Israel at 75: The ancient love story between the Jewish people and their homeland

History has not always been kind to the Jewish people, but the ongoing Israel adventure feels downright miraculous, writes Gil Troy

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Israel marks the 75th anniversary of its founding this year, and the National Post is launching a five-month celebration of the Jewish state, telling the remarkable story of its re-birth and resilience against all odds. We’ll toast its food, its multiculturalism, its world-leading innovation, its most intriguing people and more. Look for commentary, video, podcasts and more feting the “start-up” nation.

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On April 26, everyone toasting Israel’s 75th anniversary — by the Jewish calendar — will be dancing through history. The ancient love story between the Jewish people and their homeland, the Land of Israel, goes back 3,500 years to the Bible. The romantic story of Zionism reaches back a century-and-a-half. And the history of the State of Israel chronicles one of the few functional post-colonial democracies to emerge after the Second World War.

Although history has not always been kind to the Jewish people, the ongoing Israel adventure feels downright miraculous.

Invoking the Bible to explain a small high-tech democracy that has generated 92 of the world’s nearly 1,200 billion-dollar unicorn startups may seem strange — but that’s the Jewish story. Beyond revealing the Jews’ deep roots in the Promised Land, the Bible explains the unique nature of Jewish identity.

Judaism is a religion, but the Jews are a people, too. That unique intertwining can produce non-religious Jews and a Jewish state that is a democracy, not a theocracy.

Jews lived for centuries without worrying that they did not fit conveniently into western categories. They were Jews, fusing their national, religious, cultural and ethnic identities — praying toward Zion, Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s forever-capital, wherever they lived.

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Tragically, in the centuries following the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews worried about much more than labelling. The vast majority living under Christian monarchies in Europe, the expanding minority living under Muslim rule in the Middle East and North Africa, and the smaller minority still living in the land the Romans renamed “Palestine,” were often busy fighting persecution and poverty, while building a robust religious and ethical civilization.

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An 1850 painting of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
An 1850 painting of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Photo by David Roberts

Starting in the 1700s, modernity mugged Europe’s Jews. The reason-based intellectual movement (the Enlightenment) and the freedom-based political emancipation movements freed some Jews from the ghetto. The few Jews who assimilated desired equality, acceptance and dignity, not just prosperity.

Alas, a renewed Jew-hatred shattered their hopes. Buoyed by the new, scientific-sounding term “antisemitism,” Jew-haters proved that this ancient hatred was also the most plastic of hatreds — adjustable, artificial and often toxic. By the late-1800s, “the Jews” were bashed as communist and capitalist, as too rich and too poor, for fitting in too well and for standing out too much.

Zionism was one of many Jewish responses to these shocks. While Abraham and Sarah spawned the Zionist idea that the Jews are a people with ties to a particular homeland, Theodor Herzl founded the formal Zionist movement.

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Theodor Herzl in 1897.
Theodor Herzl in 1897. Photo by Imagno/Getty Images

An assimilated Viennese journalist born in 1860, with piercing eyes and a striking black beard, Herzl embodied the Jews’ faith in modernization. In 1895, Herzl claimed he had his Zionist epiphany. At the time, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish-French artillery officer, was being tried for treason — falsely. Rather than attacking him individually as a traitor, the Parisian crowds yelled, “Death to the Jews.” Herzl realized that without a Jewish state, Jews would never be respected.

In truth, this Judenfrage — the Jewish question — had haunted Herzl since university. The Dreyfus Affair allowed his inner playwright to plot out the Jewish people’s Zionist journey in three acts: we tried to fit in; they rejected us; we became Jewish nationalists, seeking to rebuild our historic homeland in Palestine.

In 1897, Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress. This launched the formal Zionist movement, after millennia of longing, centuries of prayers and decades of other attempts. After too many paralyzing leaps of faith, Jews finally took a leap of hope.

