The Holocaust

The impact of the Holocaust on world Jewry, either on contemporaries of the horror or on succeeding generations, cannot be exaggerated. The scope of Hitler’s genocidal efforts can be quickly summarized. In 1939 about 10 million of the estimated 16 million Jews in the world lived in Europe. By 1945 almost 6 million had been killed, most of them in the nineteen main concentration camps. Of prewar Czechoslovakia’s 281,000 Jews, about 4,000 survived. Before the German conquest and occupation, the Jewish population of Greece was estimated to be between 65,000 and 72,000; about 2,000 survived. Only 5,000 of Austria’s prewar Jewish community of 70,000 escaped. In addition, an estimated 4.6 million Jews were killed in Poland and in those areas of the Soviet Union seized and occupied by the Germans. (see Germany)

The magnitude of the Holocaust cast a deep gloom over the Jewish people and tormented the spirit of Judaism. The faith of observant Jews was shaken, and the hope of the assimilationists smashed. Not only had 6 million Jews perished, but the Allies, who by 1944 could have easily disrupted the operation of the death camps, did nothing. In this spiritual vacuum, Zionism alone emerged as a viable Jewish response to this demonic anti-Semitism. Zionist thinkers since the days of Pinsker had made dire predictions concerning the fate of European Jewry. For much of world Jewry that had suffered centuries of persecution, Zionism and its call for a Jewish national home and for the radical transformation of the Jew from passive victim to self-sufficient citizen residing in his own homeland became the only possible positive response to the Holocaust. Zionism unified the Jewish people, entered deeply into the Jewish spirit, and became an integral part of Jewish identity and religious experience.



The War of Independence was the most costly war Israel has fought; more than 6,000 Jewish fighters and civilians died. At the war’s end in 1949, the fledgling state was burdened with a number of difficult problems. These included reacting to the absorption of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and to a festering refugee problem on its borders, maintaining a defense against a hostile and numerically superior Arab world, keeping a war-torn economy afloat, and managing foreign policy alignments. Faced with such intractable problems, Ben-Gurion sought to ensure a fluid transition from existing prestate institutions to the new state apparatus. He announced the formation of a Provisional Council of State, actually a transformed executive committee of the Jewish Agency with himself as prime minister. Weizmann became president of the council, although Ben-Gurion was careful to make the presidency a distinctly ceremonial position. The provisional government would hold elections no later than October 1948 for the Constituent Assembly to draw up a formal constitution. The proposed constitution was never ratified, however, and on February 16, 1949 the Constituent Assembly became Israel’s first parliament or Knesset.

A key element of Ben-Gurion’s etatism was the integration of Israel’s independent military forces into a unified military structure. On May 28, 1948, Ben-Gurion ‘s provisional government created the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Hebrew name of which, Zvah Haganah Le Yisrael, is commonly abbreviated to Zahal, and prohibited maintenance of any other armed force. This proclamation was challenged by the Irgun, which sailed the Altalena, a ship carrying arms, into Tel Aviv harbor. Ben-Gurion ordered Haganah troops to fire on the ship, which was set aflame on the beach in Tel Aviv. With the two camps on the verge of civil war, Begin, the leader of the Irgun, ordered his troops not to fire on the Haganah. Although the Altalena affair unified the IDF, it remained a bitter memory for Begin and the Irgun. Begin subsequently converted his armed movement into a political party, the Herut (or Freedom Movement). By January 1949, Ben-Gurion had also dissolved the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah.


By the spring of 1967, Nasser’s waning prestige, escalating Syrian-Israeli tensions, and the emergence of Levi Eshkol as prime minister set the stage for the third Arab-Israeli war. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Nasser was the fulcrum of Arab politics. Nasser’s success, however, was shortlived; his union with Syria fell apart, a revolutionary government in Iraq proved to be a competitor for power, and Egypt became embroiled in a debilitating civil war in Yemen. After 1964, when Israel began diverting waters (of the Jordan River) originating in the Golan Heights for its new National Water Carrier, Syria built its own diverting facility, which the IDF frequently attacked. Finally, in 1963, Ben-Gurion stepped down and the more cautious Levi Eshkol became prime minister, giving the impression that Israel would be less willing to engage the Arab world in hostilities.

