In this year of 2021, someone born in 1948 is or will soon be 73 years old. This is a good round age, surpassing the fabled three score and ten. A Jew born in that tumultuous year in Israel has lived their whole life in freedom, unhyphenated, and not as a member of an ethnic minority, as they might be in every other country in the world. Yet it has not been a garden of roses – three formal wars, and continuous threats from without and within.
We have to look back to better appreciate the miraculous story of Israel. In the days leading up to its Declaration of Independence, after the Partition decision at the United Nations, it seemed the whole world had turned against the Jews. Britain sold heavy weapons to a number of Arab countries, which announced non-recognition of the UN decision, and plans to march on Jerusalem. The U.S. State Department urged David Ben-Gurion not to declare statehood for fear of a new Holocaust. The Palmach numbered under 1,000; the Haganah, just organizing, a few thousand; the state, with no heavy armour and no air force. The Jewish population, numbering 600,000, scattered through the region, faced a hostile Arab population in the millions and seven organized armies amassing on its borders.
Ben-Gurion, our reborn Moses, appreciating that it was now or never, went ahead with the declaration. American President Harry Truman, thanks to the intervention of a Jewish friend, announced U.S. recognition. Nearly one million Arabs fled the territory at the urging of their Arab compatriots and for fear of Israeli retaliation.
Fighting even with sticks and stones, the Jews threw back the worst of the onslaught. Their secret weapon – they had nowhere else to go. Some Jews arrived from around the world to join the struggle. Some pilots flew in with their planes to create a small air force that was effective in turning back the Egyptian army. By the time a ceasefire was declared, Jordan had retained the Old City of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, which had been allocated to the Arabs. Similarly, Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip.
Israel ended with a larger land area than it had been allocated under the Partition. The price, aside from the destruction of war, was 1% of its population killed and exponentially more civilians and soldiers wounded. The agony of that time, when the issue of Israel’s existence was in doubt, is painful to relive, even today.
Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked again in 1967, but Israel was better prepared. Israel drove out the Egyptians and Jordanians, and occupied the Egyptian Sinai, the Jordanian-controled West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights. Though surprised by the Egyptians in 1973, Israel held the Sinai, and bartered it for a peace agreement with Egypt, followed by one with Jordan.
Today, so many things remain the same, and so many things are very different. The recent Abraham Accords have heralded a number of normalization agreements with Arab countries in the Middle East and Africa. The altered status of Israel among the nations is now recognized. Those who are near the pinnacle of technological achievement in the world recognize the Israeli presence among them, recognize that the country’s knowhow can offer important economic and security benefits to any who wish to engage to pursue such benefits. For some Arab countries, these benefits now appear much more advantageous than the sterile pursuit of Israel’s downfall.
Consider how Israel has changed the landscape around it. It is now supplying energy to Egypt and Jordan and pursuing the building of a pipeline to Europe. Arab countries are forming alliances because Israel is keeping hegemonic Iran in check both in its nuclear ambitions and militarily. Israel is working on relieving water shortages and dealing with desertification regionally and on a worldwide basis, as well as sharing security technology.
What appears no different is the widespread development of an anti-Israel sentiment, which is currently the more-politic face of antisemitic feeling. A product of pan-Arabism cum Islamism and carried into the West, it feeds and rejuvenates the embedded historic religious origins of anti-Jewish attitudes going back centuries. It has made a marriage with the white-supremacist movements in many countries, as well as making inroads in ostensibly progressive movements.
Israel is exhibiting still the growth pangs of its democracy. It is confronting the many challenges with which it was born. It is trying to absorb the 20% of its population who are Arabs, some of whom have been encouraged to exhibit rejection and hatred, some of whom are coming to the realization that life is actually better in Israel than it is for their co-religionists in the region. It also has to deal with the 10% in Orthodox Judaism who find it difficult to coexist with a secular government. It has to deal with a political system almost designed for impasse. And yet, Israelis have created a nation whose accomplishments astound the world. They will solve these problems as well.
While Jews everywhere have adhered to the biblical injunction toward loyalty and devotion to the countries of their refuge, most have never ceased “to weep by the rivers of Babylon.” This sentiment ultimately led to a “return” by some of our brothers and sisters. And, as they are our brothers and sisters, we in the Diaspora cannot fail to be concerned with their welfare. However, these days, more and more, the shoe is on the other foot. With the rising prominence and relevance of Israel, it is we Jews in the Diaspora who will be receiving warmth from the reflected glory of that Declaration of Independence.
For 2,000 years, the Jews of the world have been making it more or less on their own. They have not looked to the sovereign powers where they had landed to provide for them. They have made common cause with committed Jews and, time and time again, they have rebuilt the biblical community model. When the climate became stormy in one place, those who could ran to other places where Jews had found shelter and their brethren facilitated this when they could. Those who despaired of their fate went underground and discarded their label, some forever.
Jews in America – taking over from the Jews in Britain – have attempted to act as a proxy in defence of Jews for the last hundred or so years. In spite of the enormous resources available, rescuing important numbers of Jews in serious trouble was always limited by political considerations but it was done where possible.
The impact of Israel globally is yet to be fully appreciated. After three generations, they now have six-and-a-half million Jews, 10 times the population at inception. What will their impact be when their numbers are 10 times again?
The coming world impact of Jewry rivals that which it had during the pre- and post-Christian era of the Roman Empire. As then, our influence is in the realm of ideas. Then, it was ethics. These days, it centres on the importance of innovation and technology, though is by no means limited to these realms. The existence of the nation state concentrates the impacts and provides focus.
We Jews in the Western world may not yet have fully internalized that we now have someone in our court, as we have never had before. Wherever we are, if trouble arises, we have someone to look to. Since Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a voice has been raised when Jews anywhere are found to be in distress. Israel has done more than talk; it uses its limited resources to make a difference wherever it can – and not just for Jewish communities but for countries with few or no Jews. Israel’s independence, in part, represents our own.
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.