The following article recounts Israel’s state building process. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published Schocken Books.
Independence advanced a pressing need for the institutional organization of the sovereign state. David Ben-Gurion, head of the prominent workers’ party, laid down principles which were, despite some ambiguity, adopted by the representative bodies with no major upheavals. Israel was to become a western-style parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage and the separation of powers. It was also proclaimed a secular state, and the Declaration of Independence pledged to “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.”
However, since throughout history religion has always been inexorably linked to nationality in Jewish collective consciousness, and because Israel’s religious parties had considerable clout right from the start, certain theocratic elements were admitted, particularly in those aspects of legislation which sanctioned the exclusive jurisdiction of the religious courts in all matters matrimonial. Although no real kultrkampf ever evolved, the nonobservant majority resisted religious coercion, while the Orthodox persisted in trying to enforce halakhic law on modern Israel. This was but one point of contention which agitated political life in Israel, polarizing public opinion and dividing the population into a multitude of parties. Indeed, the ideological fervor sustained from the time of the yishuv, coupled with an electoral system of proportional representation established for the Zionist Congresses, created a highly heterogeneous system of political trends, movements, and factions.
Nevertheless, despite the ideological struggles which took place in the political arena and in the domains of Israeli literature, theater, and the media (and, on occasion, in the law courts), the two decades between the War of Independence and the Six-Day War were a time of growth and consolidation for the young state of Israel. First, there was a tremendous influx of immigrants which led to huge demographic growth. Thousands of long-suffering Jews flocked to the newborn state from the Displaced Persons’ camps, from British detainee camps in Cyprus which held illegal immigrants, and, for the first time ever, from all the Islamic countries. This huge wave of new arrivals doubled the Jewish population of Israel within three years.
The absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants was a staggering task for such a small state lacking in natural resources. The early years were indeed very difficult: new immigrants were initially set up in tents,
then, during the early 1950s they were placed in transit camps (ma’barot) which in many cases became a permanent form of housing. The veteran population was burdened with the strain of unemployment, food
rationing and other shortages, wage freezes, and compulsory loans. Moreover, the mass aliyah from Islamic countries, and the decline in the numbers of immigrants from Europe and the Americas altered the composition of the population. Although the “ingathering of the exiles” had always been part of Zionist ideology and the raison d’etre of the Jewish state, the changing proportions among the communities (edot) resulted in major social and cultural tensions.
Obviously, immigrant absorption would have been impossible without outside support in the form of American aid, donations from the diaspora, and German reparations ($820,000,000 over 12 years). Thanks to this import of capital, the encouragement of state policy, and the availability of highly skilled labor, the early years of the state witnessed spectacular economic growth, with the gross national product increasing by an average of 10 percent per annum. New “development” townships were swiftly established. The new port of Ashdod, the El Al national airline, and a large merchant fleet facilitated Israel’s integration into the world economy. An ambitious water project (the National Carrier) conveyed water to arid areas in the center and the south of the country. Agriculture made great strides between 1948 and 1953, when 354 cooperative villages (moshavim) and collectives (kibbutzim) were established. After the Sinai Campaign, with immigration once more on the rise, the pace of industry development accelerated, doubling its production over ten years.
Only one insurmountable problem remained, namely, Israel’s acceptance and recognition by her neighbors. Between 1951 and 1956, roughly 3,000 armed clashes and 6,000 acts of sabotage took place inside Israel’s borders, resulting in the deaths of more than 400 Israelis, and the injury of 900. The Sinai Campaign, Israel’s response to the concentration of Egyptian troops along its borders and to the closing of the Tiran Straits by Nasser’s gunboats, was also an attempt to put a stop to the incessant harassment by regular and irregular Arab troops.
This “second round” in the Arab-Israeli war did not resolve the conflict. Israel was forced to withdraw from the Sinai in return for a precarious security agreement. Moreover by aligning herself with imperialist powers in decline, Israel came to be regarded by her neighbors as a “tool of western imperialism.” Nevertheless, the Sinai Campaign enabled Israel to enjoy ten years of relative tranquility.