others, Israeli discontent results from a fractious political system ridden with mediocre leadership and savage infighting. For still others, it simply reflects the cussedness of one of history's most stubborn (or as the Bible puts it, "stiff-necked") peoples.

There is some truth in all these views, but none satisfies. However slow Israel's accommodation with its Arab neighbors has been in coming, it is far beyond where it was 20 years ago; however nasty its political disputes, they are no more so than in earlier days; however contrarian its people's temperament, they have demonstrated a capacity for unaffected joy on occasions as varied as the declaration of the state in 1948 and the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry decades later.

No, the malaise has deeper roots. More than a century ago, the historian Frederick Turner argued that the closing of the American frontier -- both the real frontier and, no less important, the myth of the frontier -- marked the end of an epoch in the history of a new nation. Something similar is happening in Israel as it turns 50. For a century, neatly divided by Israel's birth in 1948, Zionists undertook and believed in two epic struggles: creating a defensible state for a stateless people and gathering in communities of Jews sundered by distance but united by faith and destiny. At 50 -- middle age for a human being, and in this case, a state, too -- Israelis see these epic tasks largely accomplished and the epic dreams correspondingly faded. The country now oscillates between self-assertion and acid self-criticism. The way in which Israel completed the tasks set by Zionism in the first half of the century has bred new and perplexing challenges for the future -- challenges not amenable to the energetic ingenuity that has brought Israelis so much success thus far. Israel's democracy, political culture, open door to Jewish immigrants, paternalistic elites, historical verities, unifying army -- none evoke the old certainties. Israelis thus hesitated amid their rejoicing to confront existential questions of a kind unfamiliar to Americans, Frenchmen, or Chinese at any save the most momentous moments in their histories.


Israel was created by an exceptionally determined generation of Jews, native-born and immigrant, numbering barely 600,000 in 1948. They were blessed with a world-class statesman in David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and founding father, affectionately known during his premiership as the Old Man. Ben-Gurion's house in Tel Aviv -- austerely furnished in every regard save books (some 12,000 volumes in 10 languages) -- gives the measure of the man. A social democrat who scorned luxury but could make deals with capitalists, an ideologue whose pragmatism trumped his passion, a secularist whose rhetoric drew deeply on the Bible and the vast corpus of Jewish religious literature, Ben-Gurion reconciled opposites within himself and within the new state. But the state came first: mamlakhtiyut, loosely translatable as "statism," was his coinage and his overwhelming preoccupation. The Old Man subordinated personal antipathies and doctrinal preferences to one goal: the creation of a durable polity for the Jews of Palestine.

Embedded in mamlakhtiyut was the curious, pervasive Israeli schizophrenia about strengths and accomplishments, on the one hand, and weaknesses and fears, on the other. Desperately afraid of schism and divided authority, Ben-Gurion ordered troops from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to open fire in the midst of the War of Independence on a ship carrying sorely needed arms for the right-wing Irgun Tzvai Leumi militia. Anxious to create a common culture among a polyglot nation of immigrants, he devoted himself in retirement to the sponsorship of a national Bible quiz. Fearful of the new nation's ability to endure civilian losses, Ben-Gurion cultivated Israel's distinctively audacious and aggressive military style -- preemptive war, and swift retaliation for terrorist raids. Worried, even at that early stage, about the split between religious and secular Jews, he accepted the establishment of religion through a publicly supported chief rabbinate. In the nerve-racking spring of 1967, retired from public life but horrified at the prospect of conducting a war without the great powers' support, he brought Yitzhak Rabin, then chief of staff of the IDF, close to a breakdown by denouncing the government's policy as likely to lead "to the destruction of the Third Temple."

Ben-Gurion's state could not create a single identity, and its economic institutions gradually proved as incompetent as any other socialist experiment. His exhortations to cultivate the qualities of halutziyut -- pioneering, his second-favorite word -- seem quaint, even embarrassing in the age of the Internet, open-air rock concerts, cable television, and smog alerts in coastal towns. His Labor Party coalition, which dominated public life for nearly 30 years, collapsed in 1977 when the Likud's Menachem Begin, his longtime nemesis, came to power. But the framework remains more or less intact: a noisy and harshly partisan parliament, a secular state's sponsorship of religious institutions' jurisdiction over private life, and a still-intrusive role in the economy.

