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After Travails and Triumphs, a Boast: ‘We Exist’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 89, Yosef Burg looks back on Israel’s first half-century as an elder measures the accomplishments of his offspring, and he issues a sober judgment: “First of all, I would like to say that we exist.”

In fact, this is no understatement from one of Israel’s preeminent politicians, who has seen the Jewish state from its hardscrabble beginnings through five wars and myriad international crises. Against all odds, Israel exists. Fifty years after its founding, Israel is a full-fledged member of the world community with a $95-billion economy and a nuclear-armed military.

Survivors of the Holocaust in Europe and most of the other Diaspora Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel have done so, with a third of the Jewish people in the world now living in their own state. In the words of Israel’s Zionist leaders, “the exiles have ingathered.”

Hebrew, the ancient language of the Jews, has been reborn as the mother tongue of millions who redefined themselves from scholars and merchants in exile into soldiers, political leaders and high-tech engineers.

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With these achievements alone, it can be said that Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement fathered by Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century, has succeeded.

But the costs of the enterprise have been tremendous and the conflicts unending. On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations voted 39 to 13 to end the British mandate in Palestine and partition the land into separate Jewish and Arab states. Israel declared its independence May 14, 1948. (Israel will celebrate the event April 30, the anniversary according to the Jewish calendar.) Since then, tens of thousands of Israelis have been killed or wounded guaranteeing the security of the Jewish state, which is still embroiled in battles for what Burg, a founder of the conservative National Religious Party, calls “the soil of Israel and soul of Israel.”

Israel has made peace with Egypt and Jordan but not with the rest of the Arab world, and soil is the essence of their conflict. What represented redemption for the Jews, the end of 2,000 years of exile, was the nakba, or catastrophe, for Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of Arab residents of Palestine were uprooted from their lands in 1948 and are refugees, with their children and grandchildren, prohibited from returning to what is now Israel.

During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, as well as the Sinai Peninsula, which has since been returned. Today, more than 2 million Palestinians consider themselves still under Israeli control, if not direct occupation, and want an independent Palestinian state. Most Palestinians support the 1993 peace agreement between Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but others question the legitimacy of the Jewish state and threaten it with violence.

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Neighboring Syria will not make peace with the Jews until Israel returns the Golan.

The soul of Israel, meanwhile, is being torn apart by modern-day tribes of the House of Jacob: leftist Jews and rightist Jews, devout Jews and secular Jews, European Jews and Middle Eastern Jews who disagree on fundamental issues facing the country.

Israel divides politically at the point where soil and soul meet: Most citizens believe that the government must exchange captured land for peace with the Palestinians, while many insist that it must hold on to the West Bank to ensure Israel’s security.

Many devout Jews believe Israel has a birthright to Jerusalem and the West Bank, which they call by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria. A religious law student named Yigal Amir assassinated Rabin in 1995 because he believed that the prime minister was a traitor for trading Jewish land; many secular Israelis turned militantly anti-religious in response.

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In a speech to the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, Herzl boasted that “Zionism has already brought about something remarkable, heretofore regarded as impossible: a close union between the ultramodern and the ultraconservative elements of Jewry.”

Today, Israelis cannot even agree on the definition of who is a Jew, and the debate is driving a wedge between the Jewish state, where most religious people are Orthodox, and Diaspora Jews, the majority of whom belong to the Reform and Conservative movements.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and devout Jews in Israel want shopping malls closed and soccer games banned on the Jewish Sabbath. Meanwhile, so many secular Israelis are out enjoying themselves on Jewish holidays that, in the words of author Tom Segev, “you can’t get a parking place at the Sea of Galilee on Yom Kippur.”

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Israel at 50 is following the Western democratic model of free elections, a vital media and independent Supreme Court. But its government imposes military censorship, and the high court validates rough treatment of Arab prisoners.

Israel’s population has grown more than sixfold to 5.7 million, with immigrants from all over the world. It is a healthier, wealthier and wiser country: Life expectancy is among the longest in the world; about 70% of the population finishes high school, and a third goes on to university.

While Israel’s socialist founders originally envisioned a rural population working the land, today more than 90% of Israelis live in urban areas, and only 1.4% of the work force labors in agriculture. The country has created eight universities, produced four Nobel Prize winners--three of them awarded for their efforts at peacemaking--and trained some of the world’s greatest violinists.

A state that once begged a $100-million loan from President Truman to get started and resorted to food rationing to stay alive now boasts a per-capita income on par with several Western European countries. Disposable income has shot up 60% in the last 16 years alone, but there is social inequality: The top 10% of Israeli households earn 10 times more than those at the bottom, many of which are of Middle Eastern origin.

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This has created a seismic social shift in a country that had only one state-run television channel until 1993 and an ethos that all Israelis should watch the same news and cultural programs.

Today, Israelis have two local channels, one of them privately owned, as well as access to cable television and satellite dishes with seemingly unlimited programming from around the world. One of every six Israelis has a computer, and about as many are hooked up to the Internet. Israelis regularly buy new cars and chic clothes, eat in gourmet restaurants and travel abroad.

They have, in the eyes of many, become “a normal country"--vibrant, heterogeneous and upwardly mobile. So normal that it is no longer seen as a sin to move away, as evidenced by a recent telephone company ad showing Israeli parents chatting with their children who live overseas.

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Yet the political divisions in Israeli society, the fears of a social schism and lack of peace with Arab neighbors have prevented Israelis from celebrating their 50th anniversary with gusto. Rather, there is a feeling of malaise and of unmet expectations.

“Israelis, whose appetite for success is insatiable, would do well to look back on their achievements and to give themselves some kind of expression of pride,” elder statesman Abba Eban said.

Israelis are not normally self-effacing. Raised in the rough-and-tumble ways of the Middle East, they are bold, army-trained and unyielding. They are proud. And the main source of their pride, as Burg says, is that they have survived: There is a state for Jews and a people called Israelis.

“We have an Israeli routine now. There is a second and third generation that go to the same schools, read the same books, tell the same jokes and serve in the same unit in the army,” author Segev said. “The father knows what the son is talking about.”

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