Zionist theoreticians in the 19th and 20th Centuries posited three goals for a future Jewish State: A safe haven for persecuted Jews, a place where Jews could live a “normal national life” and a “light unto the nations.” Israel has clearly succeeded in fulfilling the first two Zionist goals, but is still far from the third.
Given the persecution of Jews in Czarist and later Soviet Russia as well as continued anti-Semitism in Central and Western Europe leading up to the Holocaust, a safe haven for Jews was seen as a necessity by the Zionists. Israel has admirably fulfilled that mission, first by taking in the survivors of the Holocaust in Europe, then by settling the persecuted Jews from the Arab world and finally, by embracing more than one million Jews from the former Soviet Union. This is not to say that the resettlement process was easy and not without its difficulties, as many Jews from Arab countries complained about discrimination by the Ashkenazi Jewish establishment in Israel, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nonetheless, on balance, the resettlement of persecuted Jewish refugees has to be considered a great success, and the existence of Israel today provides a potential refuge for the Jews of France and perhaps even England as anti-Semitism, sometimes camouflaged as anti-Zionism, is once again an ugly phenomenon in Europe. Post- Zionists made a major mistake in contending that nationalism was dying; it is alive and well in contemporary Europe and elsewhere in the world, and Jews are often its target. Thus, Israel’s existence as a safe haven for world Jewry is as important as ever.
The second Zionist goal was a state where Jews could live a “normal, national life.” A modern state has five major characteristics: A territory, a language, a population, an economy and an army to protect the state. In each of these characteristics Israel has succeeded far beyond the expectations of the early Zionists. Thanks to the UN Partition decision of 1947, Israel acquired the territory on which to build a state. As a result of the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949 caused by the Arab invasion of the newly proclaimed Jewish State, Israel acquired additional land in the Galilee that made it a more economically viable state.
By contrast, the land acquired by Israel as a result of the 1967 war — another war forced upon Israel by the Arab World — has turned out to be a mixed blessing. While it shortened the length of the borders Israel had to defend, it brought under Israeli control millions of restive Palestinian Arabs. This has posed serious problems not only to Israeli security, but also to its democratic structure, as right-wing Israelis have begun to prioritize the Jewish nature of Israel over its democratic nature in their efforts to hold on to the West Bank.
As far as language goes, Hebrew as the language of the state was revived well before the State of Israel was established in 1948, and has blossomed ever since, even as it has incorporated English words such as “televisia,” which Hebrew purists abhor.
Israel’s population has grown more than ten-fold since 1948, reaching 8.8 million residents in 2018, of which 75 percent are Jews and 21 percent are Arabs.
The Israeli economy has also been booming, reaching a gross national product of $348 billion in 2017, a development aided by the high-tech sector in the Israeli economy. Israel’s discovery of major natural gas deposits off of its coasts (the Tamar and Leviathan fields) has also served to aid Israel’s energy security, and when they are fully developed, the deposits will enable Israel to reduce its dependence on coal, which currently generates 57 percent of its electricity.
Finally, Israel’s armed forces are, by some accounts, the fifth strongest in the world, and its so far-unannounced atomic weapon capability can deter any Iranian threat against it given Israel’s second- strike submarine placement off the coast of Iran and its advanced U.S.-supplied aircraft (the F-35).
While Israel has succeeded both in providing a safe haven for Jews and a state in which Jews can live a “normal national life” it has, so far, failed to be the “light unto the nations” hoped for by some Zionist thinkers, including Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Domestically, Israel has a high poverty rate (22 percent) and the gap between rich and poor in Israel is one of the highest in the developed world. In addition, the last two Israeli Prime Ministers, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu have been plagued by corruption charges. Olmert went to jail, and the high- living Netanyahu, with his champagne and expensive cigars, is the antithesis of the modest-living Ben-Gurion. In addition, Israel has not treated its Arab minority fairly in terms of economic investment in Arab villages and in opening the Israeli economy to full Arab participation.
Third, the Orthodox monopoly in Israel has discriminated against Conservative and Reform Jews, barring them from organized religious worship at Judaism’s holiest shrine, the Western Wall, while also blacklisting their rabbis. Finally, Israel’s policy of proliferating settlements in the West Bank and seizing land that the Palestinians want one day for their own state, let alone the indignities which Jewish settlers inflict on the Arabs living near their settlements, are an embarrassment to Jewish values.
Until Israel rectifies these problems, it will not be a “light unto the nations.”
Dr. Robert O. Freedman is an author and visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.