Birth of a Jewish Nation

I have been asked by the Hillel Foundation at Dartmouth College to meet with them on the occasion of Israel’s 54th birthday. There aren’t too many of us still around who were there at its birth, and they would like to hear, from the perspective of a participant, what made it possible for the Jewish state to survive while the Palestinian state, also created by the United Nations, crashed in flames.

I’ll save you a trip to Hanover, N.H.

In 1948, we fought a war of survival for which we had been well-prepared. The Jewish state lived because its people had, over the decades, formed an army, created a democratic form of national government, established a viable economic base, set up a system of social services, built a modern educational structure including universities and evolved a western legal framework, so that when the moment arrived on May 15, 1948, all of these necessary institutions were in place.

The Palestinian Arab state died as it was being born. Its political organizations and its society were tribal and village-centered. Its leaders never thought in terms of a national movement. Its economy was largely agrarian and its people too often illiterate and technologically unskilled. In war, it relied on neighboring Arab states to protect it, and their interests were not necessarily those of the Palestinians. Little was in place on May 15, 1948, to enable the Palestinian state to survive.

As for the war itself, it was a close thing. We had the advantage of trained manpower, but they had those Arab armies, better equipment, long borders across which assistance could flow freely, the heights (Jews tended to live in the valleys of Palestine, Arabs in the mountains) and a cohesive population. At least they all spoke Arabic, whereas our soldiers spoke a dozen languages and often couldn’t make themselves understood, quite a handicap under conditions of combat.

We had, in addition to our sense of purpose, short lines of supply, a democratically elected government and advanced technological skills. Perhaps most important, we had the assistance of that eminent Zionist, Joseph Stalin, who early on decided that a Jewish state created in the midst of the Arab world would cause problems for the Western powers, thus giving the Soviet Union an opportunity to benefit. Beginning in June, an airlift from Prague brought us much badly needed equipment, manufactured originally for Hitler’s armies. By the end of the war, we were flying Messerschmit fighters, using Spandau machine guns and firing rifles with swastikas emblazoned on their stocks.

I am certain that I will be asked how it is possible that Israel, having won its War of Independence in 1948, the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967, the War of Attrition in 1970 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, is still fighting what appears to be an unending conflict. The answer is that Israel did not win a war, it won a series of brief — but bloody — battles separated by years of uneasy truce. Never once did Israel destroy the enemy’s capability of renewing the conflict at a time of its choice.

Israel won as the Allies won World War I; 15 years later, along came Hitler, and the war started up again. Israel has never totally crushed its enemies as the Allies did in World War II, nor can it. Israel is too small, too vulnerable and too lacking in the kind of totalitarian ethos that might make such a victory over the Palestinians acceptable. The Palestinians, different in so many ways from what we were in 1948, are on the verge of creating their own state, and when the present bloodbath has ended in mutual exhaustion, will some day point to their intifada as the start of it all, as Israelis refer to the War of Independence.

In all honesty, I cannot state that my being there at the time did much for Israel, which would have gained its independence without my presence. But, as they tell us on election day, every vote counts, so get out of the house and follow your conscience. Unencumbered by family responsibilities, I did.

Looking back from this distant vantage point, I don’t regret a moment of it.