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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

November 1957


The Atlantic Report: Israel

by The Atlantic Editors


The people of Israel approach the tenth anniversary of their independence in a mood of outward confidence but of deep inner unease. Against great odds, they have succeeded in establishing a workable state. Yet, by now, many Israelis realize that independence was only the first of their problems.

The country still faces a perplexing international situation. It had gained the bitter hostility of the Soviet Union and of its satellites; the Afro-Asian bloc is suspicious; the British were always unfriendly, even in the interlude when Egypt was a common enemy; and Arab hatred shows no sign whatever of abatement. Among the nations of the world, Israel can count on friendship only from the French and on an abstract sympathy from the United States.

Yet for the moment foreign affairs do not absorb popular attention. The Sinai campaign revealed Arab impotence and introduced a period of comparative security in the relations of Israel with its neighbors. In any case, the Eisenhower Doctrine has taken the initiative out of the hands of the little state. Henceforward, Israelis realize, the crucial decisions will be those of the great powers; their own role will be a subsidiary one. The changes of regime in Jordan and Syria during the summer illustrated Israel's passive role; although it was vitally concerned in those events, it abstained from taking any action.

Yet the relaxation of international tensions has revealed other serious problems long neglected while all attention was focused on the borders. After Suez it became clear that there remained unanswered some fundamental questions as to the kind of state Israel was to be.


EXPERIMENT IN DEMOCRACY

The founders of the state were moved by a vision, shaped by the progressive social ideals of Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the century. They were nationalists. But their nationalism was not parochial. In coming to Palestine they had no intention of creating another small Levantine state that would serve the interests only of its inhabitants. Rather, they were cosmopolitan, optimistic, and dedicated to social justice.

They conceived of their state as an experiment which would have meaning for the people of all the world. On the soil of their ancestors they wished to put into practice the ideals of justice and brotherhood they had inherited from their ancient tradition. Israel was to be a center of democratic life and was to help spread Western civilization throughout the Near East and the world.

From this point of view, the isolation of Israel is spiritually as well as diplomatically disquieting. Who will be influenced by what occurs there? Some politicians are still inclined to argue that the Arabs would be much better off if they lived in peace with Israel. But no one believes this to be an imminent possibility. There are efforts to build economic and cultural relations with Burma and Ghana. But these are a long remove from the aspirations of the founders.


BLURRED VISIONS

Internally the nearly ten difficult years have blurred early hopeful visions. Israel began with the handicap of a land poor in resources and made poorer by centuries of heedless exploitation. The settlement was therefore always dependent upon foreign aid. In the past five years reparations from Western Germany have supplemented the assistance from overseas Jews. This degree of dependence is irksome to a proud people who aim at self-sufficiency. Even assuming that help from Jewish communities abroad can continue indefinitely, the reparations run out in five more years. By that time the state must support itself.

To do so without sacrifice of the standard of living requires a radical rise in productivity. Yet it is difficult to attain that objective without sacrificing cherished social ideals.

A great strike this summer in the Ata textile factory, the largest industrial enterprise in the country, illustrated the dilemma. Israeli workers are organized in the Histadrut, a comprehensive union which is related to Mapai, the labor party in control of the government. The conditions of employment are therefore most favorable. But those conditions discourage investment, without which the economy will not expand.

The Ata strike, which involved the right of management to fire laborers in the interest of efficiency, dragged on for three months before the Mapai members of the union's executive board decided to press for a settlement favorable to the employers. In this issue the government was compelled to make a desirable social end give way to the need for a greater productivity.

The same contrast between realities and ideals has marked the development of communal settlements. One of the great achievements of early Zionist action was the collective or kibbutz, which went forth to redeem the wilderness. The mystique of pioneering embraced the ideals of communal action, of work on the soil, and of redemption of the desert.


THE PULL OF THE CITIES

Yet, while the kibbutz remained appealing as an ideal, in practice it never attracted more than a tiny minority of the population. The great cities of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem grew faster than the frontier settlements. Of the total population of almost 2 million, only 80,000 people live in kibbutzim.

Ten years ago, the Negev, the great desert area reaching southward from the Judean hills, challenged the nation's capacity for communal action. David Ben-Gurion gave up his premiership to live in a settlement in the hope that his example would call forth the emulation of others. The results have been disappointing. Israeli youth have not been drawn to the kibbutzim. Instead it has been necessary to channel newly arrived immigrants there, and in the process the character of the settlements has changed. They have lost much of their communal and agrarian nature.

