History of Israel

Historical Setting

ON MAY 14, 1948, in the city of Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The introductory paragraph affirmed that "Eretz Ysrael (the Land of Israel) was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance, and gave the world the eternal Book of Books." The issuance of the proclamation was signaled by the ritual blowing of the shofar (ram's-horn trumpet) and was followed by the recitation of the biblical verse (Lev. 25:10): "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof." The same verse is inscribed on the American Liberty Bell in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The reestablishment of the Jewish nation-state in Palestine has been the pivotal event in contemporary Jewish history. After nearly two millennia of exile, the Jewish people were brought together in their ancient homeland. Despite the ancient attachments of Jews to biblical Israel, the modern state of Israel is more deeply rooted in nineteenth- and twentieth- century European history than it is in the Bible. Thus, although Zionism--the movement to establish a national Jewish entity--is rooted in the messianic impulse of traditional Judaism and claims a right to Palestine based on God's promise to Abraham, the vast majority of Zionists are secularists.

For nearly 2,000 years following the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, the attachment of the Jewish Diaspora to the Holy Land was more spiritual then physical. The idea of an ingathering of the exiles and a wholesale return to the Holy Land, although frequently expressed in the liturgy, was never seriously considered or acted upon. Throughout most of the exilic experience, the Jewish nation connoted the world Jewish community that was bound by the powerful moral and ethical ethos of the Jewish religion. The lack of a state was seen by many as a virtue, for it ensured that Judaism would not be corrupted by the exigencies of statehood. Despite frequent outbreaks of anti- Semitism, Jewish communities survived and in many cases thrived as enclosed communities managed by a clerical elite in strict accordance with Jewish law.

Zionism called for a revolt against the old established order of religious orthodoxy. It repudiated nearly 2,000 years of Diaspora existence, claiming that the Judaism of the Exile, devoid of its national component, had rendered the Jews a defenseless pariah people. As such, Zionism is the most radical attempt in Jewish history to escape the confines of traditional Judaism. The new order from which Zionism sprang and to which the movement aspired was nineteenth-century liberalism: the age of reason, emancipation, and rising nationalism.

Before Napoleon emancipated French Jewry in 1791, continental and Central European Jews had been forced to reside in designated Jewish "ghettos" apart from the non-Jewish community. Emancipation enabled many Jews to leave the confines of the ghetto and to attain unprecedented success in business, banking, the arts, medicine, and other professions. This led to the assimilation of many Jews into non-Jewish European society. The concomitant rise of ethnically based nationalisms, however, precluded Jewish participation in the political leadership of most of the states where they had settled. Political Zionism was born out of the frustrated hopes of emancipated European Jewry. Political Zionists aspired to establish a Jewish state far from Europe but modeled after the postemancipation European state.

In Eastern Europe, where the bulk of world Jewry lived, any hope of emancipation ended with the assassination of the reform- minded Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The pogroms that ensued led many Russian Jews to emigrate to the United States, while others joined the communist and socialist movements seeking to overthrow the tsarist regime and a much smaller number sought to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Zionism in its East European context evolved out of a Jewish identity crisis; Jews were rapidly abandoning religious orthodoxy, but were unable to participate as equal citizens in the countries where they lived. This was the beginning of cultural Zionism, which more than political Zionism attached great importance to the economic and cultural content of the new state.

The most important Zionist movement in Palestine was Labor Zionism, which developed after 1903. Influenced by the Bolsheviks, the Labor movement led by David Ben-Gurion created a highly centralized Jewish economic infrastructure that enabled the Jewish population of Palestine to absorb waves of new immigrants and to confront successfully the growing Arab and British opposition during the period of the British Mandate (1920- 48). Following independence in May 1948, Ben-Gurion's Labor Zionism would guide Israel through the first thirty years of statehood.

The advent of Zionism and the eventual establishment of the State of Israel posed anew a dilemma that has confronted Jews and Judaism since ancient times: how to reconcile the moral imperatives of the Jewish religion with the power politics and military force necessary to maintain a nation-state. The military and political exigencies of statehood frequently compromised Judaism's transcendent moral code. In the period before the Exile, abuses of state power set in rapidly after the conquests of Joshua, in the reign of Solomon, in both the northern and southern kingdoms, under the Hasmoneans, and under Herod the Great.

In the twentieth century, the Holocaust transformed Zionism from an ideal to an urgent necessity for which the Yishuv and world Jewry were willing to sacrifice much. From that time on, the bulk of world Jewry would view Jewish survival in terms of a Jewish state in Palestine, a goal finally achieved by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The Nazi annihilation of 6 million Jews, on whose behalf the West proved unwilling to intervene, and the hostility of Israel's Arab neighbors, some of which systematically evicted their Jewish communities, later combined to create a sense of siege among many Israelis. As a result, the modern State of Israel throughout its brief history has given security priority over the country's other needs and has considerably expanded over time its concept of its legitimate security needs. Thus, for reasons of security Israel has justified the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, the limited rights granted its Arab citizens, and harsh raids against bordering Arab states that harbored Palestinian guerrillas who had repeatedly threatened Israel.

The June 1967 War was an important turning point in the history of Israel. The ease of victory and the reunification of Jerusalem spurred a growing religio- nationalist movement. Whereas Labor Zionism was a secular movement that sought to sow the land within the Green Line, the new Israeli nationalists, led by Gush Emunim and Rabbi Moshe Levinger, called for Jewish settlement in all of Eretz Yisrael. The June 1967 War also brought under Israel's control the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. From the beginning, control of Jerusalem was a nonnegotiable item for Israel. The Gaza Strip and especially the West Bank, however, posed a serious demographic problem that continued to fester in the late 1980s.

In contrast to the euphoria that erupted in June 1967, the heavy losses suffered in the October 1973 War ushered in a period of uncertainty. Israel's unpreparedness in the early stages of the war discredited the ruling Labor Party, which also suffered from a rash of corruption charges. Moreover, the demographic growth of Oriental Jews (Jews of African or Asian origin), a large number of whom felt alienated from Labor's blend of socialist Zionism, tilted the electoral balance for the first time in Israel's history away from the Labor Party. In the May 1977 elections Menachem Begin's Likud Bloc unseated Labor.

The early years of the Begin era were dominated by the historic peace initiative of President Anwar as Sadat of Egypt. His trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 and the subsequent signing of the Camp David Accords and the Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel ended hostilities between Israel and the largest and militarily strongest Arab country. The proposed Palestinian autonomy laid out in the Camp David Accords never came to fruition because of a combination of Begin's limited view of autonomy--he viewed the West Bank as an integral part of the State of Israel--and because of the refusal of the other Arab states and the Palestinians to participate in the peace process. As a result, violence in the occupied territories increased dramatically in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Following Likud's victory in the 1981 elections, Begin and his new minister of defense, Ariel Sharon, pursued a harder line toward the Arabs in the territories. After numerous attempts to quell the rising tide of Palestinian nationalism failed, Begin, on the advice of Sharon and Chief of Staff General Raphael Eitan, decided to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) major base of operations in Lebanon. On June 6, 1982, Israeli troops crossed the border into Lebanon initiating Operation Peace for Galilee. This was the first war in Israel's history that lacked wide public support.

Israel History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress