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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

January 1952

The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Israel

by The Atlantic Editors

ISRAEL, a sovereign state conceived in adversity and born under fire, is faced, in this its fourth year, with problems of overwhelming magnitude. Dream of the homeless, haven of the unwanted, refuge of the persecuted, the young state is waging an uphill, day-to-day battle, fighting as much for its very survival as for its place in the commonwealth of nations.

No young nation has approached the task against heavier odds. Israel's problems are ubiquitous -- social, economic, political, military, psychological. Viewed objectively, dispassionately, they appear to be insurmountable. Yet the state exists, expands, grows every day in stature as living proof of the founders' unquenchable fire and the relentless determination of its people.

Israel is a pin point on the world map. It runs along the Mediterranean coast for a little over 100 miles and extends south into the Sinai desert for another 100 in the shape of a long, inverted triangle whose apex is crowned by the new deep-water port of Elath, at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. The country is less than 70 miles wide at its broadest point, and only 10 at its narrowest. It is encircled by its Arab enemies -- Lebanon and Syria on the north, Jordan in the center and south, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the south and west. It contains 1 1/2 million people, 10 percent being non-Jews, largely Arabs of Mohammedan or of Christian faith.

Since 1948, and until recently, it has received Jewish immigrants at the rate of some 16,000 per month, and it is the stated purpose of the government to maintain this ratio of "ingathering of the exiles" until over 600,000 Jews have been absorbed.

Economically, the pendulum is swinging from agriculture to industrialization. New industries are sprouting wherever capital can be found. Haifa and Tel Aviv have in the past two years witnessed the opening of American automotive and refrigerator assembly plants (Kaiser-Frazer and Philco), a tire factory, and large construction enterprises to satisfy the need for new housings. The ancient holy city of Jerusalem boasts a modern American shoe factory.

Haifa, site of the largest petroleum refinery on the Mediterranean (today virtually useless because of the pipeline stoppages enforced by the Syrians and Jordanians), is being developed as the Eastern Mediterranean's major port. Lydda Airport, adjacent to Tel Aviv and equidistant from Haifa and Jerusalem, is serviced by virtually all of the Western world's major airlines and is an important operational stop on the Europe-Orient air routes.

Some years ago, Palestine was roughly one-half desert, one-quarter eroded mountainside, and one-quarter swampland. Today irrigation projects are gradually inducing reclamation of the great southern desert, the Negev; evergreens and vineyards are forcing their way up through the newly terraced rock formations of the Judean hills; and lush truck farms dot the lowlands, yielding tropical produce in the place of lethal malaria.

Time, peace, and credit

IN many ways, what can be done through idealism, perseverance, and courage has been done. But this will not be enough. Apart from faith, Israel has three desperate needs -- time, peace, and credit. These are interlocking elements in the vital equation. Premier Ben-Gurion's visionary scheme for agricultural reclamation and industrial expansion is being pressed along with, and in spite of, a theoretically unlimited immigration commitment. Economically the two goals appear to be irreconcilable, for the responsibility of transporting, feeding, housing, and settling the immigrants -- most of whom arrive in a condition approaching destitution -- has already sapped the country's meager resources and is draining away its reserves with alarming acceleration.

Food and clothing are drastically rationed in Israel today; the necessity to import virtually all commodities, and to purchase them in hard currency, has subjected the economy to the inexorable regimentation of controls, priorities, allocations, and red tape.

Only time plus peace plus credit can alleviate the situation. Israel needs time to integrate the new arrivals and make them productive members of a progressive society; to exploit the vast resources said to be latent in the desert -- minerals, clays, possibly even oil.

It needs peace with its neighbors to avoid the paralyzing burden of defense and to re-open its most important markets. The Arab countries represent Israel's natural trading area; they are adjacent, and they possess raw materials vital to Israeli manufacture and the markets for her finished goods.

It needs credit, generous and long-term, with which to complete the task of immigration; to set the wheels in motion; to purchase the implements and machinery for growth, development, and stabilization.

The daily grind

THE obstacles to constructive work are appalling; the dislocation of personnel and facilities is chaotic. It takes about four hours, under normal conditions, to complete a telephone call from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or Haifa, each about 40 miles distant. The government is in a transitory phase, with offices divided between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, so that ministers and their staffs shuttle back and forth almost daily.

There is a railroad line connecting Tel Aviv with Haifa and Jerusalem, but the rolling stock is antiquated, the scheduled runs infrequent (about once a day in each direction) as well as unconscionably slow. Thus public transportation is entirely by inter-urban bus and taxi. The ordinary traveler must reserve his seat in a taxi three or four days ahead, and the more rugged bus rider will inevitably have to stand all the way in a sardine-box type of conveyance. Eight months out of twelve this trip is undertaken in blistering, enervating heat.

Food shortages are so drastic that a housewife habitually queues up for half the day in order to obtain a few potatoes, one or two tomatoes, some bread and margarine, occasionally some frozen fish. The egg ration is three per week, the meat ration one quarter pound per week, but in many recent weeks there has been no meat whatever.