Like Bismarck, Ben-Gurion may have created a system that only he could manage, and like Bismarck, even he could not hold power forever. His second prime-ministership, from 1955 to 1963, ended in acrimony, scandal, and rebellion by politicians long subject to his autocratic fits of temper. His successors were former subordinates or (in the case of Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, the old leaders of the rightist undergrounds) rivals of essentially the same stamp -- East European Jews who emigrated to Palestine at an early age and struggled to create a Jewish state. Yitzhak Rabin, the first sabra (native-born) prime minister, was not of that generation, but as a senior commander (in his twenties!) during the War of Independence, he was intimately connected to it. Binyamin Netanyahu is, then, the first modern Israeli prime minister, a man shaped not by memories of the battle for independence but by the reality of an Israeli state.


Has Israeli political life changed much in 50 years? With respect to the shrill tone of argument, no: as Thucydides would remind us, tiny countries with small populations facing enormous threats tend to produce acrimonious politics. And Israel's politicians are rooted in a culture of vehement argument that antedates Zionism itself. (One ancient Jewish text warns against dealing with the wise: "Their sting is the scorpion's sting . . . and all their words are like coals of fire.") Israeli politics is no game for the thin-skinned. Nevertheless, parties and individuals deeply and personally at odds have formed a durable democracy whose leaders' excesses are curbed by an independent judiciary and an aggressive press.

There is, however, one great divide in the political life of Israel: the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The shock of that event overshadowed, in some measure, Israel's celebration of its 50th anniversary three years later. Rabin was not merely the country's leader but one of the pillars of its survival: a hero in the 1948 War of Independence, IDF chief of staff in the 1967 Six Day War, the man who as defense minister masterminded the withdrawal from most of Lebanon after the debacles of 1982-83 and is said to have ordered his troops to break the bones of the youthful stone-throwers of the intifada, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winner who presided over the opening to the Palestinians. His life spanned the full half-century of his country's existence.

Worse, Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, was no marginal man, no fantasist like John Wilkes Booth, no lonely oddball like Lee Harvey Oswald. He was, rather, the product of some of Israel's finest institutions: the elite Golani infantry brigade, a prestigious religious nationalist yeshiva, and arguably the best law school in the country. He was religious but not a member of the ultra-Orthodox extreme. The Rabin assassination inflicted a wound on the Israeli polity that will take decades to heal. It revealed, as in one horrible flash of lightning, the gap between religious and secular, between zealots for the land and those willing to sacrifice it, between those willing to take large risks for peace and those who view such gambles as trifling with survival. Above all, the murder of Rabin struck a blow at yet another myth -- that no matter how much bickering and bitterness pervade Israeli politics, in the end these are merely words, and the nation will stand together.

That myth, like most myths, rested on a very considerable element of truth. When a series of suicide bombings this decade in the hearts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv caused horrible carnage, secular Israelis glued to their televisions saw squads of bearded ultra-Orthodox men magically appear to collect, with reverent care, every dismembered limb, every scrap of human flesh, every drop of clotting blood for decent burial. These unpaid volunteers, responding within minutes to pagers summoning them, were of the same ilk as those who throw rocks at cars driving on the Sabbath. Indeed, in some cases they were the same people. For a few moments, these grisly acts of mercy suspended the ferocity of disagreements about state subventions to seminaries, draft exemptions, and Saturday road closures.

