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The State of Israel
May 18, 1999

In its short life, Israel has rarely been free of political and cultural turmoil. But this week's election of Ehud Barak as the country's new prime minister -- and, perhaps more definitively, the ouster of the fiery Benjamin Netanyahu -- suggests that its population is looking for ways to settle into a more quietly routine existence. Moshe Ben David, a hotel worker quoted today in The New York Times, summed up the general mood, saying, "Barak is my flavor of the day, because he's vanilla. I'm dying to be bored. That would be so normal."

Israel's history has been anything but normal, and during this century The Atlantic has reported on many different aspects of the country's development. As Israel seeks to redefine itself, now seems like an appropriate time to revisit some of these articles.

In "A Jewish Palestine" (July, 1919), H. Sacher explained the scriptural and historical basis of the Zionist impulse. "'With him who dwells outside Palestine it is as though God were not with him,'" he wrote, quoting from rabbinical works. "'To live in the land of Israel outweighs all the commands of the Torah.'" All of Judaism, Sacher claimed, is tied together by the "triple thread of God, the Jewish people, and the Jewish land."

Rabbi Milton Steinberg, in "The Creed of an American Zionist" (February, 1945), argued for the formation of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. In the wake of the Holocaust, he asserted, the revitalization of Hebraic culture would require a safe haven "where the homeless Jews of the world shall have found rest; where the Jewish spirit shall have been reborn; whence shall flow to the Jewries of the Dispersion inspiration and the stuff on which it feeds."
From Atlantic Unbound:

Books & Authors: "A Century of Zionism" (November, 1996)
In an Atlantic Unbound interview, Geoffrey Wheatcroft discusses The Controversy of Zion, winner of The National Jewish Book Award, and takes stock of Theodor Herzl's "mad idea."

In "Israel: Young Blood and Old" (October, 1949), the American artist George Biddle recounted his visit to Israel a year after its official establishment. What impressed him the most was the sense of mission and spiritual purpose that animated its citizens: "The real excitement has been to watch in its early germination a social and moral experiment in government.... Often I think, too, of the same mental eagerness, democratic simplicity, pride, and prophetic sense of fulfilling a world mission that shine through the writings of Americans at the birth of our country." His observations, however, while detailed and vivid, reflect a somewhat anachronistic viewpoint and considerable prejudice against the displaced Arabs.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, explained, in "The Kingdom of the Spirit" (November, 1961), that far more than a mere "national and political unit," Israel would become a spiritual arena in which "a new way toward freedom, peace, justice, quality, and the advancement and redemption of humanity will be pointed out to the world."

Jon Kimche's "Israel in 1965" (November, 1961) speculated about what Israel's national and international status would be in four years. He pointed out that Ben-Gurion had emphasized from the outset that Israel is an ongoing project, and that its citizens must not become complacent lest they find themselves unprepared to address some new adversity.

In "Israel and the Arabs: The Myths that Block Peace" (January, 1969), the political scientist Charles Yost argued for the feasibility of Arab-Israeli peace. He suggested that if each side could only be persuaded to relinquish its cherished myths -- the sense each had, for example, of its own innate superiority and divine right to control the Holy Land -- then the conflict could be approached as a purely political, logistical matter, and a workable compromise could be devised. Should the two sides stubbornly refuse to listen to reason, he argued, then outside intervention on the part of the United Nations would be required to work out a compromise.

In "Lions in Winter" (January, 1993), Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari suggested that three Middle Eastern leaders might finally be capable of achieving a workable compromise. "Whether or not ... negotiations will end the long and brutal Israeli-Arab conflict essentially rests in the hands of just three people: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization ... Yasser Arafat."

While Netanyahu was in power, the compromise that Schiff and Ya'ari wrote about was a virtual impossibility. But with the arrival of Ehud Barak, who has cast himself very much as a peacemaker and negotiator in Rabin's mold, perhaps normalcy itself is now on the table.

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