This Thursday, the nation of Israel will celebrate the sixty-eighth year of its independence.
In just under three-quarters of a century, the fledgling Jewish state has already gone through centuries’ worth of conflict, trial and scrutiny. In the present, Israel has a firm foothold in the Middle East and it is probably safe to say that the tiny nation is under no serious threat of being “thrown into the sea,” as its enemies declared on May 15th, 1948.
Sixty-eight years after its inception, which bore with it a recognition and acceptance of the Holocaust and the obvious necessity of a Jewish state, Israel has grown into one of the most vibrant economies of the world and become a leader in technology, electronics and defense industries around the world. The Israeli Defense Forces is a military powerhouse and has successfully defended Israel in multiple engagements. The United States has demonstrated a commitment to aid, most recently providing Israel with funds and material to build the Iron Dome technology, an anti-rocket installation that with its 96% interception success rate has meant that casualties from Hamas and Hezbollah rocket attacks have fallen to nil.
Yet though the existential threat has probably passed, the idea of Israel, the Zionist ideology, and the hope of a safe haven for Jews remains under scrutiny. Today that comes in the form of denunciations from organizations like the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), accusations of war crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC), activism in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses and around the world, terror tunnels constructed by Hamas militants using foreign aid money, and the occasional slashing attack on Israeli civilians.
The strength of Israel is measured in its ability to defend itself, thus, the emergence of the center-right secular Likud party starting in the 1990s is not surprising. Yet the current Likud leader and Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, has alienated a large portion of the Israeli electorate, has helped drive a rift in U.S-Israeli relations deeper than ever in recent memory, and has been forced to ally with right wing nationalist religious groups within the Israeli Knesset in order to retain a political majority.
The state of Israel is strong, but it clearly can use some work. Yet there are those who take the signs of fraying in Israel’s political order as an offense, there are those who would forget the reasons for Israel’s existence- these are the people who protest the so-called Israeli apartheid, who advocate for the recognition of the “Palestinian Holocaust,” who would deny the Jewish Holocaust, and who demand Israel disband the IDF and prosecute key members of the military high command and government for war crimes against Palestinians. And that’s why on the eve of the commemoration of Israel’s day of independence, it is so important to take a look at the history of Israel as well as examine the situation on the ground.
Jewish Zionists had been advocating for a Jewish state since the First Zionist Congress in 1887 at Basle, Switzerland. Zionists traveled to the area they believed to be Jewish land, then under the control of the British Empire. By 1917, the English government issued the Balfour Declaration, proclaiming their support for a Jewish state. Jewish people began to immigrate to the place known as the Palestinian Mandate, a small piece of land dominated by the Negev Desert, lacking water or any signs of civilization.
The Jewish people who moved began to establish the foundations of major cities, like Tel Aviv, Haifa, Eilat and others. Some who moved subscribed to the Marxist-Leninist ideology and attempted to construct mini utopian states within the area. These would later become the kibbutzim, small communities of no more than three hundred people where everyone lives collectively, executing an order of living that subscribes to Marx’ idea of communism.
Yet indigenous Arab populations were displeased with the influx of European, African and American Jews, manifesting their grievances through violent riots throughout the year 1929. By 1930 the British Empire issued a White Paper banning Jewish immigration into the Mandate.
Though the British claimed that the ban was for the safety and security for all parties, they would soon contend with a far more massive conundrum. Throughout the next fifteen years, over six million members of the Jewish faith would be systematically, coldly, mathematically murdered by the inhuman machine of the Nazi Third Reich. A conference at Evian on refugees being accepted into the Mandate failed to establish international quotas for Jewish refugees from the Nazis. The White Paper was enforced and though the British Empire and the Allied powers were aware of the German “Final Solution” by at least 1942 and probably earlier, Jewish immigration continued to be barred. Even when the Second World War finally drew to a close, the White Paper policy remained in force and barred survivors from entry into Palestine. Even in the darkest hour for the Jewish people, even those purported to be on the right side of history failed to act.
It took two full years, until 1947, for the Anglo American commission to finally recommend immigration of 100,000 survivors to the Palestinian Mandate. Some Jewish extremists took it upon themselves to hurry along the process and began the Jewish uprising in Palestine, attacking British consulates and public servants and carrying out terror attacks on Mandate forces. In the same year the British Empire referred the issue of Israeli statehood to the newly formed United Nations. This governing body, in a remarkable show of diplomacy, proposed a two-state Partition plan, whereby both an Israeli and a Palestinian state would be established in the lands of the Palestinian Mandate and under the mandatory power of the British.