On April 6, 1967, Israeli jet fighters shot down six Syrian planes over the Golan Heights, which led to a further escalation of Israeli-Syrian tensions. The Soviet Union, wanting to involve Egypt as a deterrent to an Israeli initiative against Syria, misinformed Nasser on May 13 that the Israelis were planning to attack Syria on May 17 and that they had already concentrated eleven to thirteen brigades on the Syrian border for this purpose. In response Nasser put his armed forces in a state of maximum alert, sent combat troops into Sinai, notified UN Secretary General U Thant of his decision “to terminate the existence of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) on United Arab Republic (UAR) soil and in the Gaza Strip,” and announced the closure of the Strait of Tiran.

The Eshkol government, to avoid the international pressure that forced Israel to retreat in 1956, sent Foreign Minister Abba Eban to Europe and the United States to convince Western leaders to pressure Nasser into reversing his course. In Israel, Eshkol’s diplomatic waiting game and Nasser’s threatening rhetoric created a somber mood. To reassure the public, Moshe Dayan, the hero of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, was appointed minister of defense and a National Unity Government was formed, which for the first time included Begin’s Herut Party, the dominant element in Gahal.

The actual fighting was over almost before it began; the Israeli Air Corps on June 5 destroyed nearly the entire Egyptian Air Force on the ground. King Hussein of Jordan, misinformed by Nasser about Egyptian losses, authorized Jordanian artillery to fire on Jerusalem. Subsequently, both the Jordanians in the east and the Syrians in the north were quickly defeated.

The June 1967 War was a watershed event in the history of Israel and the Middle East. After only six days of fighting, Israel had radically altered the political map of the region. By June 13, Israeli forces had captured the Golan Heights from Syria, Sinai and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, and all of Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. The new territories more than doubled the size of pre1967 Israel, placing under Israel’s control more than 1 million Palestinian Arabs. In Israel, the ease of the victory, the expansion of the state’s territory, and the reuniting of Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism, permanently altered political discourse. In the Arab camp, the war significantly weakened Nasserism, and led to the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the leading representative of the Palestinian people and effective player in Arab politics.

The heroic performance of the IDF and especially the capture of Jerusalem unleashed a wave of religious nationalism throughout Israel. The war was widely viewed in Israel as a vindication of political Zionism; the defenseless Jew of the shtetl (the typical Jewish town or village of the Pale of Settlement), oppressed by the tsar and slaughtered by the Nazis, had become the courageous soldier of the IDF, who in the face of Arab hostility and superpower apathy had won a miraculous victory. After 2,000 years of exile, the Jews now possessed all of historic Palestine, including a united Jerusalem. The secular messianism that had been Zionism’s creed since its formation in the late 1800s was now supplanted by a religious-territorial messianism whose major Yisrad objective was securing the unity of Eretz Yisrael. In the process, the ethos of Labor Zionism, which had been on the decline throughout the 1960s, was overshadowed.

In the midst of the nationalist euphoria that followed the war, talk of exchanging newly captured territories for peace had little public appeal. The Eshkol government followed a two-track policy with respect to the territories, which would be continued under future Labor governments: on the one hand, it stated a willingness to negotiate, while on the other, it laid plans to create Jewish settlements in the disputed territories. Thus, immediately following the war, Eshkol issued a statement that he was willing to negotiate “everything” for a full peace, which would include free passage through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Tiran and a solution to the refugee problem in the context of regional cooperation. This was followed in November 1967 by his acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” in exchange for Arab acceptance of Israel. Concurrently, on September 24, Eshkol’s government announced plans for the resettlement of the Old City of Jerusalem, of the Etzion Bloc– kibbutzim on the Bethlehem-Hebron road wiped out by Palestinians in the war of 1948–and for kibbutzim in the northern sector of the Golan Heights. Plans were also unveiled for new neighborhoods around Jerusalem, near the old buildings of Hebrew University, and near the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus.

