On May 14, 1948, in the Tel Aviv Museum, David Ben-Gurion read from the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. As historian Simon Sebag Montefiore recounts in his masterful book, “Jerusalem: The Biography,” a small audience then sung “Hatikvah” (The Hope), the national anthem of the renewed nation—“The hope of two thousand years; To be a free people in our land.”
All this was broadcast on the radio, but few heard it because armies from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon had invaded and cut off most sources of electricity. Montefiore notes that the “openly stated object” of those Arab forces was the “annihilation” of the Jews.
Since that day, 75 years ago next week, Israelis have been under constant attack—often kinetically, ceaselessly rhetorically. Despite this endless war, the world’s only Jewish-majority state survives and even thrives.
Israel’s military is powerful, its intelligence services clever. It’s earned the nickname “start-up nation,” and boasts a per capita gross domestic product exceeding that of France. Its fertility rate is among the highest in the developed world. On the 2023 World Happiness Report, only Finland, Denmark, and Iceland rank above Israel.
In some quarters, these facts inspire admiration. In others, hatred. Iran’s rulers have for years been threatening Israelis with genocide while developing nuclear weapons.
Tehran’s proxy, Lebanon-based Hezbollah, has some 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel, a growing number of them precision-guided.
Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other Iran-backed terrorist groups now operate not just in Gaza (from which the Israelis withdrew in 2005 in a failed effort to facilitate “the peace process”) but also, increasingly, in the northern West Bank which the Palestinian Authority governs—more or less—thanks to the Oslo Accords (another failed effort to facilitate “the peace process”).
Over recent months, Israelis also have been clashing among themselves—vehemently though not violently, and with both sides waving Israeli flags. They disagree over how to structure their governance. (Democracy is not for sissies.)
Of the dozens of nations that arose from the vestiges of imperialism following World War II, the right to exist of only one is still questioned—and not just by self-proclaimed jihadis but also by U.N. officials and organizations that claim to champion self-determination and human rights.
They do so in solidarity with those Palestinians who call Israel’s birth the “Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe. Did it need to be?
In September 1947, the United Nations proposed a two-state solution for Palestine, a land that for centuries had been ruled by foreign empires. The Jewish community would be given a small state. The Arabs—they did not then identify as Palestinians—would be given a larger state.
Ben-Gurion agreed. The Arab Higher Committee for Palestine formally rejected the U.N. plan. Abdul Azzam Pasha, secretary of the Arab League, said it “could mean only one thing for Arabs—war against the Jews.”
He added: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres.” Arab nations, he said, were “itching to fight.”
They will do so, he noted, as “a question of racial pride.” The seriousness of such threats, coming just after the extermination of six million European Jews whom the Nazis had deemed racial inferiors, was obvious.
When the war ended—not with a peace treaty but only an armistice—about 750,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled or, in some cases, been driven out of the land that was now Israel.
Arabs who remained became Israeli citizens, more often referred to as Israeli Arabs rather than Palestinians. They and their progeny, about 20 percent of Israel’s population, enjoy more freedoms and rights than do minorities—or majorities—anywhere else in the Middle East.
By contrast, in Arab and Muslim countries following Israel’s founding, Jews—whose families had been in those lands for over a thousand years—were persecuted, pauperized, jailed, and executed.
Some 850,000 Jews were expelled or fled. Most found their way to Israel where they became citizens, strengthening the fledgling state.
Jews also were expelled from Judea and Samaria, territories conquered in 1948 by British-trained Jordanian troops. The Jordanians renamed those areas “the West Bank.”
In 1967, Jordan, along with Egypt and Syria, again attempted to annihilate the Jewish state. In the defensive Six-Day War, Israel took the West Bank from Jordan.
After that, Jews could pray in eastern Jerusalem along with Muslims and Christians. “To our Arab neighbors, Israel extends the hand of peace and to all people of all faiths, we guarantee freedom of worship,” said then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. “We’ve not come to conquer the holy places of others but to live with others in harmony.”
Israelis also took Gaza from the Egyptians who had ruled there since 1948. Soon after, the Israelis began offering “land-for-peace” deals. Those offers were declined, starting with the “three no’s” declared at the1967 Khartoum Conference: No peace. No recognition of Israel. No end to the conflict.
In 2000, at Camp David, the Palestinians were offered 97 percent of the West Bank, shared sovereignty of Jerusalem, and a “right of return” for thousands of refugees. The offer was rejected. Other offers followed. They, too, were rejected and no counteroffers were forthcoming.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the signing of the Abraham Accords, indicating that some Arab states have come to see their Jewish neighbors as useful allies, acknowledging the fact that they are—as the late Charles Krauthammer used to say—“living in the same land, worshipping the same God, and speaking the same language as did their ancestors 3,000 years ago.”
Seventy-five years from now, will there be peace? No one knows and most Israelis are undaunted by that uncertainty. They plan to survive, thrive, and sing Hatikvah.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”