Israel's success in thwarting the very real threat to its existence in its first decades requires little retelling. In a series of wars -- some short, some long, some marked by desperate clashes of tens of thousands of soldiers, some by ambushes and raids by mere squads -- Israel managed to convince its enemies that it could not be defeated by conventional means, that prolonged insurgency or guerrilla struggle would not bring it down, and that even unconventional threats would only elicit cunning and violent preemption or the most terrible retaliation. A cardinal assumption of Israeli statecraft -- universal and implacable hostility on the part of its immediate neighbors -- was never entirely accurate (Jordan, in particular, often found itself in clandestine alliance with the Jewish state). But by the 1990s, it had become completely irrelevant. An Israel at formal peace with Jordan and Egypt, in negotiations with Palestinians who a few years before would never have considered sitting down with representatives of the Zionist entity, and with a foreign service stretched to maintain legations in all the countries eager for ties is not the embattled Israel of old.

Although a state of perpetual siege had its terrors, it had its simplifying comforts as well. It relieved Israel of the need for a complex statecraft toward the Arab world. Instead, Ben-Gurion and his successors attempted to leapfrog that world by forming clandestine relationships with more peripheral countries such as Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. The siege helped ensure solidarity within a diverse population, sympathy from without, and support from Diaspora Jewry. Above all, it relieved Israel of the need to wrestle with the original and most durable conflict of all: the contest with the Arabs of Palestine for a small plot of land to which both peoples had a powerful claim.

"Israel may not be at peace," remarks Reuven Gal, a sturdy former paratrooper and onetime chief psychologist of the IDF, "but Israelis have decided that they are at peace." When they voted in 1996 for the Likud's Netanyahu, they did not, as some outsiders feared, vote to end the peace process but merely to slow it down and get a better deal than they expected from Shimon Peres' dreams of a new Middle East that seemed to resemble the Benelux more than it did the Levant. Netanyahu himself has, without fanfare, given up his party's ideology, which once stood foursquare against relinquishing territory to the Palestinians. The quarrels within Israel and between Netanyahu and the Clinton administration are really over percentages, pace, and details. A Likud government will probably witness the birth of a Palestinian state -- and will accept it because most Israelis will wish it to do so.

Israel will have to forge a new and more subtle statecraft. If it fights more wars (and it well may, for it still has real enemies), it must fight them in a political world that has known formal peace and to which peace may return. The derring-do of the IDF's bold raids and the Mossad's clever covert operations often failed, but Israel rarely paid for them; now, it is different. And no longer can Israel's internal problems be subordinated to what Israelis still call "ha'matzav" -- "The Situation" -- the daily and enduring security threat. It endures in the form of Hizballah ambushes, Hamas bus bombs, Palestinian Authority guerrilla warfare, or Iranian or Iraqi missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction. But serious as each of these are, they no longer loom over Israel in quite the same way security threats did for the last 70 years of Jewish settlement. Israelis increasingly believe that internal questions must finally come to the fore, and those questions are the more perplexing because of the ferment of Israeli society.


Ben-Gurion's state serves a society that cannot rest. Physical changes, dramatic as they are, merely reflect far deeper social and political shifts. "Haifa works, Tel Aviv dances, Jerusalem dreams" -- so, at least, went the saying more than 30 years ago, and it was to dreaming Jerusalem that curious tourists would go. Crowning the arid hills of Judea, surrounded by newly planted pine forests, clad in the pinkish stone facing the British authorities had mandated in the 1920s, Jerusalem then was not entirely of this world. On Friday night the Jewish section of the city fell dead silent, and only the hotels and one or two restaurants there were open on the Sabbath; the soft drink of choice was a fizzy lemon beverage called Tempo, and the walk from the YMCA near the King David Hotel to Jaffa Gate passed through the remnants of the no man's land that had divided the city for some 20 years.

One can still find some of this Jerusalem today: the quiet neighborhood of Talpiot where the Nobel Prize-winning author S. Y. Agnon lived; some neighborhoods of the Old City; and when the weather and time of day is right, the German Colony, Baka, and other corners of a city once wrapped in reverie and prayer. But so much has changed. The winding road from the coastal plain to the hills has become a jammed multilane highway. Sprawling apartment complexes creep inexorably down the wadis, swallowing orchards and empty space. The noise of traffic and the buzz of restaurant-goers incite the ire of a vastly increased population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose spreading communities have caused many of their secular neighbors to flee to the coast. And atop a hill in the beautiful suburb of Mevasseret Zion -- "the herald of Zion," a phrase from Isaiah -- rise the golden arches of a McDonald's in one of the city's sparkling new shopping malls.

