David Ben-Gurion was preparing to deliver the Declaration of Independence when he summoned the embryonic IDF’s chief of operations, Yigael Yadin, and asked him squarely: “What are our chances of surviving the Arab armies’ invasion?”
“Our chances are even,” came the scathing reply.
Ben-Gurion still made the declaration, despite news of the Etzion Bloc’s downfall and the massacre of 120 of its defenders, and despite US secretary of state George Marshall’s warning, “as a general,” to the burgeoning state’s foreign minister Moshe Sharett: “They will destroy you.”
Israel indeed suffered heavy losses, but it was not destroyed, and in fact defeated its invaders and went on to 75 years of achievements that its founders, had they read this column, would find difficult to believe.
MILITARILY, THE state, which in May 1948 had hardly 50,000 soldiers, today has some 500,000 regular and reservist troops, besides millions of older Israelis who are equally experienced and trained.
Israel’s military budget is the 15th-highest in the world, its military exports are the 12th-highest in the world, and its air force – whose fleet in 1948 was a handful of ramshackle relics from World War II – is now the sixth most powerful in the world (according to the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft).
Meanwhile, Israel’s Jewish population swelled from 600,000 to more than seven million, and the overall population multiplied more than sixfold, to nearly 10 million. This demographic growth reflects two facts that would have pleased Ben-Gurion far more than Israel’s military victories:
First, Israel’s birth rate is the highest in the developed world, and that fertility includes secular lawyers, doctors, bankers, engineers and other female professionals who bear an average 2.9 children, as opposed to the rich world’s average of 1.6. The Israeli trend, say demographers, reflects optimism.
The second engine of Israel’s population growth has been immigration. The absorption of huge numbers of new arrivals by a relatively small veteran population – most notably one million immigrants in the 1990s by hardly 4.5 million Israelis – had no equivalent elsewhere.
The immigrations were also a big social success. Millions acquired an education that their parents had no chance to obtain, and climbed from the working class to the middle class. Some also produced rags-to-riches tales, like senior bankers Zadik Bino and Victor Medina, energy tycoon Yitzhak Teshuva, insurance magnate Shlomo Eliahu, retail kingpin Rami Levi, Mobileye founder Amnon Shashua, or aerospace entrepreneur Kfir Damari, all products of the immigrations from the Middle East.
The IDF has also reflected this mobility, with five of its chiefs of staff over the past 40 years having hailed from the Middle Eastern immigrations, as did two of its Air Force commanders and three of its Navy’s commanders.
The immigration from the former Soviet Union has not achieved such military prominence, but it has produced a chairman of the Jewish Agency, a speaker of the Knesset, and ministers of defense, finance, foreign affairs, interior, transport and health. Most symbolically, the recent immigrations produced ministers of absorption, including one who arrived from Ethiopia at age three.
Underpinning this social mobility are economic achievements that to the state’s founders would have sounded like science fiction. The impoverished mini-state of immigrants, refugees and survivors has become, over 75 years of hard work, so prosperous that its annual per-capita product, at $55,535, is the 12th-highest in the world, according to the IMF – higher than Canada, Sweden, Germany and Japan.
Finally, and most happily, Israel’s diplomatic situation has transformed beyond recognition.
The East Bloc, which armed Israel’s enemies and actively fueled their hostility, has vanished. Moreover, its former members established full and vibrant ties with Israel, as have China, India and almost all of Africa.
In the Arab world, the groundbreaking peace with Egypt proceeded to four more Arab states, and at least four others are also dialoguing and trading with what they once called the “Zionist Entity,” reflecting a pan-Arab fatigue with the Palestinian problem and a quest to accommodate the Jewish state.
Yes, it’s an incredible list of achievements; yet as Israel looks to its next 75 years, the challenges that lie ahead are no less daunting than what its founding fathers faced.
What challenges await Israel?
THE LEAST contentious goal will be to spread Israel’s economic success to all parts of Israeli society. That will require leading Arab women and ultra-Orthodox men to the workplace, where their current participation rates are, respectively, 40% and 51%.
Above that looms the challenge of creating a social contract, a task that requires overcoming the frequent hostility to this concept among many of these two communities’ leaders. That unwritten contract will say that citizens get the state’s defense, education, infrastructure and welfare benefits in return for civic contribution, first through National Service and then as taxpayers.
Even more daunting will be the effort to produce a constitution.
Israel lacks a constitution because the same man who bravely delivered its independence feared that the fledgling state’s society of rigid ideologues would be unable to agree on such a document’s details, and that the bickering it would spawn might sap the energies that the young state’s construction demanded.
The fear was valid and the decision was wise, but 75 years on, the lack of a constitution has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Finally, the broader Middle East’s accommodation of Israel will not make the Palestinian problem go away. The two societies west of the Jordan will at some point have to part with the radicals on both sides who deny the other side’s very existence as a nation, and right to freedom and respect.
Yes, it’s a tall order, but so were Israel’s victory, survival and very birth 75 years ago.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.