Israelis approach the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of their state in a subdued and somber mood. Israeli society is deeply divided, and there is no consensus on how to mark the milestone. On the one hand, Israel can boast some stunning successes: a democratic polity with universal suffrage; a highly developed, some might say overdeveloped, multiparty system; an independent judiciary; a vibrant cultural scene; progressive educational and health services; a high standard of living; and a per capita GDP almost the size of Britain’s.
The ingathering of the exiles has worked. Israel’s population has reached 7,241,000, nearly ten times what it was in 1948. Forty-one percent of the world’s Jews live in the Jewish state, speaking the Hebrew language that was confined to liturgy when Zionism was born at the end of the nineteenth century. In its central aim of providing the scattered Jews with a haven, instilling in them a sense of nationhood and forging a modern nation-state, Zionism has been a brilliant success. And these achievements are all the more remarkable against the background of appalling tragedy: the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
On the other hand, some failures can be noted. The most pronounced one has been the failure to resolve the conflict with the Arabs, which has accompanied the Zionist enterprise from the very beginning. That conflict involved neighboring Arab states, but in origin and in essence it was a clash between two movements for national liberation: the Jewish one and the Palestinian one. In 1948 the Zionist movement realized its aim of Jewish national self-determination in Palestine. Israel’s War of Independence was the Palestinians’ catastrophe, al-Nakba in Arabic.
The moral case for the establishment of an independent Jewish state was strong, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The case for a Jewish state was also bolstered by the international norm of self-determination for national groups. Based on this norm, the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947, provided a charter of international legitimacy for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. However, there is no denying that the establishment of the State of Israel involved a massive injustice to the Palestinians. Sixty years on, Israel still has not arrived at a reckoning of its sins against the Palestinians, a recognition that it owes the Palestinians a debt that must at some point be repaid.
The conflict with the Palestinians, and with the Arab world at large, has cast a very long shadow over Israel’s life. For the first forty-five years of the state’s existence, Israel’s leaders were unwilling to discuss the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination. In 1969 Prime Minister Golda Meir adopted an extreme position–hardly an uncommon one at the time–in denying that a Palestinian people existed at all. But the dilemma had been there all along, and the early Zionists were well aware of it, even if they seldom talked about it. The dilemma, in a nutshell, was that the Jewish aspiration to sovereignty in Palestine could not be reconciled with the Palestinian people’s natural right to sovereignty over the same country. This was the “hidden question” that Zionist teacher Yitzhak Epstein addressed in an article in 1907. It was not long before the hidden question was transformed into an open and deeply contentious issue.