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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

June 1953

The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Israel

by The Atlantic Editors

As Israel celebrated her fifth anniversary, the future of this small, focal, and embattled state still hung in the balance. Independence Day was marked throughout the country by a show of military strength involving all units of the ground, air, and naval forces on full parade.

In his message to the nation, Premier David Ben-Gurion noted that Israel's sixth year of independence would begin with her military manpower and equipment tripled. "We are not," he said, "afraid of any test of strength." As greetings poured in from well-wishers throughout the Western world, Israel was again proclaimed "a beacon of freedom, a showcase for democracy, a great new laboratory for human culture and spiritual revival."

But whatever control Israel exercises upon her own destiny, Moscow's doctrine and Washington's reaction remain the most compulsive factors. The Prague trials, the Rumanian purges, and the condemnation of the Moscow doctors kindled all over Israel the terrifying presentiment of a new wave of anti-Semitic violence. For thousands of Israelis who had survived the Nazi holocaust but whose relatives and friends had been destroyed, the familiar pattern of horror and despair was re-emerging. They had a feeling of panic as they became conscious of the hopeless plight of some 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union should the Kremlin plunge them into a blood bath.

On February 12 the Soviet Union formally severed diplomatic relations with Israel, requested the Israelis to leave Moscow, and recalled its own representatives. The breach occurred less than three days after Israeli terrorists had thrown a bomb into the Soviet legation in Tel-Aviv, wounding several members of the Russian staff. Although they realized that the Kremlin does not act on impulse, Israel's leaders were especially disturbed by the gratuitous act of provocation which permitted Moscow to call the turn, and by one more indication of a serious absence of personal discipline on the part of Israel's emotional citizenry.

The death of Stalin and the succession of the Malenkov-Molotov-Beria triumvirate appear to have slowed, if not arrested, the course of deterioration in Soviet-Israeli relations. Perhaps the most puzzling phenomenon in the new "soft" Russian attitude has been the extraordinary reversal of judgment in the case of the Moscow doctors and the outright repudiation of their accusers. This singular turnabout has brought hope and a sense of relief to Israel. The Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, sees in the vindication of the doctors a new opportunity to work toward the restoration of diplomatic relations. Even more important is the belief that the hapless Jews of the Soviet Union may have been spared a terrible recurrence of systematic liquidation.

The influence of the Zionists

NOW that the official anti-Semitic line has been broken, responsible Israelis are more than ever convinced that the events of recent months reflect a struggle for power within the Kremlin. This theory runs counter to the belief that Russia has merely sought to curry favor within the Arab world and Germany by aligning itself against the Jews. Israel recognizes also that over a million Zionists in the Soviet Union constitute an international force, not readily compressible into the totalitarian monolith, and are an enduring source of embarrassment to the Communist leadership.

Israel, of course, is as sensitive to Washington as it is to Moscow, but there is an enormous difference in its approach to the two capitals. From the moment that President Truman took the lead in recognizing her statehood, Israel has relied on the United States for indispensable financial support in the form of loans, grants-in-aid, technical assistance, private philanthropy, and investment. Moreover, she has sought to foster a consistently favorable attitude toward her national aspirations in the Congress and the White House, always in the face of pronounced American interest in Arab-held oil.

Israel has been watching the new Republican Administration in an effort to assess the Eisenhower-Dulles view of the Middle East as a whole, and of Israel's place in American plans for the security and development of the region. She is aware that the American Jewish vote was not a positive factor in the Eisenhower victory and that the present Administration is not bound to give "preferential treatment" to Israel.

The cost of devaluation

THE recent formation of a coalition government has for the first time given a voice in economic policy to the General Zionists, whose outlook corresponds roughly to that of the American Republican Party and Britain's Conservatives in their insistence on the primacy of free enterprise and decontrol.

The Minister of Commerce, Peretz Bernstein, a veteran politician and economist, advocates the relaxation of all economic controls, including the stringent regulations for foreign exchange. He would like to have the Israel pound seek its own level; he has abolished the rationing of clothing, household articles, and most foodstuffs -- except meat and dairy products, which remain in drastically short supply.

Bernstein believes that the country can hardly suffer more acutely under devaluation then under the advanced inflation which prevailed a year ago. He maintains that if the time, effort, funds, and personnel heretofore involved in a controlled economy can be freed and diverted toward an intensive program of development, Israel will emerge eventually with a more reassuring standard of living.

Meanwhile, Israel is slowly being strangled by the Arab blockade, the denial of trade with her neighbors and the persistent shortages of foreign exchange, raw materials, and skilled labor. Six months ago there was too much money in circulation and the shops were empty. Today there is no money and the shelves are full. Prices are high and there are no buyers. Within a year the Israel pound has been devalued twice -- dropping from $2.80 to $1.00 -- but it is still worth less than 50 cents in the free money market.

Under the controlled economy, Israelis were obliged to frequent the black market for the necessities of life; and with astronomical prices prevailing, their cash reserves melted away. The government took what was left in a recall of general currency with an enforced 10 per cent loan in cash and deposits. Thus the economic pendulum has swung with astonishing rapidity and changed the country's habits almost overnight.

