Israel at 50

Gabriel Ben Yitzhak and Jamil Abu Heykal share an uneasy existence on a hilltop overlooking ancient Hebron, a town that was already old when Abraham arrived more than 35 centuries ago. The Jewish patriarch is, in religious tradition if not irrefutable fact, buried near the foot of the hill.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 27, 1998

Israel at 50

Gabriel Ben Yitzhak and Jamil Abu Heykal share an uneasy existence on a hilltop overlooking ancient Hebron, a town that was already old when Abraham arrived more than 35 centuries ago. The Jewish patriarch is, in religious tradition if not irrefutable fact, buried near the foot of the hill. On the mount's crest lie the relics of many who have since passed by, including the tomb of Jesse, father of the Hebrews' greatest king, David. Ben Yitzhak and Abu Heykal live side-by-side within the shadow of those antique ruins; the 41-year-old Israeli and his 11 children in a pair of linked trailer homes, the 68-year-old Palestinian and his nine-member clan in a handsome house of white stone. And neither seems capable, or even willing, to escape his history, not the archaic version chronicled in crumbling rock all around them, nor its modern variant, best exemplified by the looming presence permanently encamped on the opposite side of their tiny street - a combat-ready, armed-to-the teeth platoon of Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli and the Palestinian have been next-door neighbors on the top of the Hebron hill both call Tel ar-Rumeida - Mound of Ashes - for 11 years. But for the past eight they have not exchanged a single word, indeed barely more than a hostile glance. "Those people are intruders. They do not belong here. I wish they would go away," grumbles a gruff and grizzled Abu Heykal as he trims the leaves on an orange tree in his front yard, planted, he claims, by his paternal grandfather many years ago. "I'm not going anywhere," counters Ben Yitzhak calmly, lifting his head from the Torah scroll he is laboriously enscribing. He is slight and soft-spoken, generously bearded, arrayed in the kipah - skullcap - and tsitsis - fringed undervest - of the observant Orthodox Jew. "I am compelled by religious duty to remain where I am," he says. "What I am doing here is helping to re-establish a Jewish presence in a city that is sacred to Jews the world over. I am acting on behalf of Jews everywhere. How could I ever possibly leave this place?"

That such a question can still be posed, even as Israel celebrates the 50th anniversary of its rebirth, is telling. Hebron, to be sure, is not at all typical of the modern, flourishing, vibrantly multicultural Israeli state. It is not even within Israel's recognized borders but, rather, a pivotal part of the region's emerging Palestinian entity on the Jordan River's West Bank. Moreover, it is home to the extremists from both camps. Many of Abu Heykal's 20,000 fellow Arab residents of the town are ardent supporters of Hamas, the violence-prone Islamic militant group. The 550 Jewish settlers who, like Ben Yitzhak, have stubbornly chosen to live among the Palestinians in Hebron are widely regarded by most of their Israeli compatriots as religiously driven fanatics, as much of a threat to the country's secular, still imperfect democracy as any hostile foreign army. But all the same, there is something in the fraught relationship between Ben Yitzhak and Abu Heykal that does strike a chord, one that resonates through Israeli society. For despite a half-century of effort, including four major wars and countless, almost daily, armed skirmishes, modern-day Israel has yet to find the elusive path that will finally lead it out of perpetual strife with its Arab neighbors.

It is the core issue that affects all Israelis. It transcends all of the country's other problems, overshadowing even the ongoing, ominous fissuring of Israeli society along religious, class, social and ethnic lines. And it casts a pall over Israel's many achievements in transforming an indigent Middle Eastern backwater into an economic and technological powerhouse. Today, Israel is ranked by the United Nations as 23rd worldwide in terms of standard of living, life expectancy and educational standards, and last year it possessed the world's 16th-largest per capita gross domestic product, putting it on par with the advanced industrial states of Western Europe.

The diminishing prospect for peace is the principal - though not the only - reason for a distinct lack of euphoria pervading the country as the nation prepares to mark - on April 30 by the Jewish calendar - the 50 years that have elapsed since May 14, 1948, the momentous day the British Mandate in Palestine ended. On that same day, David Ben Gurion rose up before a portrait of Zionism's founder Theodor Herzl, hung in a drawing room in Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff's residence, to triumphantly proclaim Israeli independence. "In the Land of Israel," declared Ben Gurion, the country's first prime minister, "the Jewish people came into being."