The dominant impression of the traveler to Israel today is traffic jams, particularly along the coast. One of the more contentious recent public projects is a proposed trans-Israel highway that will (according to environmentalists) affect, directly or indirectly, some 10 percent of Israel's land area. Improved highways relieve the congestion somewhat, but Israel's cities reflect a more austere time when automobiles were few and buses the main mode of transportation. There are now 10 times as many automobiles per kilometer of road as in 1960 and almost 50 times as many cars in Israel.

The Israeli love affair with the car reflects many of the changes that have swept the country since 1967 -- most notably, prosperity. With a per capita income of $17,000, Israel is better off than Spain, Greece, and Portugal. But the car also reflects the restless mobility of a ceaselessly churning society. Israelis travel abroad at phenomenal rates (about 2.5 million per year) and boast the fourth-highest level of per capita cellular phone ownership in the world.

The main secular trend that Israeli society has manifested in its 50 years has been Americanization. That Israel is the most pro-American country in the Middle East goes without saying; it has, after all, benefited from American friendship and largesse and fought its battles with American weapons. But the Americanization of Israel goes far deeper. English is so much Israel's second language that one can live quite comfortably without knowing a word of Hebrew. American fashions fill the stores, American academic fads sweep university departments, and one of the most powerful arguments for direct election of the prime minister (an innovation introduced in 1996) was that it would give rise to American-style political decorum and stability (which, of course, it did not). But when Netanyahu gave a gracious victory speech after ousting Peres in 1996, commentators noted proudly that he had spoken just the way a successful American pol would have.

It was not always thus. The Israel of 1948 rested on a hard core of central and East European Zionists, who, in either their socialist or petit bourgeois groupings, looked to Europe for their political and social ideals. The United States was important to Zionism as a source of support but not as an ideal. Indeed, its very existence undercut the central tenet of secular Zionism -- that Jews would never find safety and acceptance in a gentile world. To this day, odd as it may seem, the United States poses the greatest puzzle for students of the Jewish question.

To some degree, Israel's fascination with America mirrors the general extension of American culture throughout the world. But it also reflects the natural intertwining of two very different societies -- one tiny, one vast -- in which Jews can without mental tricks or self-deception feel comfortably at home. For decades, the American Jewish community was the richer and more populous of the two. In a few years, it will become the smaller, and it is already the more obviously culturally embattled, melting away in the embrace of a hospitable gentile society. But this will have little or no effect on the relentless Americanization of Israel, which, while welcome in some respects -- more civility, attention to legal norms, and concern about problems such as the environment -- will contribute to a burgeoning identity crisis. To a degree unthinkable for Israel's founding generation, their country has already become dependent on the United States for matters as diverse and vital as defense and finance. And it has done so, by and large, cheerfully and wholeheartedly.


Before Americanization, the most powerful force molding Israeli life was the waves of Jewish immigration, or aliyah ("going up"), to the land of Israel. Four tides from Russia and Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1928 brought the Jewish population in Palestine to some 150,000; a fifth wave (largely German) added a further 250,000 by World War II, with a sharply reduced flow during the war and immediately thereafter. Within three years of the creation of the new state, more than 660,000 Jews arrived from Europe and the Arab world. Some 160,000 Jews left the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and another 700,000 departed as and after the U.S.S.R. collapsed.

Aliyah was Israel's lifeblood. With some 4.6 million Jewish citizens by the mid-1990s, Israel was infinitely more durable than with barely an eighth that number 50 years before. But aliyah has also had a deep psychological meaning. Even as the country steeled itself for a rain of missiles from Iraq on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, a thin but steady stream of shabbily dressed Soviet Jews arrived at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport while the tourists fled. Since before the state's creation, the Israeli secret services have devoted much of their energy to rescuing dispersed Jewish populations; in that tradition, Israel scooped up the ancient and imperiled Ethiopian Jewish community in the early 1990s and more recently extracted the imperiled Jews of Sarajevo from the Yugoslav war. The multicolored hue of Israeli faces -- pink-skinned Russians, swarthy Moroccans, and slender, high-cheekboned Ethiopians -- testify to the waves of humanity that have swept into Israel, often airlifted, echoing the Book of Exodus' promise of redemption "on the wings of eagles."

