Thursday, October 27, 2005

Tenacity and Grit

I read the Iranian President's call to wipe Israel out from the map and I was reminded of the book by Elliot Cohen, "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime", London: Simon and Schuster: 2003. Cohen outlines David Ben Gurion's role in transforming the Israeli Defence Forces in the 1940s. It reminded me that Israel was here to stay regardless of shrill rhetoric to the contrary. The information I refer to is extracted from his book.

In the early 1880s, there were only 25,000 Jews in Palestine. This had increased to 400,000 in 1936. The British published a "White Paper" in May 1939 that provided for an Arab state in Palestine in 1949 and limited continued Jewish immigration. World War II was then raging in Europe and Palestinian Jews watched the extermination of European Jewry with horror. Their attitude to Britain's war efforts in light of that Government's new policy provided an interesting contrast to the Indian National Congress. Ben Gurion declared "we will fight the war as if there were no white paper and the white paper as if there were no war". Tens of thousands of Palestinian Jews served in the British army. Ben Gurion meanwhile focused on strengthening Jewish institutions including the military and spear-headed continued Jewish immigration, illicit or otherwise. In 1945, the Jewish community had increased to 500,000 vis-a-vis the 750,000 Palestinian Arabs. The Jewish community rose to 600,000 one year later.

Ben Gurion realized that the multiple Jewish guerrilla forces such as the Haganah, the Palmach, the Herut and Irgun were ill-equipped and inexperienced to fight the inevitable conventional war with neighboring Arab states. He quietly transformed disparate uncoordinated guerrilla groups into a unified professional army. He reorganized the Jewish Defence Force, clarified the chain of command, ensured civilian leadership and initiated extensive military procurement. The Jewish Defence Forces only had 1,900 machines guns in April 1947. This increased to 31,000 in March 1949. Equipment was imported from Czechoslovakia. He reached out to Jewish World War II veterans and ensured training to transform the inexperienced guerrilla into a professional soldier.

This paid off. Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948 led to the invasion by Egyption, Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian and Transjordanian troops. The local Arab population rose in revolt. Isolated and widely scattered Jewish settlements were under threat. The Israeli Defence Forces proceeded to defend the coastal stretch between Tel Aviv and Haifa, used that as a platform to evict the Egyptions from the Negev desert in the south, Syrian and Lebanese forces from the Galilee in the north, and Iraqi and Jordanian troops from the Judean Hills in the East. Israel simultaneously leveraged the politics of graft. Later reports suggest that King Abdullah of Transjordan had been given Jewish Agency Funds. Here was an illustration of resolve and forward planning as opposed to empty rhetoric. While this was indeed a joint effort indebted to the contribution of many dedicated Jews in different continents, Ben Gurion's role can not be denied.

Israel had secured its political existence on Palestinian soil after a gap of 2,000 years. Ben Gurion had become Israel's first Prime Minister at the age of 62. He had transformed an underground military establishment into one of the most formidable armies in the world. Founder of the Labor Party and the Histadrut trade union, Ben Gurion had only immigrated to Palestine at the age of 20. He started his life there as a farmer. He inspired a public education system to mold Jews arriving in Palestine from different countries into a unified nation.

A spartan and frugal man, he had a vast collection of books in his Kibbutz apartment. His interests included Eastern Philosophy, European History and Military Science. A later Israeli leader, Shimon Peres, shared his interest in Eastern Philosophy. Ben Gurion had four pictures in his apartment, one of Michelangelo's Moses, one of Abraham Lincoln with the insert of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of veteran Jewish trade unionist Katznelson, Ben Gurion's closest friend, and one of Gandhi, the pacifist who forced the British empire to yield. In many ways, he reminds me of Sardar Vallabhai Patel given the frugality, financial probity, foresight, tenacity and robust common sense. To quote Ben Gurion: "what matters is not what the gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do".

Israel has its challenges ahead of it. The future of a restive Arab population on the West Bank, the volatility in the extended region, the increasing appeal of Islamic fundamentalism committed to Israel's destruction, and the demographic challenge of a Palestinian population cooped up in territory 1/4th the size of Israel will need to be addressed. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in the early 1990s and from Gaza last month which illustrated the limits to its power. But the winning factor still stands in its favor i.e. indomitable grit and persistence in the face of the insurmountable. Ariel Sharon continues to demonstrate that. Israel, a democratic nation governed by the rule of law, will never be wiped out.