Yet Arab parties were not pleased with the Partition plan and resisted its implementation, bringing diplomacy to a halt. Furthermore, the British, dealing with their own consequences from the Second World War, set the expiration date of the British Mandatory System as May 14, 1948. At midnight on that day the state of Israel was established by declaration. On the next day, the Haganah, to become the core of the IDF, engaged an Arab coalition of five neighboring states, Transjordan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia as well as other Muslim irregulars. Over a period of nine months, with the support of the UN, US, and Jewish people around the world the Haganah successfully defended the land and the Israeli state was established.
Over the next half century, the IDF would engage in four other conflicts, notably including the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Yet every time the Israeli forces, backed by the United States, prevailed over their Arab enemies, backed by the Soviet Union. The Arab-Israeli conflict became a major hot zone in the ongoing proxy wars between the US and USSR in the Cold War, along with Vietnam and the Korean Peninsula. Based on Cold War containment doctrines on both sides, the US steadfastly stood by Israel, its proxy in the war. While there was some anti-Israeli sentiment and anti-Zionist sentiment, on the whole American foreign policy was geared towards propping up Israel. But by the end of the century, in the 1990s, the prevailing foreign policy fell apart with the end of the Cold War.
Without a mortal enemy, the United States did not any longer need to unconditionally support world allies. Instead, public attention began to turn towards the other peoples affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result of the prolonged struggle, millions of Palestinians had been displaced and forced into refugee camps. Arab nations refused to accept many of the refugees and the camps’ conditions remained brutal. The United Nations focused its effort on ameliorating the situation, in fact, the UN’s refugee organization, the UNHCR, has two divisions, one for Palestinian refugees, and one for all other refugees. The UN has a permanent peacekeeping mission, UNRWA, which works in conjunction with UNHCR to ameliorate the situation.
Unfortunately, with the sheer number of refugees, and with the lack of funding, refugees remain in pretty much the same situation as they had been in 1948. In areas like the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Palestinian government organizations have self-governing authority but they are not fully sovereign states. In recent years, the main party in the West Bank, Fatah, has been undermined in Gaza by the terrorist political party Hamas.
In Lebanon, Shia militias have organized into the group Hezbollah, and instigated a war in 2006 in the Golan Heights, a disputed territory in Israel’s north. After the 2006 engagement Hezbollah ceased to be a belligerent in the Arab-Israeli conflict due to a collapse in order in Lebanon and the rise of extremist Sunni groups like ISIL. Yet Hamas remains a formidable power and uses money from aid programs to fund rocket building and tunnel digging. In 2012 and 2014, Israel launched operations into the Gaza Strip in order to destroy Hamas stockpiles of weapons and eliminate extremists. This controversial operation, where Israel was accused once again of war crimes for bombing a UN school (which Israel claims contained a shelter for Hamas rockets), as well as the rise of Likud and the establishment of a new post-Cold War order help set up the situation Israel finds itself in today, on the eve of its sixty-eighth birthday.
It is in this setting that we have to evaluate Israel’s situation. It is unreasonable to assert that Israel remains locked in a mortal struggle for survival. Since 1948 the country has gone from the scrappy young David fighting the combined might of the Arab League bent on their destruction to the Goliath, against whom young Palestinian children throw rocks in a literalization of the metaphor. Rather than being able to take advantage of the underdog narrative that the Western public seems to adore, the country instead is now seen as the oppressor, lending credence to the B.D.S movement as well as anti-Israeli sentiment through accusations of war crimes and illegal occupations. There isn’t enough room in this article to discuss which groups are in the right here, and the situation is evidently staggeringly complex, but I submit that on at least one day out of the year, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, people around the world ought to take a minute to think about the history that led the world and the Israeli state to the place where it is today.
The Israeli people are acutely aware of the sacrifices made by their grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters in order to secure the freedom for Jewish people as well as the democratic state in the Negev. This awareness manifests in the scheduling of Israeli Memorial Day, Yom Ha’Zikaron, on the eve of Independence Day. Yom Ha’Zikaron begins at sundown tonight and will be observed throughout the day tomorrow in Israel. As of today, the total number of Israelis killed due to conventional conflict, terrorism and political violence stands at 23,447. One of the government owned television stations will begin to broadcast the name of every fallen soldier and civilian. The names will appear for three seconds each. This broadcast will continue throughout the entire day. At 11:00AM tomorrow, a two-minute siren will sound all throughout Israel, and all Israelis will stop what they’re doing to remember the fallen. Tens of thousands of Israelis, mostly Jews, died to create and protect a safe haven for a people that has been shunted from place to place for all of history. In their memory, in the memory of those fallen in the Holocaust, in the service of rational acceptance rather than partisan discord, regardless of personal opinions, let us join the Israeli people for two minutes tomorrow to honor the struggle to create a nation. May their memories be a blessing. זֵכֶר צַדִּיק לִבְרָכָה