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Reflections on Israel’s 75th Anniversary

10 May 2023
By Dr Suzanne D Rutland
Israel begins to celebrate its Independence Day and mark the 67th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. Source: EPA/ABIR SULTAN/

The celebrations of Israel’s 75th anniversary since its foundation were bittersweet. On the one hand, it was a time to celebrate the creation of a vibrant and strong Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust; on the other hand, today Israel is facing challenges of internal divisions that are threatening the very fabric of its society.

At the end of nineteenth century, there were two divergent views on how to solve what was known as “The Jewish Problem” in Europe. In 1897, the first Zionist Congress was held in Basle, under the leadership of Theodore Herzl, and with the vision of removing the Jews from Europe and creating an independent Jewish state with Hebrew as its language. In the same year, what is known as “The Bund” was created in Eastern Europe, with the aim of fighting for socialism and equal rights for Jews. This was to be based on Yiddish culture, replacing the autocratic rule of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Tsarist Russian Empires.

The destruction of European Jewry during World War II resulted in the murder of 90 percent of Polish Jewry and, together with the post-war Communist takeover of Eastern Europe, marked the end of the Bundist movement – it survived but only at the fringes in New York, Argentina, and Melbourne. But, on the other hand, the Zionist vision was realised on 29 November 1947, with United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 181 affirming the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state.

In 1897, after the Basle conference, Theordore Herzl wrote in his diary: “In Basle I established the Jewish State. If I were to say it publicly today, the response would be laughter from all directions. Perhaps in another five years, 50 years at the most, everyone will recognize it.” When he wrote those words, the concept seemed totally unrealistic. Yet, fifty years later it became a reality.

The initial establishment of the Jewish state after the UNGA resolution was far from a certainty. Immediately after the vote, a civil war between the Palestinians and Jews in Mandate Palestine broke out with vicious fighting on both sides and Jerusalem totally besieged. After the British withdrawal in May 1948, Israel was attacked by its surrounding Arab neighbours. It seemed as though the fledgling state would not survive the onslaught. Yet, some would say miraculously, Israel won the 1948 war. This was not without huge cost, with as much as one percent of its population lost in the conflict.

The 1948 war created a significant refugee problem on both sides. On the Arab side, around 720,000 Palestinians fled. This was due to a variety of factors. The middle and upper classes left for their other residences in either Cairo or Beirut, so that those remaining were leaderless. In other cases, the people were expelled by the Israeli forces, particularly from strategically sensitive areas. Many fled from the fighting, hoping to return once the war was over. The story of the Palestinian refugees has led to ongoing problems that exist today.

On the other side, Jews in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) faced increasing persecution, and between 1948 and 1967, following another major Arab Israeli war, they also fled. Before 1948, there were over one million Jews living in MENA. Today, only a couple thousand remain, mainly in Morocco.

Many of those Jewish refugees found refuge in the newly founded Jewish state. There, in the tent cities known as Ma’abarot, they joined those Holocaust survivors who had left the ghosts of Europe behind them. Within three years, Israel’s population had doubled from 600,000 to 1.2 million. This number continued to rise, and recent announcements by the Israeli census bureau recorded a population close to ten million, with 20 percent being Palestinian Arab Muslims.

It is important to remember that almost every group who settled in Israel arrived as refugees – from Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab and Muslim lands, Soviet Jews who fled initially in the 1970s and then the one million who migrated to in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, and then Ethiopian Jewish refugees. Despite this, as well as facing ongoing conflict with its neighbours, Israel today has one of the highest GDP growth rates, with The Economist ranking Israel as the fourth most successful economy in the developed world in 2022. It is known as the “start-up nation,” as well as being listed this year as the fourth happiest country in the world.

The ongoing migration of Jews from Muslim Arab countries means that over fifty percent of Israel’s population are indigenous to the Middle East. Even the national language, Israeli Hebrew, is indigenous. Portraying Israel as a European settler-colonial state is to totally misunderstand the Jewish experience. For Jews, no matter when or where they have lived, the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” sung at the Passover table continue to resonate.

At the beautiful musical service held at the Teddy Kollek Park just outside the walls of the Old City (Jerusalem) at the start of Israel’s 75th Independence Day, songs that bridge over two and a half millennia of Jewish experience were sung by young and old, religious and secular, Sephardi/Mizrakhi (Oriental Jews) and Ashkenazi (European Jews) with equal gusto and feeling. The words of the psalmist following the return to Zion from the Babylonian exile “our mouths filled with laughter, and our tongues with songs of joy,” written two and a half millennia ago, resonate in modern day Israel with their religious, spiritual, and Hebraic ethnic tradition.

With such a success story, why should celebrating its 75th anniversary be bittersweet? Firstly, the Palestinian refugee problem has not been resolved. Meanwhile, the second part of UNGA Resolution 181, the creation of an Arab­ Palestinian state, has yet to be achieved. In the 1990s, the Oslo Process provided hope for peace, but failures to progress the agreement by the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, together with violence on both sides, resulted in the Second Intifada, which between 2001-2003 led to the deaths of 3000 Palestinians and 1000 Israelis – the latter mainly in traumatic suicide bombings. The Oslo dream was also shattered.

This has undermined trust between the two sides and empowered religious extremists – Hamas and Hezbollah on the Palestinian side, and the radical religious settlers on the Israeli side.

Palestinian peace campaigner, Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, a visiting scholar in our department, told our students that Palestinians have a dream that one day they will wake up and there will be no Jews. For the Jews, the dream would be that one day there will be no Palestinians. Clearly, this will not happen, so compromise is needed through the two-state solution.

However, in Israel’s 75th year the hope for compromise seems further away than ever. The situation is being even further aggravated with the new, extreme right-wing government in Israel, which is seeking judicial reform many see as undermining Israel’s democracy. The results have been unprecedented protests, now in their 18th week.

How will all this pan out? It is impossible to predict. The ongoing protests indicate a strong commitment to democracy from many within the Israeli-Jewish society and, in the end, this also means recognising the democratic rights of the Palestinians through the two-state solution. But, with zealots on both sides trying to achieve their aims, there will be ongoing violence and suffering. Hence, celebrating the miracle of Israel, with its “ingathering of the exiles” from 150 nations to create a diverse, complex, but thriving nation is bittersweet because of the ongoing external threats, the intense internal divisiveness and, above all, the failure to achieve the dream of the Oslo peace agreement.

 Suzanne D Rutland OAM is Professor Emerita at the Department of Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies, University of Sydney. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.