Abba Eban remembers the moment. He was not with Israel's other leaders in Dizengoff's old house on Rothschild Boulevard but far away in New York City, a young Zionist official who had been part of the team that successfully lobbied the fledgling United Nations General Assembly to vote on Nov. 29, 1947, in favor of partitioning Palestine west of the Jordan River into separate Jewish and Arab enclaves. For the critical first decade of Israel's existence, the South African-born, British-educated Eban was the country's voice to the world, its first ambassador to both the United Nations and the United States. Now 83, still active, as orotund as the eloquent phrases that roll from his tongue, Eban has no doubts about what has been achieved over the last 50 years. "The Israeli state," he asserts, "is a dramatic success story, something that would have been inconceivable in 1948, far beyond conjecture in the gloomy Fifties and Sixties."

That story is one of permanent growth, from 650,000 Jews and 1.2 million Palestinian Arabs scattered around 21,000 square kilometres of desert, marshy lowland and bare-rock hills to more than five million Jews and nearly one million Arabs today. These citizens inhabit a modern state that has blossomed in recent years into a Mideastern version of California's Silicon Valley - a manufacturer of high-end engineering and scientific products and a centre for computer, communications and biotech research. It is no surprise, therefore, that Israelis hold the world record for the use - in minutes per capita - of cellular telephones. On a more cosmic level, Israel is on the brink of realizing a millennial Jewish dream. For the first time in 2,000 years, the state is close to becoming home to a majority of the world's Jews, outranked currently in numbers only by the Jewish community in the United States. "We have won the struggle for survival," says Eban. "And I believe that is a permanent victory."

Still, even Eban, one of the last surviving members of Israel's old guard, concedes that the country "is not in a celebratory mood at the moment." There are many reasons, but the root cause, in Eban's view, is the nagging suspicion among many Israelis that the current leadership may well be squandering the first real chance in half a century to conclude a lasting peace agreement with the country's neighbors. The seeds of that peace were sown by the so-called Oslo Accord, signed in 1993 by Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres. Under its terms, Israel trades land for peace, agreeing to withdraw militarily in three separate stages from virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories captured during the 1967 war. The first phase was initiated by Rabin's leftist Labour Party government and, after the prime minister's assassination by a right-wing Jewish fanatic in 1995, completed by his successor Peres. But ever since the election in 1996 of Binyamin Netanyahu's rightist Likud government, the entire process has been stalled, mired in debilitating, often mind-numbing debate over detail.

Netanyahu argues that Israeli security is the issue, and demands more action by the Palestinian authorities to curb the terrorist activities of militant groups like Hamas. Palestinians claim the Israeli government is merely stalling to allow time for more Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. "A decade ago there was no significant Jewish population in the West Bank and Gaza," maintains Ghassan Khatib, formerly a member of the Palestinian negotiating team that helped draft the Oslo Accord. "Now there are 300,000 settlers on the West Bank, another 200,000 in East Jerusalem. If trends continue, the whole concept of an independent Palestinian state will become in all practical terms non-viable."

Eban does not disagree with the Palestinian view of Israel's current leaders. "Netanyahu hates and despises the peace process to the very depths of his heart," argues the man who still holds the record as Israel's longest-serving foreign minister, a post he occupied for eight years during the turbulent period when Israeli society was transformed by the stunning victories of the Six-Day War in 1967, then traumatized by near-defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. "Oslo was a revolutionary event," he maintains, the fruit of an Israeli government that was the first in the country's modern history to place relations with the Arab world at the centre of its agenda. "A peace agreement with the Palestinians really means peace with the rest of the Arabs," says Eban. "But now, the peace process is under the direction of somebody who doesn't believe in it, somebody who was trained to believe in permanent conflict between Israel and the Arab world."

