In January 2020 I went on a trip to Israel to explore the country. In preparation I read the book “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” by Daniel Gordis and took some notes. My goal was to better understand this interesting country, e.g. what the situation in Gaza Strip and West Bank is, and how these critical territories came into existence. Israel is unique in that it is very young and was just put there. This blog post is a summary of my revised notes which I took after reading each chapter of the book. They may be useful for readers who want to get a brief overview of Israel’s history.
The ancient Jewish kingdom was historically trapped between powerful empires. During its ~1000 years of existence it was attacked and even occupied several times. The Jewish wish to return home was deeply planted into the religious belief (Old Testament) and traditions during this time. In 135 CE the Romans destroyed the kingdom. During the following 1762 years the idea of a Jewish state was preserved in traditions and stories. The Jews living in exile (diaspora) suffered long before the 19th/20th century. During the Middle ages they enjoyed relative freedom under Muslim rule, but wherever Christianity took over, those who would not convert were treated badly in many ways (up to mass expulsion from their countries, e.g. from Spain in 1492). And while they still prayed to return to Zion and Jerusalem, it was more of an abstract wish since they had no idea how to actually do it, and had no organization beyond their local communities.
In the 19th century Jews were, generally speaking, very disliked. Even academic people were also openly anti-semitic. Out of that struggle and influenced by a wave of nationalism in Europe, Theodor Hertzl created a political movement by writing about The Jewish State. He thereby triggering the Zionist movement which was about uniting the Jews in the world and giving them their own country, led and initiated by secular Jews. The first congress was held in 1897 in Basel.
An important event was a progrom in 1903 in Kishinev (Russian Empire) which made the matter – that Jews needed to “escape Europe” – more pressing. It was unclear where to go; the area of Palestine was preferred but several other options were being considered, e.g. New York, East Africa, Angola, and Madagascar. The location was only one topic on which opinions of Zionists diverged: Others were whether the new location would be a colony or a real state (spiritual center versus statehood), the way of coexistence with the Arabs in the Palestine, use of self-defense, and the opinion to not return until God returned the Jews (duty to remain in exile until God redeems the promise of bringing them back).
Around 1870 there were 27k Jews living in Palestine, which was generally an undeveloped area. There were several waves of immigration to Palestine, which led to cultural tension between the European Jews (who immigrated), the traditional Jews living there, and the Arabs who were organized in clans. Immigration was often very unpleasant. In 1909 Tel Aviv (translated from The Old New Land, Hertzl’s second book) was founded. Hebrew was reestablish as a common language. This is especially remarkable as the language was almost dead at that time but Zionists found that the scattered Jews should also share a common language and were successful in reviving Hebrew for that purpose.
During World War I, British and French conquered the Middle East and defeated the Ottoman empire. In the Sykes–Picot Agreement (1916) they split up the area between them. The British were assigned some of the area of Palestine, i.e. the land that Zionists wanted to settle in. The British later made some concessions to the Zionists in the Balfour Declaration (1917): “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people […]”. For the first time a major power had talked about a national home for the Jewish people. Following it and anti-semitism in Russia and Europe, new waves of immigrants came to the area of Palestine. Water resources were scarce and this led to innovations. Many immigrants came from non-democratic states, yet, the Jews organized themselves in democratic ways from the beginning on. The Palestinian Arabs were culturally hundreds of years behind the immigrants, however, they were unhappy about the developments and revolted several times.
With more immigrants coming and developing the country, the local Arabs protested, e.g. in a bigger revolt from 1936 to 1939. The British Royal Peel Commission tries to find a solution to the instabilities and recommends partition. The British had rather little interest in supporting the Jews, it was more a matter of opposing the Arabs. However, the British actively hindered further immigration and put illegal immigrants into camps.
As the British blocked immigration and the European Jews were suffering, the Palestinian Jews decided to revolt against the British. In the post-World War II period, the British were also so blocking when it came to immigration because they were relying on the Arab oil. After retreating from India, the British announced on January 22, 1947 that they would leave the area of Palestine.
The State of Israel declared its independence on Friday, May 14, 1948, when the British had departed. Interestingly, the declaration of independence does not mention God explicitly. It is rather open towards neighboring states and non-Jewish people, also taking the Arabs into account who live on the claimed land. The First Arab–Israeli War with the neighboring states started one day later, Jordan 🇯🇴 , Egypt 🇪🇬, Lebanon 🇱🇧, Iraq 🇮🇶, and Syria 🇸🇾 attacked the state. Many Arabs – afraid of Israeli revenge – were fleeing into neighboring countries causing refugee crises there. Israeli forces won the war with support of the US and France (who wanted to weaken the British influence in the area). Some Egypt forces remained in the Gaza Strip. Similarly the west bank was not conquered because there were many Arabs living there who had not yet fled and they seemed to be unlikely to be loyal citizens of an Israeli state, making this territory less attractive.
After the war had ended, Israel held its first elections on January 25, 1949. Many Jews immigrated; the Arab population constituted for only 20% when the war ended. Large numbers of Jews immigrated from Arab countries, due to the increased hostility there. Very few came from the US where Jews were safe and had their own community. The newly founded state faced many challenges such as making the new citizens from diverse backgrounds identify with the state and each other.