Although a small Jewish population persisted in Palestine throughout the centuries, and although the Jewish Israeli birthrate is high by Western standards, only immigration could create the mass needed to sustain statehood. Each aliyah brought short-term social stress and financial hardship but soon provided a burst of economic growth and political vitality. Two waves of immigration -- the German aliyah of the 1930s and the flood from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s -- inundated the country with young, well-educated new citizens who in short order enriched the country's cultural life while building industries as diverse as power plants, textile mills, and computer software firms.

Aliyah has had its ironies as well. Few immigrants came to Israel purely out of ideology (the substantial numbers of Anglophones being a major exception). Most fled persecution or sought opportunities denied them at home. The latest wave of aliyah, however, poses an unprecedented challenge. The Russians are ubiquitous, from high-tech companies to the astoundingly good street musicians scraping violins for spare change. But unlike their predecessors, many of them are not Jews. A quarter of the Russians may not be truly eligible under Israel's Law of Return, which guarantees Israeli citizenship to Jews' spouses, children, grandchildren, and grandchildrens' spouses. Under the more rigorous standards of Jewish religious law, or halakha, 40 percent or more are in fact gentile.

Israel is today sufficiently wealthy and attractive that many non-Jews would happily move there (including many Arabs, let alone Israel's growing cohort of Thai, Filipino, Romanian, and Nigerian "guest workers"). But will it remain a Jewish state? The question may seem absurd: the rhythm of Israel's year is set by the Jewish holy days, and Arab waiters wish Jewish customers a peaceful Sabbath on Friday afternoons without a moment's thought. But if a young soldier falls in Lebanon and cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery because halakha says he is a gentile, which identity is to dominate?

The Russian aliyah thus could exacerbate the divide between religious and secular Jews (and indeed, the substantial population of non-Jews) in Israel. Perhaps ten percent of Jewish Israelis are ultra-Orthodox Jews who almost invariably do not serve in the military, regard the state's institutions with the antagonism of nineteenth-century shtetl Jews for czarist rule, yet wield disproportionate political power through their small, cohesive parties. They have tremendous clout in Jerusalem, where 30 percent of the Jewish population is ultra-Orthodox. The religious establishment's control over matters of personal status -- above all, marriage -- would be manageable, if irksome, were it not for ultra-Orthodox exploitation of the state, particularly milking it to support religious seminaries and build housing. At the same time, Israel's modern-Orthodox religious establishment (Orthodox men who embrace the state of Israel are distinguished by their colorful knitted kipot or skullcaps, as opposed to the black velvet kipot or incongruous 1940s-style black fedoras of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox) despairs over mainstream Israeli society's secularization. Disturbed by the prospect of giving the lands won in 1967 to the Arabs, dismayed at supposedly dwindling patriotic spirit, embattled since Rabin's assassination by one of their number, the modern Orthodox wonder whether Israel will become a land filled with "gentiles speaking Hebrew" -- these last the words of a top aide to the defense minister whose careless remark cost him the chance to become head of military intelligence.

Having had their fill of government control and orthodoxies of all kinds, the secular pragmatists of the Russian aliyah will not back a religious establishment that rejects them. As they find their voice -- both in their own party, Yisrael B'aliyah, and others -- they will increasingly defy a chief rabbinate widely seen as frustratingly intrusive. While, like most Israelis, the Russians will probably adhere to many basic Jewish customs (lighting candles on Friday night, for example), they lack the knowledge of Jewish law, lore, and customs that shaped even their militantly secular predecessors of 80 years ago.

