Professor Jonathan Adelman
As Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary next May, there will be the familiar complaints about what Israel has not accomplished in its first 70 years. Peace with the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip has not been achieved. Palestinian terrorism and a 12th war remain constant possibilities. There is a growing threat from Iran which, on the threshold of having nuclear weapons and encircling Israel from Shiite bastions such as Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Syria and soon Gaza Strip,will pose a serious threat to Israel’s existence.
Among the 80% Jewish population, there is increasing separation between secular and religious Jews, especially among the ultra-Orthodox with 86% of their 18 year old males not serving in the Israeli military and 50% of them being impoverished. The separation between the wealthy and the poor is the second highest in the developed world.
Yet, Israel in its first 70 years even surpassed the Four Tigers of Asia--Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Also facing a major enemy they soared from Third World poverty to dynamic First World wealth. Unlike them Israel became a world leader in water desalinization, Top 5 High Tech power, Top 8 Military Power and regional military leadership. It is aligned to the American superpower, working with former Sunni enemies (Saudi Arabia and Egypt), increasingly close to Third World powers like India and on good terms with former enemy Russia.
None of this seemed remotely possible when Israel was founded with numerous serious problems. The outlook for the new state of Israel in 1948, after a razor thin victory in the War of Independence over five Arab armies that cost 6,000 dead, remained grave. The Arab states would try twice more (1967, 1973) to destroy Israel. Israel would lose 23,000 dead and 70,000 wounded from 11 wars and terrorism. The 650,000 Israeli Jews paled before the 50 million Arabs living in states that encircled Israel or were nearby. Old enemies were replaced by new enemies such as Iran after 1979.
Israel after 1948 would face numerous problems beyond its enemies. Its tiny size (8,000 square miles) represented less than .065% of the earth's surface. Fully 58% of Israel was made up of the Negev Desert where only 8% of the population resided. The road from Tel Aviv to Haifa is often 9 miles wide before it opens up into the West Bank while Jerusalem is less than five miles from Bethlehem on the West Bank.
Since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, it had been almost 2,000 years since there had been a Jewish nation.
The Jewish population, which in 70 CE counted 7 million who were 20% of the Eastern Mediterranean, should have grown to 100 million Jews.
The Holocaust, anti-Semitism, pogroms, forced expulsions, assimilation, ghettoization and other factors reduced the Jewish population by nearly 90% of that number. The Holocaust killed 80% of the Jews who were expected to move to Israel.
Then there was the America problem. In 1948 there were 650,000 Jews in Israel and 5,000,000 Jews in the United States. While Israel desperately needed American Jews only 130,000 settled in Israel in the next 70 years. Too, 500,000-700,000 Israeli Jews left Israel for the United States.
Most of the over 3 million Jews who made aliyah to Israel came from the poorer areas of the Arab Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Among Middle Eastern Sephardim one-third went not to Israel but to France.
There was Israel ‘s perilous international position. In the early years the majority of states refused to recognize the fledgling new state of Israel. The United Nations over time was increasingly hostile. Relations with the United States were modest before 1967 given the American relationship with the anti-Israel Arab world. Only after the Six Day War did Israel become a recognized Middle East power and switched from France to America as its major arms supplier.
Given all of its problems Israel’s numerous political, diplomatic, economic, military and secret police achievements have been remarkable But, now it will need all its accomplishments to deal with Iran that threatens it as a major power in the Middle East and even its very existence.