Sun, Apr 22, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Against the odds, Israel surprised the world in its first 70 years

By Daniel Gordis  /  Bloomberg

In November 1947, one day prior to the expected UN vote on partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, the CIA urged then-US president Harry Truman not to throw his weight behind the idea.

The US would have to defend the new Jewish state when it faltered, the agency’s secret memorandum said, adding that “the Jews will be able to hold out no longer than two years.”

Several months later, David Ben-Gurion was about to declare the establishment of the State of Israel. Seated among the dozen or so men who would determine the fate of the state-to-be, he famously turned to one of his top military commanders, Yigael Yadin, and asked him if he thought a new Jewish state would survive the military onslaught that the Arabs would inevitably launch.

Yadin, who would later serve as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, replied that he thought the Jewish state would have a 50-50 chance.

Today, those bleak assessments feel like ancient history. As the modern Israeli state celebrates 70 years, the prevailing sentiment is one of extraordinary accomplishment.

US Jewish leaders were incensed in 1948 when Ben-Gurion came to the US and spoke about the fledgling state as the new center of the Jewish world; today, that status is nowhere in doubt.

In 1948, there were about 650,000 Jews in Israel, who represented about 5 percent of the world’s Jews. Today, Israel’s Jewish population has grown 10-fold and stands at about 6.8 million people.

About 43 percent of the world’s Jews by some estimates live in Israel; this population overtook Jewish Americans several years ago and is now the world’s largest Jewish community. Israel’s birthrate, even among secular Jews, is higher than that of any other nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and significantly higher than that of Jewish Americans, who now account for about 34 percent of Jews worldwide.

Beyond mere survival, the other challenge that the young Jewish state faced was feeding and housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were flocking to its borders.

At times, financial collapse appeared imminent. Food was rationed and black markets developed. Israel had virtually no heavy machinery to build the infrastructure that it desperately needed. Until Germany started paying Holocaust reparations, the young state’s financial condition was perilous.

Today, that worry also feels like a relic from another time. Israel is not only a significant military power — and in the region, a superpower — but also a formidable economic machine.

A worldwide center for technology that has more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any nation other than the US, Israel’s economy barely hiccuped in 2008. The New Israeli Shekel, its currency, is strong. Like other nations, Israel has a worrisome income gap between rich and poor, but fears of an economic collapse have vanished.

Israel has become an important cultural center, vastly disproportionately for a country whose population approximates that of New York City. When the five finalists for the Man Booker International Prize for literature were announced last year, two were Israelis who write in Hebrew: David Grossman and Amos Oz. Grossman won.

Ever since S.Y. Agnon received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, the Israeli literary scene has been punching far above its weight.

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