The Russian aliyah probably represents the last great wave of immigration to come to Israel. The other major Jewish communities, in the Americas and Europe, feel generally at home and are unlikely to start over in Israel. Small numbers of committed Zionists will always go up to the land of their ancestors, but the mass movements have ended. The Jewish state, which began with barely 600,000 souls, now has a population of 4.6 million Jews and over a million Arabs, living side by side with a population of around 2 million Palestinians in the sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Demography is a powerful force in the contest for control of the land, but to an extent that might amaze even the most visionary Zionist leaders a century ago, Israel has enough people to create a solid, wealthy, and even overcrowded state.


Last spring, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, a dour, recently retired general who brought tens of thousands of sorely needed Sephardic voters to Netanyahu in the last election, passed over the favored candidate to be IDF chief of staff in favor of a more obscure general. Matan Vilna'i, the army's favorite, comes from Israel's elite: a child of Jerusalem, the son of Israel's foremost geographer and folklorist, a paratroop general and former vice chief of staff. His competitor, Shaul Mofaz, had switched jobs four times in the past four years and was, in the words of Israel's foremost defense journalist, Ze'ev Schiff, "unknown to us." But Mofaz was, like Mordechai, descended from Jews from the east, in this case, Iran.

Mordechai's surprising move almost certainly stemmed from personal enmities. A longtime rival of Vilna'i, he had consistently been passed over for plum commands in favor of the tall paratrooper. But his move also demonstrated the shift of elites within Israeli society: two old guards -- the austere social democratic founders and their native-born "aristocratic" children, the Ben-Gurions and the Rabins -- had now been displaced. There is, however, no identifiable elite waiting in the wings. Israeli politics, always loud and noisy, is now a cacophony of different groups, none of which dominates Israeli politics. The creation of Yisrael B'aliyah, headed by the KGB's erstwhile prisoner, Natan Sharansky, was but one sign that the new Israelis would not patiently bear the paternal rule of the old elites. The Sephardim -- Jews from Arab lands, now the majority -- have also claimed their share of power. Although Israel remains dominated by the two major political groupings that emerged at independence, the social democrats of Labor and the bourgeois Revisionists of the Likud, new parties now exercise influence. A Sephardic religious party, Shas, broke the hold of the European religious elites, taking a moderate line on foreign policy while winning largesse for its charities and seminaries. And some of the new players do not even endorse Zionism's fundamental principles. Recently, a proposal to draft all young men for service in the IDF was sunk by united opposition from parties representing the ultra-Orthodox and Israel's Arab population.

In fact, the army did not want those unwilling draftees. A half-century ago, Ben-Gurion exempted from service the few hundred surviving students of the great seminaries or yeshivot of Europe; that waiver now covers thousands of ultra-Orthodox -- perhaps as many as seven percent of the eligible draft cohort. The IDF has enough headaches without these zealots.

In its heyday, the IDF -- egalitarian yet efficient, a powerful tool to socialize new immigrants yet an effective shield to the state, professional and technologically sophisticated yet seemingly led by Cincinnatus-like farmer-generals -- combined all that was best about Israeli society. Today, however, military service is no longer a vital ticket to public life. Over a quarter of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, never served in the IDF. Aviv Gefen, the wildly popular rock star Yitzhak Rabin listened to the night of his assassination, is a rouged and eye shadow-wearing creature of the 1990s, innocent of military experience. This may be just as well. The IDF, still using an outmoded draft system, is drowning in manpower and seeks to exempt, defer, or discharge early a quarter or more of the available population. The internal crisis of the IDF is even worse. Its officer corps is less educated than the new business and political elites, its glory days of smashing victories have been replaced by a deadly game of ambush in southern Lebanon and wary urban policing in the occupied territories, and its prestige has been diminished by the lure of software startups and luxury flats along the coast. Some of the generals feel themselves under siege. In a wrenching outburst of emotion on the anniversary of Rabin's murder, the then chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, mourned not only the fallen leader but the diminished standing of the IDF.