Yet the hamstrung peace initiative is by no means the only factor dampening spirits as the country celebrates its 50-year jubilee. Another threat emanates from within the state itself. "The country's split right down the middle," says historian Benny Morris. Israelis tend to define the division in conventional political terms, left versus right. But it is deeper than that, a yawning crevasse that is fracturing the country along religious, class and ethnic lines. On the left sits the constellation of communities that comprise Israel's traditional left wing: most of the Ashkenazim - Jews of northern European origin - along with the country's social and economic upper classes and all sectors of society that are either indifferent about religion or actively hostile to it. On the right are assembled the Sephardim - the so-called Oriental Jews from north Africa and the Middle East - as well as religious Jews of all persuasions, the country's socially and economically deprived and, an entirely new factor, the 700,000 Russian Jews who have immigrated since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

If Israel's last elections are any measure, the divide is almost equal. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition won office over Peres' leftist camp by a minuscule margin of 14,000 votes. Ever since, the country, according to historian Morris, "has been moving in two entirely contradictory directions at the same time. Half is travelling forward, towards the establishment of a liberal, secular, democratic society based largely upon Western values. The other half is moving backward, sliding into an intolerant, tribal, essentially Oriental world where strict religious orthodoxy and superstition reign."

Morris delivers this assessment over coffee in the faculty lounge at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. The university is an impressive place, a cascade of honey-colored blocks of Jerusalem stone spilling over the summit of Mount Scopus. And the view is commanding, down across the old walled city, where the golden cupola on the Dome of the Rock winks in bright spring sunshine, to the surrounding hills, virtually all blanketed in pale yellow tiers of new housing. But Morris is not in a mood to contemplate the scenery. For he is worrying aloud about something essential that he feels is slipping away. "The prospect of my kind of Israel, the kind I want to live in," he bleakly reflects, "is receding."

Morris's vision of Israel is essentially that of the original architects of the state. Like them, his roots are among the Ashkenazim. Short and burly, with a mop of unruly black curls, he is, as well, a native Israeli, or sabra, born on a kibbutz the same year that Israel was created. In the best traditions of the kibbutzniks, he served his time in the armed forces in an elite combat unit, in his case the paratroopers. He was wounded while posted along the Suez Canal in the late 1960s, during the so-called War of Attrition.

Up to this point, Morris's personal history is not unlike that of his native land. But somewhere along the way, he began to look more closely at the conventional accounts of Israel's origins. He brought to the task a keen intelligence and - something that Israel's early historians did not always exercise - a rigorous objectivity. It was, he says, the result of his background as the son of a diplomat growing up abroad and his foreign education, a doctorate in European history from England's Cambridge University. "I approached Israeli history," he explains, "the way I approached European history, as a complete outsider, like someone from Mars."

The result was a series of articles and books that were highly critical of both the traditional Zionist narrative of Israel's creation as well as the actions of some of the country's founding heroes, hitherto unimpeachable figures like Ben Gurion and Eban, Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir. Morris found himself in the forefront of what came to be called the "New Historians," an academic movement intent on shattering what it describes as some of "the myths" of Israel's foundation.

The conventional version of Israeli history, the one that most Israelis believe and is still taught to the country's schoolchildren, portrays the state's creation as the work of idealistic Jewish pioneer settlers in search of peaceful accommodation with the native inhabitants of a thinly populated land who were reluctantly forced by Arab intransigence and aggression to fight for their own survival. Morris and his colleagues argue, in contrast, that Israel's architects often wilfully ignored opportunities to negotiate with the Arabs, forcibly evicted hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their villages in the 1948 War of Independence and, since then, have given as good as they got in the dirty underground war with Palestinian terrorism.

It is not a message many Israelis have wanted to hear. And some of the New Historians have paid dearly for their views. Morris, like all Israeli males, a member of the armed forces' reserves, was briefly jailed during the 1980s for refusing to serve with the army in military operations against rioting Palestinians during the intifadeh. He was, he says, "eased out" of a journalist's position with The Jerusalem Post after Canada's Conrad Black bought the newspaper in 1989 and quickly shifted its editorial focus to the right, a stance the English-language daily maintains under current publisher Norman Spector, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel and ex-aide of past-prime minister Brian Mulroney. For several years, Morris, who has been a MacArthur Scholar and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, could not find a post on any university faculty in Israel. It was only last year that he finally managed to win the position he now holds, as professor of history at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva in the Negev desert. "Maybe my views are becoming more respectable," Morris ruefully speculates. "If so, it might be a sign that Israel, at 50, is growing mature."