Sanatan said...

I am not too sanguine about the last statement that Israel "will never be wiped out." As you yourself mention that demography played a huge role in the survival of Israel, but the demographic trends are now increasing turning against Israel. What the Arab/Muslims could not win by gun (and they are unlikely to do so in the future), or influencing the population by logic, they will win by wielding the womb as a weapon. This also shows there is a limit to the democractic form of government although at present it appears to have the least faults when compared to other systems.

Pankaj said...

Mr. Jaffna,

You are not only prolific but also very precise and I must say this, bloody good with your history.

"what matters is not what the gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do". Israelis need this kind of resolve now to deal with the Iranians.

GGK said...

Well israel is no doubt powerful but its not economicaly feasable country.
Its being propped up by massive doses of aid both military and non military.
With the demographics not in their favor Israel wont be able to follow the policy they have being in order to ensure its survivor.

nukh said...

in order to stem the demographic onslaught, which israel ackknowledges as an inevitability - maybe it will liberalize its conversion rules [into judaism]and even carry out aggressive proselytyzation...

i for one [an atheist] would support such a plan for obvious reasons,
i.e., ensuring that the evil that resides in that benighted arabistan stays encircled.
wink, wink

airrahul said...

GGK, Israel is very economically viable. Its population is well-educated, it has an economy with many many sectors ranging from diamonds-related work to high tech work such as that which resulted in the Centrino processor from Intel, by per capita GDP one could call it an upper-middle-income country, and it has a stable, democratic government. It is definitely here to stay economically. With the recent unilateral withdrawal and the upcoming one (judging by fence construction) from the West Bank, it will be stable demographically as well.

libertarian said...

Agree that you never say never. But the likelihood of Israel disappearing in the next 100 years is remote. It was considered militarily inferior to Egypt and others till they had their behinds kicked in '67. That transformed Israel into the de facto power in the region.

nukh, Israel is a breath of fresh air in the generally politically correct world. Not just arabistan - seems they were willing to do our dirty work in Kahuta way back when. The story I heard is that we chickened out of providing them a refueling facility in Gujarat. If we could rewind and live an alternate reality ... :-)

Regarding the demographic trend - don't know if it will be a primary factor in its decline. Israel = 6mm, Palestine = 3mm (with the highest per capita suicide bombers); Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan populations not growing that quick. Will take 30-40 years before the Palestinians equal the Israeli population.

nukh said...

libertarian, a breath of fresh air indeed. now if only the indian left, particularly the bhadarlok would realise that.
to wit, in a scene from the movie mr and mrs iyer" [an aparna sen creation] an old mulsim couple traveling on a bus are outed to the "blood thirsty shiv sena mob by an indian jewish couple who are also on the bus.
go figure, ms.sen thought it prudent to assign jewish identity to one of the most despicable characters in the movie...hmm would the converse have been depicted? never in a sen movie.

btw, i have heard about the kahuta incident from various sources.
any idea, if it is true?

Red said...

I remember reading Exodus (confession to reading pulp fiction) many years ago and getting dewy eyed about the grit and the determination showed by the Israelis. To be fair though, Israel's existence owes quite a bit to US military and diplomatic support post 1950. Also, Israel's treatment of Palestinian citizens leaves much to be desired.

One of Israel's greatest strengths is its fiercely independent and skilled judiciary. I am a huge fan of Justice Barak.

Its interesting how most Israelis I have met seem far more liberal and accomodating of the Palestinian question than American jews or US media. Also, liberal Israelis are fairly critical of the conservative jewish establishment back home. A lot of young Israelis chose to get married outside the country to avoid the traditional interpretations of Talmudic law applied in Israel.

But good writing. Really informative

Re the Aparna Sen comment. I'm not too sure how much that was motivated by ani semetism, given that Jews are a microscopic minority in India.

history_lover said...

Thankfully the palestinians are not cowed down by israeli oppression either.I wish the rest of the muslim world would be doing more to help the palestinians then just empty talk
Anyway what is the use of democracy if you cannot treat other people with dignity

Jaffna said...

Lal saheb,

The Israeli electorate has different shades of opinion - be it left, liberal, center, conservative or hawkish right. Their's is an ideological pluralism. The institutions give the country its cohesiveness. You refer to the judiciary. Other examples include the Knesset, the civil administration, centers of higher learning and the vibrant media.