The Arab states, however, rejected outright any negotiations with the Jewish state. At Khartoum, Sudan, in the summer of 1967, the Arab states unanimously adopted their famous “three nos”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel concerning any Palestinian territory. The stridency of the Khartoum resolution, however, masked important changes that the June 1967 War caused in inter-Arab politics. At Khartoum, Nasser pledged to stop destabilizing the region and launching acerbic propaganda attacks against the Persian Gulf monarchies in exchange for badly needed economic assistance. This meant that Egypt, along with the other Arab states, would focus on consolidating power at home and on pressing economic problems rather than on revolutionary unity schemes. After 1967 Arab regimes increasingly viewed Israel and the Palestinian problem not as the key to revolutionary change of the Arab state system, but in terms of how they affected domestic political stability. The Palestinians, who since the late 1940s had looked to the Arab countries to defeat Israel and regain their homeland, were radicalized by the 1967 defeat. The PLO–an umbrella organization of Palestinian resistance groups led by Yasir Arafat’s Al Fatah–moved to the forefront of Arab resistance against Israel. Recruits and money poured in, and throughout 1968 Palestinian guerrillas launched a number of border raids on Israel that added to the organization’s popularity. The fedayeen (Arab guerrillas) attacks brought large-scale Israeli retaliation, which the Arab states were not capable of counteracting. The tension between Arab states’ interests and the more revolutionary aspirations of the Palestinian resistance foreshadowed a major inter-Arab political conflict.

The October 1973 War

The Meir government’s rejection of Sadat’s peace overtures convinced the Egyptian president that to alter the status quo and gain needed legitimacy at home he must initiate a war with limited objectives. On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, October 6, 1973, Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack against Israel. In the south, waves of Egyptian infantrymen crossed the Suez Canal and overran the defense of the much touted Bar-Lev Line. In the north, Syrian forces outnumbering the Israeli defenders (1,100 Syrian tanks against 157 Israeli tanks) reached the outer perimeter of the Golan Heights overlooking the Hula Basin. In the first few days of the war, Israeli counterattacks failed, Israel suffered hundreds of casualties, and lost nearly 150 planes. Finally, on October 10 the tide of the war turned; the Syrians were driven out of all territories conquered by them at the beginning of the war and on the following day Israeli forces advanced into Syria proper, about twenty kilometers from the outskirts of Damascus. The Soviet Union responded by making massive airlifts to Damascus and Cairo, which were matched by equally large United States airlifts to Israel. In the south, an Egyptian offensive into Sinai was repelled, and Israeli forces led by General Ariel Sharon crossed the canal to surround the Egyptian Third Army. At the urgent request of the Soviet Union, United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went to Moscow to negotiate a cease-fire arrangement. This arrangement found expression in UN Security Council Resolution 338, which called for a cease-fire to be in place within twelve hours, for the implementation of Resolution 242, and for “negotiations between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.” Following Kissinger’s return to Washington, the Soviets announced that Israel had broken the terms of the cease-fire and was threatening to destroy the besieged Egyptian Third Army. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev informed Nixon that if the siege were not lifted the Soviet Union would take unilateral steps. The United States pressured Israel, and the final cease-fire took effect on October 25.

The October 1973 War had a devastating effect on Israel. More than 6,000 troops had been killed or wounded in eighteen days of fighting. The loss of equipment and the decline of production and exports as a consequence of mobilization came to nearly US$7 billion, the equivalent of Israel’s gross national product (GNP) for an entire year. Most important, the image of an invincible Israel that had prevailed since the June 1967 War was destroyed forever. Whereas the June 1967 War had given Israel in general and the declining Labor Party in particular a badly needed morale booster, the events of October 1973 shook the country’s self-confidence and cast a shadow over the competence of the Labor elite. A war-weary public was especially critical of Minister of Defense Dayan, who nonetheless escaped criticism in the report of the Agranat Commission, a body established after the war to determine responsibility for Israel’s military unpreparedness.