Israel was still not accepted by its neighborhood when Egypt came to new power under Nasser by collaborating with the Soviet block. Egypt seized the Suez Canal which infuriated UK and France in particular. Israel was therefore now considered a military partner (see Protocols of Sevres, October 1956). Israel invaded Sinai (Egypt) and conquered the peninsula within 100 hours (Sinai Campaign), also known as the Second Arab–Israeli War. Both, US and USSR, requested it to retreat, which it did in a strengthened position among the world and its immediate neighbors.
The Holocaust was not a topic in public discussions in the early years of the state. Later, West Germany payed reparations to Israel which helped the country significantly. Jews had very divided opinions on how to deal with Germany and the Holocaust past.
Israel was still having bad relationships with its immediate neighbors. In 1967 Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran. Its allies were Jordan and Syria. Israel in turn could not rely on France, UK, and the US that much as the relationships with them had cooled down and the US was busy with the Vietnam war. Israel decided to attack first and destroyed the entire Egyptian air force within the first hours of the Six-Day War. Israel successfully defended itself against Jordan and conquered the important Western Wall in Jerusalem. In the North it conquered the Golan Heights which were previously under Syrian control. The war ended on June 10 with Israel’s victory.
The newly occupied areas were still tilled by Arabs. Israelis founded new villages, in particular in the Jordan Valley, on the West Bank. The question of how to deal with the occupied area was heavily debated. Due to the presence of Jewish settlements, returning them altogether became less feasible over time. On the other hand, the local Palestinians were revolting.
Israel’s self-perception had changed with the victorious war. It was more progressive, nationalistic, and self-confident. With the Cold War emerging, the Sovjets supplied Egypt and Syria with weapons for a war against Israel. Egypt invaded Sinai and Syria the North Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, starting the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were defending themselves and requested help from the US, against the nations supported by the Sovjets. US president Nixon sent weapons. The IDF was eventually superior and regained control over the previously occupied territory. Israel’s international standing was, however, rather weakened. UK and France were more interested in the oil of the Arab neighbors and in good relations with them. The US, in contrast, was more of an ally.
After the Yom Kippur War the country faced large dissatisfaction in parts of the rural community. A political change followed with Menachem Begin winning the elections in May 1977. With him religion became more popular in Israel’s cultural and political life. Under him Israel gave back Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace, while keeping the West Bank occupied. In 1980 it declared all of Jerusalem to be the capital (Jerusalem Law, 1980), reaffirming the annexation of East Jerusalem. In 1981 Israeli jets bombed a nuclear-powered reactor in Osirak (Iraq), after the head of state, Saddam Hussein, had previously announced that he wanted to destroy Israel. Another issue in foreign politics was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which performed terrorist attacks, operating from Lebanon. In response Israel invaded the Lebanon in 1982 and its image suffered, however, the PLO was successfully forced out of Lebanon but continued operating elsewhere.
In 1987 Hamas, a militant, Muslim, anti-Israel organization, was founded. In the late 1980s violence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank started to target Israeli military and civilians. In Jordan the political situation shifted and the renounced its claim of the West Bank in July 1988 in fear the protests could spill over. In the following, the West Bank became even more violent under the PLO. The collapse of the Soviet union lead to a new wave of immigration to Israel. During the Gulf War in 1990 the US prohibited Israel from assisting in fighting Iraq that invaded Kuwait despite Israel being under missile fire. In a series of agreements between Israel and PLO, the matter of Gaza and West Bank was ought to be resolved (Madrid Conference 1991, Oslo Accords, and Oslo II). Over the following years the agreement disintegrated, violence surged, and Israel never handed over the territory entirely; a Palestinian state was never founded. The IDF retreated from some regions in the West Bank and Gaza as agreed on in Oslo nonetheless.
In May 2000 Israel retreated from Lebanon. With Palestine the matter was more complicated. Arafat, the leader in that area, was not really interested in founding a state because that would make him responsible for the poor situation there. He therefore rejected relatively generous offers from Israel in which he would get land. Eventually a deal was made in which Israel retreated from most of the West Bank except for Jewish settlements. East Jerusalem was split by religions. US president Clinton was involved in the negotiations. Terroristic attacks on Israel, launched from the (previously) occupied territory, continued constantly. In response to that Israel sent forces into the West Bank and built a wall which proved to be very effective in reducing bombings. In 2005 Israel retreated from the Gaza Strip entirely, evacuating all remaining Jewish settlers who had lived there. The conflicts continued, in the North Israel was attacked by Hezbollah, from Gaza by Hamas, both having the goal of destroying.
Israel has become a high-tech nation. It has a GDP of $353.645 billion (2019 estimate) and is home to more than 9M citizens (2020). Tel Aviv has evolved as the economical and technological center of Israel, while Jerusalem is the capital and home of many strictly religious people.
Since its declaration of independence, Israel was defending itself against hostile neighbors who wanted to destroy it. In recent years the attacks were carried out my militant organizations and became less effective. The core of Israel is comparably safe to live in and not really affected by the attacks. The Gaza Strip was returned entirely but is under Israeli siege, the West Bank is partly settled by Jews, partly by Arabs who want to have their own Palestinian state. Highways leading through it are well protected and the area is surrounded by military checkpoints. The Golan Heights are a rather calm area with Jews and Muslims living side-by-side.
Thanks to Ido Gendel from Tel Aviv for reviewing this post and being a very nice host!