This was Herzl’s great gift to his people. Hope inspired downtrodden Jews to believe that tomorrow would be better — while challenging them to roll up their sleeves to make it happen. And dreaming made Zionism more than anti-antisemitism. Zionism sought to rebuild the Jewish soul. Fittingly, the Jewish national anthem became “Hatikvah” — “The Hope.”

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Beyond providing a script pointing to redemption — return home! — Herzl launched intense diplomatic initiatives. When he died at 44 in 1904, after only 11 active years as a Zionist, the Ottoman Turks still controlled Palestine.

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Theodor Herzl with members of the Zionist Organization in Vienna in 1896.
Theodor Herzl with members of the Zionist Organization in Vienna in 1896. Photo by National Photo Collection of Israel

By 1917, Zionist diplomacy had its great breakthrough. One leading Zionist, Chaim Weizmann, helped develop synthetic acetone, which was used for launching British shells. This positioned him to explain Zionism to British leaders.

When one aristocrat wondered why the Jews insisted on Palestine “when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently,” Weizmann replied: “That is like my asking why you drove 20 miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.” Weizmann understood that your home offers identity, not just shelter.

Grateful for Jewish support during the First World War, Great Britain recognized the Jewish right to a homeland in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration was the most dramatic affirmation of the Jewish national movement’s legitimacy. The 1920 San Remo Conference formalized Britain’s mandate over Palestine. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George told Weizmann: “Now you have got your start, it all depends on you.”

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Chaim Weizmann and his wife Vera
Chaim Weizmann and his wife Vera outside St. James’s Palace in London. Photo by Getty Images

As the British ruled a truncated Palestine, having hived off Transjordan, Jews trickled home. This immigration upset some local Arabs — even as wandering Arabs settled there, too, attracted by British order and prosperity. Yet a series of clashes sharpened Palestinian Arab identity against “Palestinian Jews.”

By the 1930s, some British officials deemed the territory ungovernable. Talk of partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab entities grew. Unfortunately, so did British efforts to appease Arab rejectionists by imposing harsh immigration quotas — just as Adolf Hitler emerged.

The Nazi murder of six million Jews confirmed what Theodor Herzl and other Zionists had said decades earlier: the Jews were a people, and they needed a state on their own homeland.

David Ben-Gurion
David Ben-Gurion wears a military uniform during a visit on Dec. 2, 1949 to the Negev desert in southern Israel. Photo by David Eldan/GPO via Getty Images

On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations, which was founded to secure a postwar peace, agreed. Remarkably, both the Soviet Union and the United States approved Resolution 181, which recognized the Jewish right to a homeland in Palestine, but partitioned the land into a Jewish state and an undefined Arab entity.

Most Jews accepted this painful compromise. Palestine Jewry’s provisional leader, David Ben-Gurion, accepted “half a loaf” as better than none, especially to a people reeling from so much loss. Spurred by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, Arab extremists rejected any compromise — and targeted Arab moderates. This rejectionism, historian Efraim Karsh argues, was the true “betrayal” of Palestinians.

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Civil war erupted, as the British prepared to leave in May 1948. Back in November, as most Jews rejoiced, Ben-Gurion worried. He knew that many of the young people who were dancing with joy would not survive the upcoming war. And he knew how much needed to be done.

His to-do list included a government, a constitution, an anthem, a name, a capital, a currency, a budget, airports, a police force, an army. After decades of infrastructure building, population growth and ideological development, the Zionist movement was ready.

By May, with over 1,000 Jews dead and chaos spreading, many advised the Zionists to delay declaring independence. America’s secretary of defence, Gen. George Marshall, urged U.S. President Harry Truman not to alienate the Arab world by recognizing a clearly doomed Jewish state.