Perhaps it is. There are other telltale signals in the wind at the moment, none more indicative than a 22-part television series that has been transfixing Israeli audiences for the past month. Called Tekumah - Rebirth - it chronicles the first half-century of the Jewish state's existence. Unlike similar fare served up in earlier years by the state-funded Israel Broadcasting Authority, the series makes no attempt to camouflage the darker side of the country's history. Among other heresies, it pillories Meir and Dayan for repeatedly wasting opportunities to make peace with the Arabs between 1967 and 1973. What is more, it gives a platform, for the first time on national television, to marginalized Jewish immigrants, to Arabs who lost their homes and identities and, most controversial of all, to Palestinian terrorists. "These are pictures we are not used to seeing here," says Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, director of the series' episode on terrorism. "One of the objectives was to understand that blood was spilled on the other side as well, that there was mourning and there were victims there too. We don't have a monopoly on that."

Although hardline government leaders have demanded that the series be taken off the air, Tekumah is a hit with the public. Despite a choice of more than 40 cable channels, one in four Israeli viewers is tuning in every week. Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, one of the country's pre-eminent political theorists, views Tekumah and the controversy surrounding it as the most revealing event to have occurred in Israel's Jubilee year. "It is as if there is an ironic gap," he says, "between the desire of Netanyahu and his media people to cheer up Israelis and the grim sense that this is not one of the high moments of Israel's history."

Like many commentators, Ezrahi detects undercurrents of foreboding among the Israelis at the moment. "Many believe that the country its undergoing the most severe crisis of leadership since its establishment," he says. "The peace process is stuck. Israel's relations with its closest allies, the United States and Western Europe, are in the mud. The conflict between religious and secular Jews has never been deeper and more threatening."

So profound, in fact, that many Israelis frankly admit the existence of two separate countries. "There is a secular left based in Tel Aviv and a religious right based in Jerusalem," says Uri Avneri, a staunch advocate of Tel Aviv's version of Israel. For decades, Avneri has been one of the country's most prominent left-wing activists, first during the 10 years he sat in the Knesset, and currently as a leader of Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc. Now 74, his hair is snow-white but his belief in Israel's future as a secular, Western-oriented state remains undimmed.

It is the kind of Israel that is unwinding at that moment, on a Friday afternoon not far from Avneri's apartment overlooking Tel Aviv's golden beachfront and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, is about to descend with sundown and there is plenty of week-ending activity in fashionable Dizengoff Circle and along nearby Shenkin Street. Despite an unseasonable chilly snap in the springtime air, the restaurants, pubs and sidewalk cafés are thronged. Cool Western jazz and frenetic Oriental pop compete for attention.

Back in his apartment, Avneri, whippet-thin in a dark blue track suit, reflects on what he describes as Israel's current "malaise" while watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean. "There is no longer any middle ground in this country," he says. "The polarization is so extreme that it has reached the point where you can instantly identify an individual's opinions simply by physical appearance. If the features are Oriental, or he's wearing a kipah, you know he's on the right. If the face is European and there's no kipah, he's on the left."

Political scientist Ezrahi, like Avneri, views the situation as dangerous. Unlike Avneri, however, he is not unduly worried about the direction in which events are moving. "I think the grimness in the atmosphere is short-term," he says. "There is a more philosophical, long-term perspective, which recognizes the creation of a powerful society here with the potential to cope successfully with most of its problems."

Avi Goldstein and Marla Haber are certainly coping well. They are a pair of young Canadians, two of the more than 2 million immigrants from around the world, who have "made aliyah" - gone up - to Israel since 1948. Avi, now 41, moved from his native Montreal in 1983. Marla, a 38-year-old Torontonian, arrived in 1984. They met the following year at a lecture organized by the American expatriate community in Israel, married a short time later and now are busily raising three young children - aged 10, six and three - in a commodious, engagingly cluttered ground-level apartment in Talpiyot, a Jerusalem suburb south of the Old City's walls.