Even so, the country's best and brightest still compete in astounding numbers to enter elite units. The paratroops have four applicants for every slot, and there are even expensive yearlong prep schools to increase a youngster's chances. Military service remains, for the overwhelming majority of young men and many young women, not merely a rite of passage but an affirmation of citizenship. Equipped by years of American generosity and the fruits of Israel's own military-industrial cleverness, the IDF has an edge in technical and human quality over every state in the region. But the IDF finds itself buffeted by change. It too sees new elites rising. In the place of the kibbutzniks who once dominated the officer corps are ever-increasing numbers of modern Orthodox officers, including religious generals. Militant old secularists fear the Orthodox may prove unreliable should the IDF ever have to evict settlers on the West Bank -- although thus far these men have proven themselves soldiers first and ideologues second, if at all.

Subtler changes have occurred as well. Where reserve duty, a cardinal feature of an Israeli man's life, was once a curiously welcome hardship -- a break from daily routine as well as a patriotic duty -- it has increasingly become a burden to be avoided whenever possible. According to one estimate, barely a third of those eligible actually perform regular reserve duty. The army has cut the number of reserve duty days in half and is contemplating further reductions. Some Israeli military thinkers even suggest a new and different manpower system. In the Israel of the future, national service of some kind might be the rule, with only those who choose to do so entering the military and even then only for brief stints.

In defending taking time from training to rehearse precision drills for a 50th anniversary parade, the commander of Israel's paratroopers remarked that on such an occasion one would not want these elite troops to look like a militia. Such a remark would have seemed bizarre 30 years ago. The IDF was a militia (albeit an exceptionally well trained one) and proud of it: in no other way could it have matched the Arab armies. But the traditional militia concept, in which citizens are soldiers on leave 11 months a year, cannot address Israel's new security challenges. The threat of ballistic missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction and the deadly cat-and-mouse operations in southern Lebanon can only be met by professionals. In operations closer to home -- displacing settlers after an accommodation with the Palestinians or reoccupying West Bank cities if the peace process collapses -- reservists may prove unreliable. Increasingly, the face of the IDF will be that of conscripts and professional officers. Inevitably, the army's unique relationship with its society will change as well.

As the military and society become separate worlds, Israel will have to develop patterns of civil-military relations more in line with other democracies. Generals sometimes feel free to make politically charged observations while in uniform. The swift transition from high military rank to political office has made many in the Knesset uneasy. The conspicuous wooing by the major parties of retiring generals days after they doff their uniforms is unseemly at best. At worst, it risks politicizing the upper echelons of a military necessarily engaged in politically sensitive operations. Israel has no establishment like the National Security Council to counterbalance the general staff, and its intelligence community relies more on military intelligence than do most Western societies. The military is increasingly transparent to a press that stopped many years ago regarding itself simply as an extension of the IDF Spokesman's Office, but the Knesset's oversight role is generally private and discreet.

The impending if slow-moving transformation of the IDF is but one of the transitions affecting Israeli society. The emerging Kulturkampf between secular and religious and the privatization of much of the economy are merely two more. But to a degree inconceivable in any other society, the change in the military strikes at the heart of Israel's identity. The essential guarantor not merely of security but of survival, the most powerful tool of acculturation and symbol of national unity, the IDF has long been the first concern of Israel's leaders. As with so much else, its first 50 years reflect the indelible imprint of Ben-Gurion. Its transformation will be one manifestation of Israel's coming to terms with the legacy of the short, stubborn, white-haired Old Man and the simpler beliefs of the heroic days of Zionism.


Israel at 50 is wrestling with its myths. A band of so-called "new historians" has challenged the consensus history of Israel's struggle with the Arabs of Palestine in the 1940s and the Arab states thereafter. Some of these farouche intellectuals recast the pre-1948 Jewish community in light of the powerful state that is all they have known, exaggerating Israel's prospects for peace during and after independence. Indeed, some of the new historians seem to doubt Israel's very legitimacy. Others, more soberly, have rediscovered the Palestinian tragedy and worked to incorporate it into Israel's historical self-understanding. Still others simply recount the blunders, incompetence, and occasional cowardice that characterize all national histories. The response to the new historians by more mainstream scholars will eventually produce a complex and ambivalent historical synthesis -- not uncommon for other nations, but bereft of the old heroic simplicity.