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David Ben Gurion reads the declaration of independence on May 14, 1948 at the museum in Tel Aviv, below a photo of Theodor Herzl.
David Ben Gurion reads the declaration of independence on May 14, 1948 at the museum in Tel Aviv, below a photo of Theodor Herzl. Photo by Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images

Zionist legend has one analyst warning Ben-Gurion that the Jews had no weapons, no bullets, no oil. Ben-Gurion responded, “But we have hope.” Ben-Gurion loved defying naysayers. When a committee of experts concluded that the desert town of Beersheba would never grow much past its 28,000 inhabitants, he replied: “Appoint a new committee.” Today, over 650,000 people live in the booming metropolitan area.

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The provisionary council debated whether to declare a state. When Chaim Weizmann heard that after 12 hours, Ben-Gurion won and the state would be declared, Weizmann snapped: “What are they waiting for, the idiots.” Two-thousand years of waiting was long enough.

At 4 p.m. on May 14, 1948, shortly before the Jewish Sabbath, David Ben-Gurion read the Israeli Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art — today known as Independence Hall. Ben-Gurion affirmed the Jews’ biblical roots — and their pressing, legitimate right to establish a state in their homeland. Launching this Jewish democracy, Ben-Gurion offered “equality” to all the state’s “inhabitants,” despite the looming war.

Seven Arab armies attacked. Starting with only a population of 600,000, Israel would lose 6,000 people. By the 1949 truce, Israel had secured more defensible borders, while 700,000 Arabs fled their homes — some voluntarily, awaiting victory; others in fear.

Israel’s War of Independence established this old-new state. Despite the war’s distractions, Ben-Gurion made another fateful decision: overruling his economic advisers, again, he welcomed every Jew who wished to immigrate.

Arab hostility throughout the Muslim lands and North Africa soon triggered an exodus of 850,000 Jews from Arab countries. These Jewish refugees became Israeli citizens on arrival — stabilizing the state the Arabs had tried to destroy.

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Arab-Israeli War
Israeli forces attack the Arab village of Sassa in Galilee during the Arab-Israeli War on Oct. 1, 1948. Photo by History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Seventy-five years after these epoch-making events, it’s important to remember that life in Israel has often been stressful. Since 1948, Israel has had to overcome numerous challenges.

While full peace remains elusive, since Israel won the Yom Kippur War in 1973, no Arab army has attacked Israel. The once-monolithic Israeli-Arab conflict is now a series of conflicts, largely due to peace treaties signed with Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Along the way, Israel solved its water shortage, developed from a poor, primitive economy into a high-tech behemoth and ended its often vulgar and macho clubby culture. Although bigotry never fully disappears, the initial hostility against the Jews from Arab lands, the “Mizrachim,” has abated, and Arab-Israelis, who were under military rule until 1966, have now built a thriving middle class with full legal rights.

Yom Kippur War
Syrian soldiers raise their hands in surrender on Oct. 10, 1973 on the Golan Heights. Photo by GPO/Getty Images

Ultimately, the instability that had Israelis before the 1967 war joking that, the last person fleeing the country should “turn off the lights” at the airport, is no more.

Zionism can also toast seven miraculous Israeli achievements. First, after millennia of homelessness, the Jews re-established sovereignty over their homeland. Second, Israel has integrated three-million immigrants since 1948, mostly refugees fleeing from persecution in post-Nazi Europe, the Arab lands, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

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Third, the Jews returned to history, as full participants, sometimes facing complex dilemmas, but no longer victims. Fourth, Israel’s western-style capitalist democracy maintains a strong Jewish flavour, expressed in the holidays, the traditions and the Jewish national culture, while guaranteeing all citizens equal rights.

Fifth, Herzl’s vision of “Altneuland,” old-new land, balances traditional values with trend-setting culture. Sixth, the once-dormant Hebrew language has become alive again. And finally, for all its challenges, Israel revolutionized the Jews’ image — and self-image — worldwide.

Israel remains a project-in-formation. Like Canada, Israel is one of the world’s few democracies, guaranteeing regular votes and permanent rights to every citizen. And for most Jews, especially Canadian Jews, Israel remains a favourite destination, a point of pride and their greatest collective endeavour in the world today.

Read more from the Israel at 75 series

National Post

Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org). 

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