"Regrets?" asks Avi, repeating a question that has just been posed. "Not many," replies Marla. It is late in the evening a few days before Pessah - Passover - and both are clearly a little fatigued. Marla has just finished tucking 10-year-old Elan, clad in flannel pyjamas plastered with the team logo of the Montreal Canadiens, into bed for the night. She is a blond, petite woman. Avi, in blue jeans and black T-shirt, is tall and husky. "It's the busiest week of the year for me," says Avi, apologizing for the lateness of the hour. He runs an electrical appliance repair and maintenance service, a one-man operation he launched a year ago after eight years working in the same business for a larger company. "Everybody washes all their appliances to get ready for Pessah," explains Marla, "then they find out that all that soap and water has put their appliances out of commission so they call Avi."

Marla is an architect, a graduate of Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic University. She says Israel has been good for her career, allowing her to obtain a position with a local firm of architects far senior to what would have likely come her way in Canada. Unlike Avi, whose urge to emigrate began with Zionist youth groups in Montreal's Côte St.-Luc district, Marla drifted to Israel. "I travelled and worked in Europe for awhile after graduation," she explains, "and then decided to come and have a look at the place that I used to hear about in the synagogue back in Toronto."

Both Avi and Marla are now committed, however. They are Israeli citizens, with no plans to return to Canada. In essence, they lead a normal life, not unlike that of a young couple with young children in any Canadian city, or, for that matter, anywhere else in the Western world. But there is one enormous caveat. "My son will someday be a soldier," says Marla. "I hope he's going to be a soldier in peacetime." Avi, nodding agreement, points out of his living-room to a neighboring hilltop on the other side of a deep valley, where a circle of green lights glows in the night. The lights sit atop a minaret that rises from a mosque in a Palestinian village called Surbaher. "We have no relations, hardly any contact at all, with the Arabs," he says. There is a weary resignation in his voice, a hint of regret even - as if he wished the situation might someday, somehow, be different.

From a Vision in the Desert


Theodor Herzl founds the World Zionist Organization, proposing a Jewish homeland, at a congress in Basel, Switzerland.


Theodor Herzl founds the World Zionist Organization, proposing a Jewish homeland, at a congress in Basel, Switzerland.


In the wake of the Holocaust, the United Nations agrees to create the state of Israel from British-run Palestine.


David Ben Gurion declares Israel's independence, touching off war with its Arab neighbors.


Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal. Israel invades, followed by Britain and France. The troops later withdraw under a UN deal brokered in part by Canada's Lester Pearson.


Israel puts the Holocaust's chief executioner, Adolph Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem after agents grab him in Argentina. He is convicted and hanged the next year.


The Palestine Liberation Organization is founded.


In the Six-Day War, Israeli forces led by Gen. Moshe Dayan capture East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Sinai from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.


Palestinian terrorists murder nine Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.


In the Yom Kippur War, Israel eventually repels a surprise Arab attack, but suffers heavy casualties. Prime Minister Golda Meir resigns the next year over Israel's ill-preparedness.


A UN resolution equates Zionism with racism.


Israeli commandos rescue 110 mainly Jewish hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda.


Egypt's Anwar Sadat visits Jerusalem and calls for peace.


Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin sign the U.S.-brokered Camp David peace treaty. Sinai is returned to Egypt over the next three years.


Israeli jets destroy a nuclear reactor in Iraq, which officials say is part of a program to build an atomic bomb.


Israeli forces invade Lebanon and expel the PLO leadership. Right-wing Christians massacre up to 1,000 Palestinians after the Israelis allow them into Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.


In Operation Moses, Israel airlifts some 8,000 Jews out of Ethiopia.


The Palestinian intifadeh, or uprising, erupts in the occupied territories.


Mass immigration begins from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Some 700,000 Russians arrive over the next eight years.


The United Nations rescinds the Zionism-is-racism resolution.


Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO's Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo peace agreement in Washington, providing for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.


Israel and Jordan sign a peace treaty.


Rabin is assassinated by a Jewish extremist.


Right-winger Binyamin Netanyahu is elected premier after a series of terror bombings by Palestinian extremists.


Israeli soldiers leave Hebron, but controversies over new Jewish settlements and further troop withdrawals stall the peace process.

Maclean's April 27, 1998

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