The pioneering myth is similarly frayed. Israel can no longer view itself as a poor but struggling country, rebuilding a nation from an oppressed minority scattered around the world. Tel Aviv suburbs like Savyon could almost be Palm Beach. Israeli teenagers in the ubiquitous shopping malls could be mistaken for their American counterparts. Even Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz whose poorly armed members halted the Egyptian army only a few miles south of Jerusalem in 1948, is uprooting its orchards for commuters' condominiums.

Israelis are acutely aware of these changes, of course, but they have not yet figured out how to react. Generals talk gloomily of declining motivation, politicians admit privately that maybe the time has come to wean Israel from U.S. economic aid (an absurdity in a country whose per capita GNP is greater than that of all but 21 other countries), and journalists write gleefully or mournfully of the rise of post-Zionism. But in many areas the reflexes remain the same: a system of military service increasingly at odds with society's endurance or security's dictates, rhetoric about need, aggressive lobbying of Congress and foreign Jewish philanthropists, and a political culture that oddly combines hero worship with extreme factionalism.

There was, deservedly, some quiet satisfaction at what Israel has accomplished in 50 years. Its very successes, however, have given birth to challenges neither heroic nor straightforward. The country's air, water, and land are imperiled by overuse and pollution. Its physical infrastructure is inadequate. Israel's deepest peril, however, is intangible and urgent: nothing less than a reformulation of what statesmen in bygone days called "the Jewish Question."

Political Zionism had many variants, but its dominant strain was secular and often antireligious. The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an assimilated, nonobservant Jew who, like his followers, focused on the daunting problem of getting access to Palestine, bringing Jews there, and building a society, an economy, and a defensible state. They worried far less about the most critical component of that polity: Jews as such. Who were the Jews? It did not seem a problem. Bring Jews to Palestine, teach them Hebrew, remind them of the value of manual labor, have them redeem the homeland not by divine intervention but by sweat and blood, and -- like Hungarians or Englishmen -- they would know who they were.

Ironically, nothing is so daunting for Israel at 50 as its identity as a Jewish state. Attend a formal military ceremony, for example, and the one element missing -- one usually found in the secular United States -- is a religious invocation. An American rabbi serving as a chaplain could, with no discomfort to those present, open a military ceremony in the United States, but an Israeli rabbi doing so in the IDF would spark controversy. "Gentiles speaking Hebrew," "Judeo-Nazis," "ayatollahs wearing kipot" -- these epithets, all hurled in recent years, bespeak the antagonisms tearing Israel asunder. The acrimony reflects less a native intemperance than the genuine perplexities of an identity that Israelis variously consider national, ethnic, religious, or fictitious.

Whatever material successes they have had, Israelis can never achieve what so many of them crave -- the benign normalcy that now characterizes Western societies and the United States above all. Small wonder that hundreds of thousands have emigrated over the years, most to the United States, which remains a mythic land of opportunity and forgetfulness to those who find the cramped confines of Israel and the tormented destiny of the Jews an intolerable burden. To the extent that the Zionist project craved normalcy as its consummation, it has failed utterly. There is no way it could have succeeded.

The success of Israel -- and the catastrophe of the Holocaust, in a quite different way -- has understandably overshadowed the miracle of Jewish survival and creativity over the centuries of the Jews' dispersion. Many Israelis have dismissed or even despised that experience. Ironically, however, they find themselves increasingly forced to wrestle with the questions that agitated the Jews in their wanderings: who are we, and what is our mission? More than for any other state, a spiritual question lies at the heart of Israel's self-definition and, indeed, its very existence. In attempting to flee Jewish history, Zionism has been forced to confront it head-on -- for if Israel ceased to be a Jewish state, it would cease to exist. Few prosperous peoples, in this age of superficial entertainments and instant gratification, confront such ultimate questions. As one that does, the Israelis have every reason to celebrate their 50th anniversary with joy leavened by what their ancestors would have recognized as a vaguely religious dread.

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
  • Eliot A. Cohen is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University.
  • More By Eliot A. Cohen