Israel, 1948-1967

Building a new nation.

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From its creation, Israel was dominated by two opposing forces: growth and war. Within five years of the birth of the state, the population more than doubled; at the same time, Israel's sovereignty was constantly threatened by the Arab states that surround it. During this period Israel fought three wars against its neighbors, and lost and regained territories including the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Partition Plan

In February 1947, Great Britain, a declining empire, gave up control of Palestine to the United Nations. On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, providing both Arabs and Jews with their own land.

david ben gurionFighting broke out after the partition plan was announced and continued well into the following year. The Irgun, the underground Jewish military force, was buoyed by its military victories in the spring and finally declared independence. On May 14, 1948 David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, read the Israeli Declaration of Independence to the public. The following day war erupted when Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon sent their armies to invade the nascent state.

War of Independence

Syrian and Lebanese troops moved into the north of Israel,while Iraqi units and Transjordan's Arab Legion focused their attack on Jerusalem. Other Arab units were deployed to Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley and later in the Galilee. Jerusalem was a highly contested territory,and the battles for it were costly for the Haganah, the new Israeli army. By the second United Nations truce on July 18, much of the Negev was still controlled by the Egyptian army.

The battles continued to rage until the United Nations Security Council called for a permanent armistice on December 29, 1948. The Arab states still refused to negotiate directly with Israel.

The population losses exceeded 6,000, and the War of Independence took on mythic proportions in Israeli culture. Its combatants were seen as new Hebrew warriors. The Canaanite movement, a small group of artists and thinkers in the post-independence era, was extremely effective in juxtaposing the tanned, tall, and strong sabra or native Israeli Jew, to the weak, downtrodden Diaspora Jew.

The Law of Return & Population Growth

On July 5, 1950, the state of Israel passed the Law of Return. Its opening line read: "Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country." The law created an influx of Jewish immigration to Israel.The large numbers of Holocaust survivors (almost 1 in 3 Israeli citizens by1949) had difficulty settling into the new country; tensions were high between members of the Yishuv (pre-state inhabitants) and the survivors. It was no easier for Jews from Arab lands.

The population of the State of Israel more than doubled inits first five years. Half of the national budget went towards immigrant resettlement, with military spending coming in a close second. In 1950 the Jewish Agency began a program of building ma'abarot, low- cost crowded camps equipped with tents and few modern facilities.

The new settlement program also coincided with"Operation Ezra and Nehemia," which airlifted more than 100,000 Jews from Iraq in 1950-1951. In 1954, as the Moroccan population in Israel grew, the government devised a way to allow these immigrants to skip the ma'abarot (the last of which were closed in the early 1960s), sending them instead to villages and development cities throughout the country.

Economic Development

With much of the government's spending going towards resettlement and the military, there was little left for spurring economic growth. Israel relied on help from the American government and world Jewry,whose charitable contributions together exceeded $750 million between 1949 and1961. The United Israel Appeal and Keren Hayasod gave more $60 million dollars a year through the 1950s. The German reparations treaty, signed in 1952,figured just as prominently, ensuring a flow of approximately $800 million over12 years to institutions in Israel.

By the middle of the decade, Israel's real income--meaning money the nation earned rather than was granted--was climbing, with production rates of goods and quality of life rising. However, large numbers of immigrants, mainly Sephardim from Arab Lands, were still living in poor conditions in development cities.

Sinai Campaign

In the 1950s, the Arab world attempted to pressure Israel through economic sanctions; Israeli ships could not use Arab ports, and Israeli airplanes could not use Arab air space. In 1955, Egypt purchased large amounts of weapons from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The next year it announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

These actions, combined with increased terrorist attacks across the border and Egypt's massive military build-up, prompted Israel to join Great Britain and France in attacking Egypt on October 29, 1956. The British, French, and Israeli combined military action was successful, but the United Nations set up forces in the Sinai to ensure that it would not be repeated.

Six Day War

In May 1967, Egypt expelled the United Nations Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula and amassed 100,000 soldiers at the border with Israel. The Six-Day War began on June 5, 1967, when the IDF, led by Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, preemptively attacked Egypt's air force and Jordan attacked Israel. By the end of the war, Israel had gained control of the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank (which Jordan had occupied since 1948), the Gaza Strip (which Egypt had occupied since 1948), the strategic Golan Heights from Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula.

From 1948 to 1967, Jordan had controlled East Jerusalem and barred Jews from the Western Wall and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. When Israel gained East Jerusalem in 1967, it gave each religious group control over its own holy sites.

While the Six-Day War is seen historically, from an Israeli perspective, as a momentous event because of the recapturing of Jerusalem and the overcoming of great military odds, it is also the preamble for many of the conflicts and controversies that exist in the Middle East today. The questions of Palestinian refugees and statehood are directly linked to the events of June 1967.

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Elena Aronson

Elena Aronson has a BA in Jewish Studies from Smith College. After participating in Project Otzma she went on to earn an MA in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She currently serves as Bay Area Outreach Coordinator for the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation in San Francisco and owns a personal shopping and styling business.