Kiryat Gath is representative of the new type -- a complex of villages in which 15,000 people live, most of them employees in factories rather than tillers of the soil. Furthermore, in these barely completed villages a variety of independent small traders and artisans have already made their disconcerting appearances. These folk are simply carrying on the activities familiar to them in Poland or Egypt, activities stigmatized by the Zionists of the past as unproductive.


THE CULTURAL IMPASSE

The old Zionists are equally puzzled by the development of the new state's culture. They themselves were secularists and progressives; and they thought of independence as the means of fulfilling the desire for learning and for artistic expression frustrated in Russia and Poland.

Here too they were trapped. In Mea Shearim, in the heart of Jerusalem, where the obscurantist sects are in control, the walls bear placards denouncing the indecency of women's short-sleeved dresses. What have these survivals of a medieval past in common with the bare-legged and bare-armed young men and women who toil in the settlements or march in the army?

Ironically, the exigencies of politics since independence have made the secular-minded labor government dependent upon the support of a bloc of religious parties that insists upon a rigid orthodoxy buttressed by the state. The result has been an anachronistic entanglement of church and state in a manner that few Israelis anticipated or desired.

While the Christian and Muslim communities are recognized and tolerated, there is no effective right of dissent for Jews. The government has followed Turkish precedent in giving the religious authorities jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and family law; and it finds itself in the uncomfortable position of denying the workers the ability to enjoy their one day of rest. The wealthy man can drive to the beach in his own car on Saturday. But an inflexible Sabatarianism closes down all public transport.

The outbreak of violence in Tel Aviv in August over the question of the precise hour at which buses could resume service illustrated one phase of a general cultural impasse. But the total dimensions are much wider. There is still a determined struggle against great odds to build up the cultural resources of the community. But other needs for manpower make the task difficult. Fewer than 7000 students are now enrolled in the nation's colleges and universities; the high costs limit the access to secondary education to the relatively well-to-do or the exceptionally brilliant. It is quite possible that the next generation may be less literate, less cultivated, and more parochial than its predecessors.


IMMIGRANTS WANTED

There is a wistful disposition to look to continued immigration for relief from these problems. Ten years ago, when the state was established, the leaders anticipated a great "ingathering of the exiles" that would populate Israel with millions of educated, skilled Jews from the United States and from Western Europe. Since then, the new state has absorbed more than a million immigrants. But the results have nevertheless been disappointing. Only a handful have come from Western Europe or the United States.

Some 40 percent were displaced persons from Eastern Europe, while 53 percent were natives of Africa and Asia. In other words, almost all were refugees compelled to come because of misfortune rather than idealists who moved of their own accord. Often lacking the skills and experience necessary for life on the land, these immigrants proved difficult to absorb; and it cost more than $10,000 to settle each new family.

Nevertheless, there was regret in Israel as the number of immigrants fell after 1949, and there was relief as the flow resumed once more last year. The state proceeds on the assumption that immigration will continue and will increase. The basic nationality law of the country gives a constitutional right of entry to every Jew in the world; and most people hope that the population of Israel will soon double. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, for instance, has recently announced that he expects the immigration of most of the 3 million Jews of the Soviet Union in the near future.

Anti-Semitic pressures that induced the Polish government to permit some emigration this year have encouraged those hopes. The more realistic planners assume that some 100,000 newcomers will arrive annually for the next few years. That will entail a cost of about $150 million yearly, and it will create enormous problems of settlement and adjustment. How this feat will be accomplished remains vague. But the faith that it will be accomplished is crystal clear.

These dilemmas nurture widespread speculation as to the nature of the state. Long-established nations do not have to wonder about their own reason for being. Israelis do; their whole ideology has for a long time been based on the assumption that Jews could live securely and creatively only in their own country. They labor now under a driving compulsion to justify that assumption.

The Israelis are not frightened by realities or put off by the charge of utopianism. David Ben-Gurion recently made this position eloquently clear. It was visionary to think of establishing a Jewish state in the desert, of turning tradespeople into farmers, of reviving an ancient language. But it had to be done. Israelis see no obvious answers to the questions they face. But they are confident that answers can be found.


  • Return to The Controversy of Zion: An Interview with Geoffrey Wheatcroft


    Copyright © 1957 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    Originally published in
    The Atlantic Monthly, November 1957. Volume 200, no. 5 (pages 22 - 26).

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