The 1960s: The New Israelis

By Mordechai Bar-On

Published May 01, 2008, issue of May 09, 2008.
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It is sometimes said that the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s passed Israel by because of our special circumstances here. It’s not true. Israel underwent a cultural revolution of its own during that decade. What happened in Israel in the 1960s was a turnabout in the spirit and ethos of Zionism.

LITERATI: A.B Yehoshua, left, and Amos Oz, pictured in 1991, took center stage in Israeli literary circles in the 1960s.
LITERATI: A.B Yehoshua, left, and Amos Oz, pictured in 1991, took center stage in Israeli literary circles in the 1960s.

During the pre-independence era and on through the 1950s, Israeli culture was dominated by the spirit and traditions of the Palmach underground, of patriotism, nation building, of heroism and shared struggle. It was an egalitarian and informal spirit, but it was also self-sacrificing.

At the end of the1950s a new wave appeared, a wave of poets, songwriters, authors and critics who deliberately broke with the previous generation and announced a change in approach. They thought the old generation was too collectivist, too nationalistic. The young artists were influenced by the new wave that was sweeping through Europe and the West, focusing on the individual, on freedom and self-expression.

The 1960s actually began in Israel not in 1960 but in 1957. Israel’s first decade had ended with the Sinai Campaign in 1956. The new decade would bring new troubles of its own on the security front, to be sure, but the basic fear that had troubled the Israeli mind — of a second round, a battle for survival that would reprise the War of Independence — seemed to disappear. Israel proved in Sinai in 1956 that it could hold its own against the largest Arab army. There was a sense of self-assurance that carried Israelis through the next decade and beyond.

The new spirit first made itself apparent in the realm of high culture, especially in literature, theater and music.

The major figure here in Israel was Natan Zach, a modernist poet who championed the new wave in poetics. In 1959 he published an essay attacking the poetic style of Natan Alterman, who was considered Israel’s national poet at the time. Alterman’s poetry was dramatic, passionate, strictly metered and rhymed. Zach’s was spare, colloquial, elliptical, without rhyme or meter.

Another major figure was Yehuda Amichai. He became widely known, outside Israel as well as inside, as a representative of the new Israeli style that looked within, expressed doubts and ambivalence.

In prose literature, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua were doing much the same thing. Amos Oz’s breakthrough novel, “My Michael,” was completed just before the Six Day War, even though it appeared shortly afterward. It embodied the new Israeli spirit of individualism and introspection. It changed Israeli literature, brought it around to the interior life and personal relationships.

Yehoshua was writing important short stories on similar themes at the time, some of them written in a fantastic or surrealistic style. In 1962 he published a very significant story, “Facing the Forests,” about a forest planted by the Jewish National Fund on the site of an Arab village. It tells about an Arab working there who decides to burn it down, and a young Israeli Jew, a guard in the forest, who watches the fire and is unable to act because of his ambivalence. It was the first real treatment in Israeli literature of the Palestinian experience of nakba, of their feelings of loss.

The new wave was expressed not only in high culture but in popular culture, as well, particularly in the emergence of a new style of popular music. It appeared early in the decade in the work of the military performing troupes, which previously had specialized in songs celebrating agriculture, newly developing regions and martial songs of their various corps. They now began singing songs about love and fun. Their graduates went on after their army service to create a new wave of Israel pop music. They were strongly influenced by rock ’n’ roll and the hippies, and they broke away from the old culture of the campfire and the accordion to bring in irony and new rhythms. You saw it in dance, too — the circle dance declined and the twist became popular.

In 1965, a local impresario tried to bring The Beatles to Israel for a performance in Tel Aviv. He applied to the Ministry of Culture for a subsidy, which was standard procedure at the time, but the ministry decided not to participate. The incident is remembered as a case of Israel banning The Beatles, which is not exactly true. The ministry simply decided not to provide the usual subsidies. But it was something very close, because it made the concert impossible. Why did the ministry do it? Apparently because The Beatles’ music was seen as a break with the halutzic, pioneering tradition — which it was. But Israeli culture was changing anyway. There was a new rhythm and a new style coming in. It was very much a generational change. The founding generation disliked it and tried to resist it.

Old myths were being shattered in the political sphere, as well. The figure of David Ben-Gurion lost its functionality. And when the Old Man left the stage, no one really took his place. The new leaders who stepped up to lead Israel in the second decade were not mythic; they were ordinary people. It started with an internal party fight within the ruling Mapai, or Land of Israel Workers’ Party, over a botched intelligence operation known as the Lavon Affair. Ben-Gurion wasn’t getting his way, and so he decided to step down. He had done it before. But this time the party didn’t line up behind him. And the fact that the party didn’t stand up for Ben-Gurion signaled a revolution in Israeli culture. The founding generation wouldn’t have dreamed of defying the Old Man. By the 1960s, that sort of loyalty was gone. When Ben-Gurion left the government in 1963, very few people stood with him. He had lost his grip on his colleagues.