Turning to the Palestinian question, former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak (is he any relative of the Chief Justice?) was willing to concede (i) an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza; and (ii) Palestinian sovereignty over most of East Jerusalem. He had agreed that the key zone of contention i.e. Temple Mount, the archeological site of Solomon's temple and the Al Aqsa mosque situated on it be controlled by the Palestinians while its foundation be regarded as Israeli territory. The rationale being that any archeological artifacts would legally belong to Israel. The Wailing Wall, Judaism's most sacred site, would belong to Israel. Jerusalem was to be a unified city with dual sovereignty. This was a unique arrangement for a city with shared religious associations between Jews and Muslims. Ehud Barak had also agreed to a road link between the West Bank and Gaza running through Israeli territory.

The Palestinians did not accept the far reaching deal on the grounds that the right of return of Palestinians displaced in 1948 into Israel proper needed to be accomodated as well. However, no Israeli state could accept an Arab influx into the Israeli state given the demographic implications. Moreover, there is no international legal precedent for this anywhere else. 12 million Germans were expelled from Poland in 1945 when that nation's boundaries were redrawn by Stalin to encapsulate large chunks of German territory. Their descendents can not expect to return to post-communist Poland. The children and grandchilden of the 6 million Hindus and Sikhs have no automatic "right of return" to what is today Pakistan from where their parents/grandparents fled in 1947. Greeks displaced from Ataturk's Turkey in the 1920s had no right of return to Turkey either. The Palestinians missed their chance once again.

Ravi said...

excellent, lucid post.

Good work.

history_lover said...

Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak "insisted that the borders with Egypt and Jordan should be under their control, as well as the airspace and the sea around Gaza," and that Israel should have sovereignty over the land beneath the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem [Islam's third holiest shrine].

doubtinggaurav said...


Sorry going OT here.
I read in some newspaper that Israeli youths are increasingly coming to india and embracing Hinduism/Buddhism .owing to high stress level due to ongoing conflict.


Why should rest of muslim world do anything about palestinian conflict ?

history_lover said...

Al-Quds is our third holiest shrine.
All muslims should help (particularly) thier fellow muslims in fighting oppression.

According to a Prophetic Hadith “The Muslim is the brother of his fellow Muslim. So, he should never oppress him or hand him over (to his enemies) or forsake him (in times of difficulty)", it is incumbent upon a Muslim to support his fellow Muslims everywhere in compliance with the Prophet’s instruction that Muslims ought to act as one body, if one of its organs ache, the other organs share the pain with fever and insomnia.

Tehmina Rehman said...

History lover,

You mention that "Muslims need to act as one body" and yet the very history of Islam belies that most forcefully. Soon after Muhammed's death, his designated successor, Abu Bakr, sidelined his daughter Fathima and his son-in-law Ali. This is what the Shi'ites claim and their is evidence for that. The sidelining of women had begun.

The Caliphs Umar, Uthman and Ali were murdered by fellow Muslims. The successor Ummayad caliphate was bedevilled by dissension and so was the Abbasid caliphate. The Muslims never acted as one cohesive unit from day one.

I think the selective emphasis on the Hadith is not helpful. For one the Hadiths contradict each other and it is quite a task to sipher through which is authentic and which is not. Most are interpolations and frauds. Women's rights are compromised. Furthermore, there are other recommendations to look after the poor and jettison usury that are conveniently ignored. This literalism is counter productive.

More importantly, you views imply that Indian Muslims should support Pakistan should India and Pakistan go to war. This has dangerous implications. Muslim women are not helped by such facile formulations

doubtinggaurav said...

History Lover,

I think that Israel was ready to share Jerusalem with Palestine (As Jaffna pointed out.),
In that light I don't see why Muslism should claim victim hood,
as far holiness goes Jerusalem is holy site to both christians and jews as well (and well before Islam even came I may add)
.That will not justify a second series of crusades by christians

Tehmina Rehman,
More power to you.


history_lover said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
history_lover said...

@Gaurav Despite their stated maximalist positions most palestinians including the Hamas are willing to settle for West Bank,Gaza and East Jerusalem
As for the refugees ,if Israel tenders apologies for the Nakhba and financial compensation ,it is highly likely that they will accept.
After all they continue to extort money from people and corporations over the Holocaust.
@Tehmina you have opened up and entirely new issue which is off-topic We can debate this on another forum - perhaps on my blog or on email if you wish.

libertarian said...

nukh, here's what I found when I searched for Israeli plans concerning Kahuta.


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