Israel, Through the Decades

The History of the Jewish State, As Seen by Those Who Helped Shape It

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 01, 2008, issue of May 09, 2008.
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To honor the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, the Forward asked a number of prominent Israelis to reflect on the six decades of history they have lived through. Their narratives provide a fresh, startlingly honest look at the history of the Jewish state, as seen through the eyes of those who lived it and helped to shape it.

RAISING THE FLAG: Two boys from the Kiryat Amal-Tivon branch of the labor youth movement Noar Oved ve-Lomed prepare to raise a banner.
RAISING THE FLAG: Two boys from the Kiryat Amal-Tivon branch of the labor youth movement Noar Oved ve-Lomed prepare to raise a banner.

We turned to these remarkable Israelis because we wanted at this juncture, halfway to 120, to look at the reality of Israel, not the myths. We wanted to honor Israel as it is, not as we might wish.

Each of Israel’s decades, we found, can readily be identified with a particular theme that dominated Israeli public life at the time, from the mass immigration and breakneck development of the 1950s to the surge of religious nationalism in the 1970s. We asked each of our commentators to discuss a single decade in which they played an important role in the life of the state, or in which they were uniquely positioned to observe the events from up close.

In contrast to our ongoing news reporting, this special commemorative section does not aspire to ideological balance or cool objectivity. The writers we invited to join us here are mostly identified, like the Forward itself, with the labor and liberal wing of the Israeli spectrum. This is their story, a critical and often neglected part of Israel’s history. It is also, we hope, the opening of a dialogue between an important group of Israelis and their friends and allies abroad, through the medium of a newspaper that shares their views. All are invited to join in the dialogue. To those who find it too distant, we ask forbearance.

Leading off this collection is our own Leonard Fein, who recalls his feelings as a child witnessing the birth of the Jewish state and considers how the experience of loving Israel has changed over the years.

To recall the 1950s, we invited veteran Israeli political leader Aryeh Lova Eliav. Few Israelis can tell that story better. Born in Moscow in 1921, he served with the British army in World War II and commanded “illegal” immigration ships before independence. He spent the 1950s helping to supervise the new nation’s explosive growth. He helped plan the transport and resettlement of masses of new immigrants. He oversaw the building of some of Israel’s first development towns. In 1956 he led a daring rescue mission to evacuate the Jews of the Egyptian city of Port Said. In 1958 he was posted to the Israeli embassy in Moscow, where he built the first secret network of contacts with Soviet Jews. In the 1970s, while serving as secretary general of the Labor Party, he left the party over his insistence on recognizing the Palestinians as a genuine national movement. Since then he has been a senior leader of Israel’s peace movement. But his peace activism came much later. During the 1950s, he writes, “we had no time” for such thoughts.

We asked for comment on the 1960s from historian and educator Mordechai Bar-On. A young company commander in the War of Independence, he rose in the mid-1950s to be chief personal aide to the military chief of staff, Moshe Dayan. In the 1960s he was chief education officer of the Israel Defense Forces; leaving the army in 1968, he spent the next decade heading the youth and pioneering department of the Jewish Agency. No one is more intimately acquainted with Israeli and Jewish youth of the 1960s.

We include two essays on the rise of religious nationalism during the 1970s, following the Six Day War, and its impact on Zionism. One essay is by Bernard Avishai and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, he a Canadian-born author who has written frequently on the evolution of the Zionist idea, and she an American-born professor of comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The other essay is by Debbie Weissman, a native New Yorker who settled in Israel in 1972 and is a prominent Jerusalem educator and a leading figure in Orthodox feminism. Together the two essays paint a powerful picture of the rising tide of religious nationalism fueled by the nascent settler movement and its impact on Israeli identity.

The 1980s are described for us by Yossi Beilin, one of Israel’s most controversial politicians. Best known as chief architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2003 Geneva peace initiative, he first won prominence as the intellectual leader of the Labor Party’s Young Turks. When Likud and Labor formed a national unity government in 1984, Beilin came in as secretary of the Cabinet. Shortly after, he was assigned a pivotal role in tackling the two key crises of the decade, first as director-general of the Foreign Ministry, dealing with the nascent peace process, and then as deputy minister of finance, helping to cool the runaway economy. He held Cabinet ministries in the Rabin and Barak governments of the 1990s, but left Labor in 2003 to join Meretz, serving as party chairman until this past March. Beilin describes the 1980s in Israel as a period of paralysis, as the unity government allowed the two major parties to undermine each other’s initiatives but prevented either from accomplishing anything.

Our writer on the 1990s is Nahum Barnea, Israel’s most popular and respected political journalist. A columnist with Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, he has covered all the major events in Israel’s political and diplomatic history for decades and given Israelis and their neighbors — settlers and shopkeepers, Palestinians and prime ministers — some of their most intimate and sympathetic images of each other.

Finally, the difficulties of the past decade, the first of the 21st century, are recounted by Knesset member Colette Avital, who chairs the parliament’s committee on immigration and Diaspora affairs. Born in Romania and brought to Israel at age 10, Avital was a career diplomat, serving as Israel’s ambassador to Portugal and consul general in New York. She entered the Knesset in 1999 as a member of the Labor Party, and has served as chair of the ethics committee and the special commission on Holocaust assets. Avital describes the 2000s as a decade that “started with great expectations and ended on a note of sobriety and soul-searching.”

Israel approaches its 60th anniversary in a grim mood of disappointment. A decade of Arab violence, receding hopes for a real regional peace and the army’s failure to win 2006’s Lebanon war have left many Israelis all but despairing of a better future. No less important, skyrocketing poverty and economic inequality create doubts about Israelis’ fundamental ability to live with each other. But Avital ends her thoughts with a bracing one. “At the end of the decade, the traditional disagreements between left and right have lost much of their relevance,” she writes. “… Israelis may be less hopeful than they were, but they are more realistic.”






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