At 70 years old, the State of Israel has grown up, and might be unrecognizable to those who founded it. From a relatively barren imperial backwater, it has become a flourishing, vibrant and innovative regional leader. From a population of 500,000, it is now home to over 8 million people. From a tiny nation fighting for its life, it has become a military power. And from a socialist-dominated one-party state, it has become a thriving capitalist democracy.
Yet, a leading Israeli historian told The Algemeiner this week, in many ways Israel has not changed at all. Its core national identity as a Jewish state remains as strong as it ever was.
“Obviously Israel has changed,” said Efraim Karsh, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a professor emeritus of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. “First of all it has increased in a way no other Western or developed nation has grown over this period. I mean, more than tenfold. Then of course, the different kinds of populations that arrived. Essentially from predominantly European-based Jews to those who arrived from other nations — many were expelled in the Independence War and then immediately afterwards — some expelled in the ’50s, and then in the mid-’60s from North Africa, then later on you have the large Russian immigration, and then of course the Ethiopians.”
“Israel is a melting pot,” Karsh stated, “and on the whole I think it has been a success story. And I think in a way it’s remarkable, because you don’t have many societies, Western or otherwise, absorbing huge populations several times their size and doing it in such a successful way that eventually, with all the difficulties and the grievances of certain communities at certain times, it is relatively a highly equal society.
“So I think in this respect, yes, Israel has changed,” he continued. “But, on the whole, not for the worse. On the contrary, you have an Israeli identity developing over the time that crystallizes all of the different sections.”
Asked whether the identity of the Israeli sabra, the native-born, muscular “new Jew” of Israel’s founding era, still exists, Karsh says, “Yes, there is the sabra, but the sabra is different today than it was before. You could say it’s become more Mediterranean, more eastern than it used to be. But definitely the Israeli sabra is a unique identity. If you go to many Jewish communities around the world, you can see for all the similarities and all the attachments between Jewish communities and Israel, the Israelis have their own identity.”
“So I don’t think the sabra has disappeared,” he went on to say. “They have changed in certain ways. You know, I’m not one of these people who look nostalgically on the past and say, ‘Oh, our generation was better.’ I think they are very good in their own way. Of course, they are different because the world has changed. You live in a different age. When I grew up in Israel, we didn’t even have a telephone. Only in the ’50s. Television came only after the Six-Day War. … Today the world is open. I mean people go around the world much more freely. You have the internet.”
“So, of course, the young generation is different,” Karsh pointed out. “You can say in certain ways it’s more individualistic than we used to be. You cannot educate them the way they educated us. But when the moment of truth comes, or you see moments of difficulties, you see that there is social cohesion. We all feel a shared destiny, a shared history.”
Karsh has been a longtime critic of Israel’s “new historians,” a group of Israeli intellectuals — mostly on the left — who in the 1990s began to adopt the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s history. Asked whether the new historians’ revisionism has changed Israeli culture and society, Karsh replied this only took place in academia, and was driven by a reaction to widespread hostility toward the Jewish state.
“Israel is a Jewish state, the only Jewish state in the world, and the only Jewish state that has existed for thousands of years,” he said. “And as such, it carries the very difficult burden of the Jewish people, which is mostly unpleasant. And it’s going to continue like this. For academics it’s much easier to join the gang.”
Karsh’s hope, he states, lies with Israel’s youth. “I hope it is the young generation that will keep on fighting,” he said. “Because in the final account, the story is quite straightforward. Justice is on Israel’s side in this respect.”
As a historian with intimate knowledge of the grand sweep of Israeli history, Karsh remains a cautious optimist about the country’s future.
“I am a realist,” he said. “I think Israel will never be left alone. It will continue to carry the burden. So it’s not like people say, ‘Ok, you will have peace with the Palestinians tomorrow, if you give them every last inch of the West Bank’ — it’s not going to resolve the problem. They’re going to continue to ask for more. And then you can give them the Galilee, and then they’ll ask for more. So I don’t think the Israeli-Palestinian problem will be resolved.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “Israel is so energetic, so successful in so many ways. Look at all the achievements in science, in culture, in music, in so many respects. So the stronger it becomes, the more sought-after it will be. So there are a lot of these dualities to being on the receiving end and being singled out for disproportionate criticism, while on the other hand you have all these people who want Israel to help them in many ways, whether it’s political, or militarily, or scientifically, or culture, technology — all the high-tech, the start-up nation – and so on.
“I think if Israel is left to its own devices it will continue to be a great success story, but then you have your enemies,” he noted. “We are left to continue to struggle. But on the whole, I think I am realistic, but mildly optimistic.”
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