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SPECIAL REPORT / ISRAEL at 50

After Travails and Triumphs, a Boast: 'We Exist'

Israel has gone from hardscrabble beginnings to a $95-billion economy. It could be said the Zionist experiment has succeeded--despite wars with the Arabs and divisions among Jews.

April 12, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — At 89, Yosef Burg looks back on Israel's first half-century as an elder measures the accomplishments of his offspring, and he issues a sober judgment: "First of all, I would like to say that we exist."

In fact, this is no understatement from one of Israel's preeminent politicians, who has seen the Jewish state from its hardscrabble beginnings through five wars and myriad international crises. Against all odds, Israel exists. Fifty years after its founding, Israel is a full-fledged member of the world community with a $95-billion economy and a nuclear-armed military.

Survivors of the Holocaust in Europe and most of the other Diaspora Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel have done so, with a third of the Jewish people in the world now living in their own state. In the words of Israel's Zionist leaders, "the exiles have ingathered."

Hebrew, the ancient language of the Jews, has been reborn as the mother tongue of millions who redefined themselves from scholars and merchants in exile into soldiers, political leaders and high-tech engineers.

With these achievements alone, it can be said that Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement fathered by Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century, has succeeded.

But the costs of the enterprise have been tremendous and the conflicts unending. On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations voted 39 to 13 to end the British mandate in Palestine and partition the land into separate Jewish and Arab states. Israel declared its independence May 14, 1948. (Israel will celebrate the event April 30, the anniversary according to the Jewish calendar.) Since then, tens of thousands of Israelis have been killed or wounded guaranteeing the security of the Jewish state, which is still embroiled in battles for what Burg, a founder of the conservative National Religious Party, calls "the soil of Israel and soul of Israel."

Israel has made peace with Egypt and Jordan but not with the rest of the Arab world, and soil is the essence of their conflict. What represented redemption for the Jews, the end of 2,000 years of exile, was the nakba, or catastrophe, for Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of Arab residents of Palestine were uprooted from their lands in 1948 and are refugees, with their children and grandchildren, prohibited from returning to what is now Israel.

During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, as well as the Sinai Peninsula, which has since been returned. Today, more than 2 million Palestinians consider themselves still under Israeli control, if not direct occupation, and want an independent Palestinian state. Most Palestinians support the 1993 peace agreement between Israel's then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but others question the legitimacy of the Jewish state and threaten it with violence.

Neighboring Syria will not make peace with the Jews until Israel returns the Golan.

The soul of Israel, meanwhile, is being torn apart by modern-day tribes of the House of Jacob: leftist Jews and rightist Jews, devout Jews and secular Jews, European Jews and Middle Eastern Jews who disagree on fundamental issues facing the country.

Israel divides politically at the point where soil and soul meet: Most citizens believe that the government must exchange captured land for peace with the Palestinians, while many insist that it must hold on to the West Bank to ensure Israel's security.

Many devout Jews believe Israel has a birthright to Jerusalem and the West Bank, which they call by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria. A religious law student named Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin in 1995 because he believed that the prime minister was a traitor for trading Jewish land; many secular Israelis turned militantly anti-religious in response.

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In a speech to the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, Herzl boasted that "Zionism has already brought about something remarkable, heretofore regarded as impossible: a close union between the ultramodern and the ultraconservative elements of Jewry."

Today, Israelis cannot even agree on the definition of who is a Jew, and the debate is driving a wedge between the Jewish state, where most religious people are Orthodox, and Diaspora Jews, the majority of whom belong to the Reform and Conservative movements.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and devout Jews in Israel want shopping malls closed and soccer games banned on the Jewish Sabbath. Meanwhile, so many secular Israelis are out enjoying themselves on Jewish holidays that, in the words of author Tom Segev, "you can't get a parking place at the Sea of Galilee on Yom Kippur."

Israel at 50 is following the Western democratic model of free elections, a vital media and independent Supreme Court. But its government imposes military censorship, and the high court validates rough treatment of Arab prisoners.

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