Israel’s vulnerability during the war led to another important development: its increasing dependence on United States military, economic, and diplomatic aid. The war set off a spiraling regional arms race in which Israel was hard pressed to match the Arab states, which were enriched by skyrocketing world oil prices. The vastly improved Arab arsenals forced Israel to spend increasingly on defense, straining its already strapped economy. The emergence of Arab oil as a political weapon further isolated Israel in the world community. The Arab oil boycott that accompanied the war and the subsequent quadrupling of world oil prices dramatized the West’s dependence on Arab oil production. Evidence of this dependence was reflected, for example, in the denial of permission during the fighting for United States transport planes carrying weapons to Israel to land anywhere in Europe except Portugal.

The dominant personality in the postwar settlement period was Kissinger. Kissinger believed that the combination of Israel’s increased dependence on the United States and Sadat’s desire to portray the war as an Egyptian victory and regain Sinai allowed for an American-brokered settlement. The key to this diplomatic strategy was that only Washington could induce a vulnerable Israel to exchange territories for peace in the south.

The first direct Israeli-Egyptian talks following the war were held at Kilometer 101 on the Cairo-Suez road. They dealt with stabilizing the cease-fire and supplying Egypt’s surrounded Third Army. Following these talks, Kissinger began his highly publicized “shuttle diplomacy,” moving between Jerusalem and the Arab capitals trying to work out an agreement. In January 1974, Kissinger, along with Sadat and Dayan, devised the First Sinai Disengagement Agreement, which called for thinning out forces in the Suez Canal zone and restoring the UN buffer zone. The published plan was accompanied by private (but leaked) assurances from the United States to Israel that Egypt would not interfere with Israeli freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and that UN forces would not be withdrawn without the consent of both sides. Following the signing of this agreement, Kissinger shuttled between Damascus and Jerusalem, finally attaining an agreement that called for Israel to withdraw from its forward positions in the Golan Heights, including the return of the Syrian town of Al Qunaytirah. The evacuated zone was to be demilitarized and monitored by a UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

After the signing of the Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement in June 1974, the public mood in Israel shifted against concessions. In part, Israel’s hardened stance was a reaction to the 1974 Arab summit in Rabat, Morocco. At that summit, both Syria and Egypt supported a resolution recognizing the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. The Israeli public viewed the PLO as a terrorist organization bent on destroying the Jewish state. Throughout 1974 Palestinian terrorism increased; in the summer alone there were attacks in Qiryat Shemona, Maalot, and Jerusalem.

Another important factor underlying Israel’s firmer stance was an internal political struggle in the newly elected government of Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin had narrowly defeated his chief rival Shimon Peres in bitterly fought internal Labor Party elections in late December 1973. Peres, who was appointed minister of defense, forced Israel into a less flexible posture by blocking any concessions proposed by Rabin. In addition, the issuing of the Agranat Commission report and the return from the front of reservists mobilized for the war further fueled public clamor for a stronger defense posture.

In Washington, President Gerald R. Ford, facing a recalcitrant Israel and under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, decided to sweeten the offer to Israel. The United States pledged to provide Israel US$2 billion in financial aid, to drop the idea of an interim withdrawal in the West Bank, and to accept that only cosmetic changes could be expected in the Second Syrian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement. In addition, in a special secret memorandum Israel received a pledge that the United States would not deal with the PLO as long as the PLO failed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and failed to accept Security Council Resolution 242. In September 1975, Israel signed the Second Sinai Disengagement Agreement, which called for Israel to withdraw from the Sinai passes, leaving them as a demilitarized zone monitored by American technicians and the UNEF.



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