The Lavon Affair involved an intelligence mishap in 1954, a stupid espionage operation in Cairo that went bad. A ring of agents, mostly recruited from the Egyptian Jewish community, was supposed to blow up the American library and some British institutions and make it look as though the Egyptians had done it. The operation was intended largely to sour relations between the West and the new Egyptian government led by young nationlist colonels including Gamal Abdel Nasser. But the plot failed. Two members of the ring were hanged, an Israeli operative committed suicide and four others were given long prison sentences. There was no real doubt that it was a stupid decision, but a debate arose as to who had given the order. Ben-Gurion wanted a judicial inquiry. The party old-timers wanted an informal investigation. Ben-Gurion finally decided to quit the government in protest, and two years later he started his own party. But very few of his colleagues stood with him. Golda Meir, who had been one of his main loyalists, led the revolt against him.

The leadership turned to Levi Eshkol, who was a much weaker figure. He was a clever man and an excellent finance minister, but he had no military background and none of Ben-Gurion’s authority.

The revolt against Ben-Gurion was part of a broader party realignment that reshaped Israeli politics during the 1960s. On the right, Menachem Begin’s Herut party joined with the Liberal Party to form an alignment that eventually became the Likud, paving the way for the electoral earthquake of 1977. On the left, a smaller Marxist socialist party, Ahdut Ha’avodah, which had left Mapai in the 1940s for ideological reasons, now merged back into Labor. Ben-Gurion’s new Rafi party broke away from Labor to form a centrist bloc, but it never succeeded.

Security concerns, which had focused during the 1950s on the Egyptian border and infiltrators from Gaza, now shifted to the Syrian front, especially after Syria tried to divert the headwaters of the Jordan in an attempt to undo the great success of Israel’s National Water Carrier, the pipeline from Lake Kinneret. The confrontation with Syria deteriorated into daily shooting incidents from the Golan Heights. Israelis began to question the role of the military in managing conflicts.

The Palestinians, who had been a minor security concern, now moved to center stage. The mid-1960s saw the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization by Ahmed Shukeiry and, more important, the creation of Yasser Arafat’s al-Fatah.

At the beginning the new bodies seemed naive and unimportant. They were able to create a few minor incidents, including a failed attempt to plant a bomb next to the National Water Carrier, but there was no real military threat.

The main effect was not the damage done to us but the resurgence of a Palestinian national identity. The Palestinians had been eclipsed in 1948 by their defeat. They came back in the 1960s as an independent force in the Arab world.

In foreign affairs in general, Israel had great success in the 1960s. It drew close to many of the newly emerging nations, especially in Africa. They saw Israel as a developed nation without colonial aspirations, willing to help without dominating. Israel provided them with a great deal of aid — not just financial aid but also agricultural and scientific help, even youth organizations. Important relationships were developed with Liberia, Ghana, Uganda and others, proving very beneficial to Israel in many spheres, until the ties began unraveling after the Six Day War.

The Israeli economy was a striking success story, too — at least until 1966, when it slipped into a difficult recession. Still, the recession was briefer than Israelis tend to recall. The economy had bounced back by the following year. That year, 1967, brought Israel’s 1960s to an end as abruptly as 1957 had ushered them in.

In fact, the reality of 1967 is that it ended not just the 1960s but Israel’s first two decades, as well, the era of Israel’s youth. Until then, Israel enjoyed almost automatic legitimacy in the world community. Arab propaganda promoted the idea that Israel should be eliminated, but in the West nobody took it seriously. When Arafat began speaking in 1964 and 1965 about the “liberation of Palestine,” people recognized it as veiled talk of destroying Israel, and they didn’t buy it. In 1967, however, the discussion shifted to liberation of a newly conquered region and ending the occupation. That was something that Europeans could take seriously. In that way, 1967 fundamentally changed the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and not to Israel’s advantage.

One more element should be mentioned to understand the sweeping impact of Israel’s 1960s. In July 1959, rioting broke out in a run-down section of Haifa called Wadi Salib, populated mainly by new immigrants from North Africa who had come to the country five or six years earlier. The rioting, ostensibly in response to a police shooting, quickly spread to other towns that had North African populations. It took on the character of an ethnic protest against the neglected living conditions of the immigrants and the ruling Mapai establishment that bore the blame, and was a harbinger of what was to come later on: the rise of the Israeli Black Panthers in the late 1960s, the deep alienation of Afro-Asian Sephardic Jews from the old Ashkenazic establishment — and eventually the rejection of the Labor Party in the Knesset elections of 1977.

Looking at the 1960s through this lens, therefore, you can speak of a new generation, raised in Israel, that was demanding a place in the sun.

It was a time when Israel was experiencing a great deal of economic success. And yet, while the population in the main cities was becoming more settled, a series of development towns on the periphery, and some weaker sections of the big cities, was turning into pockets of poverty. You can look at the creation of new towns in the desert, like Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi, as a great success, but they also carried the seeds of a future crisis. And, as in so many other spheres, very few of us foresaw what was coming.

Mordechai Bar-On is a historian and researcher at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Born in Tel Aviv in 1928, he spent 22 years in the Israel Defense Forces, serving as a company commander in the War of Independence, as aide-de-camp to Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan in the 1950s and as the army’s chief education officer in the 1960s. From 1968 to 1977 he headed the youth and pioneering department of the World Zionist Organization. He served in the 11th Knesset.






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