A factory employing several hundred workers had to suspend operations for six months while awaiting the arrival from the United States of a spare part valued at $35. And so on.

Yet for all this frustration and acute privation, the Israelis seem relatively healthy and productive. It has been said that the wholesale "ingathering" could not possibly have been undertaken were the climate more rigorous, with the consequent need for heated, well-constructed dwellings, heavier clothing, a more substantial diet. In this respect the sun has been a blessing; it permits thousands of immigrants to live in tents and provides a healthy, outdoor existence for their young. That the North Europeans who comprise the most vigorous, most skilled elements in Israel should be able to carry out Western working habits in so taxing a climate is a tribute to their steadfastness of purpose.

Moreover, a conscientious effort is being made to promote a well-rounded society and an indigenous culture in the very midst of the fight for survival. The appetite for literature, music, art, and the theater is insatiable. There are probably more book stores in Tel Aviv, per capita, than in any other city in the world. There is no other musical organization like the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which is obliged to repeat every concert nine or ten times to enable but a fraction of its potential audience to participate. Tickets for the National Opera and Theatre Company -- the Habima -- are always at a premium.

Israel's leaders

THE emergence of the state and its rapid expansion have dramatized the need for leadership in government, industry, science, and the professions. Israel has had to train and place without delay her government officials, her diplomatic representatives, her military leaders, and her captains of industry.

Men like Ben-Gurion, Foreign Minister Sharett, and Finance Minister Kaplan are old and tried hands, able to represent Israel with distinction at home and abroad. But many of the country's heaviest responsibilities rest on youthful shoulders. Aubrey Eban, Ambassador to the United States and Israel's Permanent Representative in the United Nations, and General Yagil Yadin, Commander in Chief of the Army, are in their mid-thirties. At this level, Israel's leaders have performed brilliantly and with an instinct for opportunity. But there has been no time to develop strength down the line, and the lack of experience, as well as the frequent mediocrity, of the rank and file has been damaging to the cause.

By and large, the Israeli is hardly a born diplomat. One of the West's most seasoned observers recently said, "You can't help but marvel at the courage and perseverance of the people, and the remarkable things they have accomplished in Palestine against great odds. But they have been their own worst enemies in organizing world opinion in their favor. They just don't seem to know how to win friends abroad, and they are forever embarrassing and antagonizing the very people who could and want to be most helpful to them."

Much of this may be ascribed to inexperience and self-consciousness. The great majority of Israelis have suffered persecution and discrimination, personal and collective. They are a minority become a majority; they are a polyglot, heterogeneous society, drawn literally from the four corners of the earth, with different backgrounds, customs, and languages.

For years most of them lived and fought underground, sustained by idealism and the excitement of nocturnal raids, sabotage, arms smuggling, and illegal immigration. Now violence has been superseded by order, and the Israeli is asked to take his place as a normal individual in a normal society. It is a novel experience for an Israeli to be treated as a free and equal member of world society, and it will doubtless be a long time before the new nation overcomes an ancient pattern of behavior deeply rooted in anxiety and suspicion.

Patriots in uniform

THE exhilaration of military victories over the Arabs, coupled with a growing national emphasis on defense, has produced a proud, tough, aggressive, chauvinistic youth. Israel today retains at least the superficial attributes of an armed camp. The army is everywhere; military vehicles clog the roads, uniforms dot the streets, the entire population participates in maneuvers.

The sentiment for territorial expansion via military adventure, despite sincere official disavowal, is strong and widespread, and the fire is being fanned by immigration, spelling as it does both new manpower and an ever closer containment of the growing population. Should the Ben-Gurion government succeed in contriving a peaceful settlement with the Arabs, this emotion would subside quickly, for the Israelis are law-abiding and respect the decisions of their duly elected representatives.

The religious bloc

ISRAEL was conceived not only as the Jewish national homeland but as a democratic state. In theory, it will receive and embrace persons of any race or belief. That a state of war with the Arabs has invoked extraordinary measures involving the temporary suppression of individual freedoms -- strict military censorship and economic controls are outstanding cases in point -- does not mean that democracy will not ultimately be practiced as it is preached. But an influential and highly vociferous minority, steeped in Jewish ritualistic traditions, would impose on the nation the strictest observance of Jewish religious practice, compulsory religious education, and the full paraphernalia of the theocratic state.

Official and popular sentiment are dead set against such distortion of the founders' principles, but to date ample concessions have had to be made to the "religious bloc" for political reasons. Ben-Gurion dissolved his government early in 1951 and called for a general election, hoping thereby to destroy permanently an unsatisfactory coalition with the religious bloc -- and, incidentally, to strengthen the hold of his party, the Mapai.

He has finally succeeded, months after the election, in forming a new government, the composition of which hardly differs from that of its predecessor. And the net effect is that concessions to the religious group will undoubtedly continue.

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

    Copyright © 1952 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    Originally published in
    The Atlantic Monthly, January 1952. Volume 189, no. 1 (pages 4 - 10).

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