Today, approaching its 70th anniversary since the state of Israel was created by a vote of the United Nations in November 1947, Israel has become a strong power in many areas. Its military is rated #8 in the world, its High Tech stands in the top 5 in the world and its water desalinization stands by some accounts #1. Its military is the strongest in the Middle East reinforced by 100 atomic bombs, 700 airplanes and strong intelligence services (Mossad, Shin Bet). The population of Israel has soared from 800,000 in 1948 to 8.4 million today.
Yet, Israel’s rise to being a state in 1948 came against tremendous odds. In 1897 at the First Zionist Conference convened by the Hungarian Jewish Theodore Herzl, such an outcome would have seemed remote and very unlikely. Only 40,000-50,000 Jews, many of them religious and coming to Palestine to die rather than live, out of 10 million Jews in the world lived there. Herzl’s effort to separate a Jewish state from the Ottoman Empire seemed hopeless when he died in 1904.
Things got progressively worse for the local Jews, who now had multiplied to 80,000 by 1914. The Turks deported 10,000 of them to Egypt and elsewhere and contemplated (and even started on a small scale) to destroy the local Jews like they had killed one million Armenians in 1915. Only intervention by the Americans and, ironically, the Germans prevented this from happening. The proclamation of the British in 1917 of the Balfour Declaration of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine conserved some hope for the future.
In the 1930s the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany led to the ultimate disaster, the killing in concentration camps and towns of 6 million of the 16 million Jews in the world. At one point the German army in 1942 was preparing to assault Palestine and kill all the 400,000 Jews. But, a British victory in October 1942 prevented this. When the United Nations vote in November 1947 called for a Jewish state and an Arab state hope soared. But, when the five Arab armies began to stir and try to destroy the tiny Jewish community, hope vanished. Even top Jewish leaders were not sure of victory. How could 650,000 local Jews hold out against the armies of 50 million people? The Jews had minimal military experience (save 33,000 who had served in the British army) and lacked tanks and airplanes. Early defeats seemed to reinforce the seeming hopelessness of the Jewish position.
Even worse the departing British colonists, despite the 1917 Balfour Declaration, sold weapons to Iraq and Egypt and turned over most of their departing positions to the Arabs. And far worse the Americans under President Truman, despite their important recognition of Israel, slapped an arms embargo on the beleaguered new state.
The least likely savior was the Soviet Union. Stalin, a known anti-Semite, who would promote the “black years of Soviet Jewry (1948-1953), refused to allow Soviet Jews, many of whom had extensive military experience in World War II, to form Stalin brigades and move to the nascent state. The 50,000 Jews who came out to hail Golda Meir over the High Holidays, could have made quite a difference but they were not allowed to leave.
And yet, Stalin, for his own reasons, as David Ben Gurion later said, made the difference between victory and defeat. He mobilized the Communist bloc to vote at the United Nations for an independent Jewish state and Arab state in November 1947. He provided the heavy weapons from the Czech Skoda factory to Israel and then also to the Arabs, but Israeli intelligence intercepted the shipment and brought it too to Israel.
Why did Stalin do this? Two reasons. First, he wanted to divide up the Arab Middle East under British and French control and nothing might do that as well as a Jewish state. Second, he saw the power of Russian socialism and prevalence of Russian Jews in the leadership of the new state (Weizmann, Ben Gurion, Meir, etc) and hoped that the new Israel might become a satellite of the Soviet Union like Eastern Europe. Finally the nascent Israeli armies, after early defeats, fought hard, lost 2,000 dead and played on the divisions among the Arab enemies.
To understand Israel today it is important to remember its early history from 1897 to 1948 and how narrow was the margin that a Jewish state would ever be created. But it also gave hope to other states whose beginnings were tenuous but over time grew into significant regional actors.