Devaluation has also brought serious curtailments in production and rising unemployment. Lacking foreign currency to purchase materials and machinery abroad, manufacturers are operating at one third of their capacity Within six months unemployment rose to 16,000; it is at present estimated at close to 40,000. Eighty-five per cent of the "hard currency" coming into Israel today is being given rather than earned, and a very large proportion of the total is being re-exported to purchase the necessities of human survival, not to stimulate industrial and agricultural growth. This year $62 million has been spent abroad on food alone, and the adverse ratio of imports to exports is now nine to one.

Palestine has not known any kind of normalcy for fifteen years, and the Israeli is conditioned by long experience to an existence of extreme frugality and self-denial. Since the formation of the state five years ago, he has existed on a diet of fish, vegetables, hope, and resolution. Even these commodities are wearing thin as the people of the promised land contemplate the long, hot, dusty road ahead.

Reparations, oil, and water

JOINT German and Israeli ratification of the reparations agreement whereby Israel is to receive $715 million as compensation for crimes committed by the Nazis will yield $100 million in goods and equipment prior to April, 1954. This is an amount equivalent to 30 per cent of her total imports in 1952. Reparations will take the form initially of oil products, agricultural implements, scientific and laboratory equipment, and heavy industrial machinery.

A more permanent alleviation is being sought with the initiation of drilling operations in the badlands adjacent to the Dead Sea, calculated to bring forth oil from the desert. In a country whose very being is considered miraculous, there is a mystical approach to many mundane problems. The gushing of oil is confidently awaited by many who have beheld the successive miracles of survival and deliverance.

Water is almost as important as oil in the determination of Middle Eastern problems. The control of sources, power, navigation, and communication is a highly disturbing factor in Arab-Israeli relations. Syria has no seaport whatever, Jordan no port on the Mediterranean.

The hallowed River Jordan has taken on new economic and political meaning. At one time it marked the territorial boundary of Palestine; in the Arab-Israeli war, segments were taken and retaken, so that today it crosses Syria, Jordan, and Israel before it reaches the Dead Sea -- another divided body of water. Israel requires control of the Jordan in order to further its ambitious program of irrigation in the southern desert, and to supply hydroelectric power in the north. The Arab states require commercial access to the Mediterranean somewhere between Beirut and Alexandria.

Current experimentation in the purification of sea water may provide the next miracle -- a new and unlimited water source for the parched Holy Land. Thus water in all its characteristics is a contentious element in the Middle Eastern struggle.

The Arab border

THE past winter witnessed an alarming increase in aggressive maneuvers along the Israel-Jordan border. Wholesale infiltration and reckless retaliation produced incident after incident. At one moment the frontier threatened to erupt into the dreaded "second round" of a full-scale Arab-Israeli war. The Palestinian tension reflected the state of unrest among the great powers, and Western diplomats reported the situation, with deep concern, as "highly explosive."

In recent weeks the tension has lessened and there is now talk of peace in the Middle East. The Israeli leaders are now believed by responsible observers to be taking the initiative in the resolution of their differences with the Arab states, and are credited with a genuine desire to end the uneasy state of armed truce which plagues the region.

The theory is now held that Egypt and Israel could come to terms through the impetus provided by Anglo-American-Egyptian settlement of the Suez issues. In this event, the other Arab states would perforce follow suit.

But there is still a formidable psychological barrier in the unwillingness of certain Arab leaders to recognize even the existence of Israel. Thus the Egyptian Premier, Naguib, upon whose judgment hopes of peace largely center, opened a recent session of the Arab Armistice Commission by calling Israel "a cancer in the body of the Arab world," adding that Palestine must belong to the Arabs.

Foreign Minister Sharett says that his government's only basic condition for peace is that Israel should be accepted as it is, with its territory, population, and restricted sovereignty. "We seek no encroachment," says Sharett, "on the integrity or sovereignty of our neighbors."

Music and the arts

IN the sixth year of her independence Israel has attained surprising cultural maturity. The working press is free, active, and informed. There are over a dozen daily newspapers, the majority written in Hebrew, and representing every shade of political opinion. There are excellent foreign language dailies -- English, German, and French. Alongside the Cairo, Moscow, and New York dispatches there are lively editorials. The letters columns carry controversies over poetry and art as well as attacks on government incompetence.

Music continues to flourish. Plans are being made for a new concert hall in Tel-Aviv to permit the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra -- of which the nation is extremely proud -- to be heard by many more people than can be accommodated in its present overcrowded quarters. Its repertory of the national theater has now added to the classics the latest popular successes of the New York and Continental stages.

The museums of Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem conduct an active schedule of exhibitions, and there is the familiar disputation among painters and critics over the relative merits of modern and traditional art. The intellectual life of the country is epitomized by those interminable discussions in the cafés and artists' clubs, which are perhaps the most arresting and gratifying manifestation of a democratic society in ferment.

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

    Copyright © 1953 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    Originally published in
    The Atlantic Monthly, June 1953. Volume 191, no. 6 (pages 9 - 13).

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