The tensions in nowadays Middle East have a multitude of causes, from ethnically stimulated conflicts to oil-impacted wars. But what exactly was the trigger that launched the enraged XXth century? The sudden advent of the Jews at the beginning of the century, the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire, an important stabilizing factor in the region, the Sykes – Picot Agreement, the British protectorate and mandate? What drove the future Israelis on the deserted piece of land on the shores of the Mediterranean, and how exactly did they build from scratch a nation in such a short time? And what sins did they commit while attaining their most fervent dream? All of the above are rather complicated questions, which require complex answers. Yet, there must be a common denominator among all these factors, a primal impulse that drove people beyond wars, beyond the rather recently-established rules of international politics, beyond the desperation of making functional an otherwise far-fetched kibbutz.
The Middle Eastern contemporary history puts the observer in front of a huge challenge: that of pointing to the common grounds constituted by the Arab language and the reverence to Mecca, which reinforce an already strong sense of community, of togetherness, of membership to an entity much bigger than a regional or national one. Moreover, one can add the rule of the Ottoman Empire over the region, which lasted for approximately 250 years, and managed to leave deep traces despite frequent interruptions. The British and French colonial rule over the whole region added to this oriental legacy either a strong monarchical tradition, in the British-lead colonies, or a stronger-cultural-than-political legacy in the French colonies, especially when it comes to Maghreb.
Despite all these similarities, ever since the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War, the common grounds were more likely to be grounds for divorce: the Middle East never was, nor attempted to be (in spite of some ambitions) a homogenous structure. It is hugely diverse in terms of ethnic groups, of geography, of culture, and ultimately in terms of political culture. And, on top of this huge diversity, on top of the dreams and vows made for a Palestinian state, the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s brought upon a much more thorny issue: Zionism, Jews, and the establishment of a Jewish state in the Palestinian territory.
The year of 1948, when the state of Israel officially came into being, marks the beginning of a forceful and hurried process of nation building. One cannot argue against the fact that Israel is a most recent – and most powerful – nation, which seems to be built out of sheer nothingness. But is it really sheer nothingness?
Let us go a little bit back in time. On their way to Jaffa, the first twenty-one travellers, among which we can find Herbert Bentwich, a leading Zionist of the time, are of higher middle class. It is the year of 1897, and the creation of a state of Israel starts to become a necessity for the Jews whose only means of ethnic survival are their religion and their isolated way of life they lead in the ghettoes of Europe. The need for sovereignty, for independence, for a state in the era of states and nationhood is one of the primary factors leading Bentwich and the other pilgrims onto this deserted Palestinian land. But Zionism in this era is a romantic Zionism, one which more or less deliberately chooses to ignore the Palestinian villages seen on this piece of land. In the years following the Kishinev pogrom, which took place in 1903, approximately one million Jews fled Europe to establish themselves on the Palestinian territory. Later on in the XXth century, when tragedy showed its face and decimated the Jewish population of Europe, it became clear that Zionism might be the only solution that could be able to save the Jewish legacy. So, as a consequence, Israel became stringent.
During the first half of the XXth century, it became clear that nationalism is not the only force behind Zionism and behind the many well – off Jews leaving behind their rather wealthy existence in order to establish themselves on a remote, unresourceful land somewhere on the shores of the Mediterranean. Fear, fight for survival were the factors that brought together Jews from all over the Europe, Jews with different traditions, speaking different languages and having different backgrounds. It was fear and suffering that united and gathered them in Palestine.
Having this in mind, it is suddenly much easier to understand how exactly the first kibbutzim were built from both a concrete and a sociological point of view. Ein Harod, Masada or Degania (each with its own story of creation) – why would any sane man join such communities, what reason should there be other than running away from a nightmare.
A fact of utmost importance and interest in the establishment of a Zionist Israel is the issue of the Palestinians living on the Palestinian territory. It is deeply ironical how Israel committed the original sin by ousting the Arabs from the Arab villages neighbouring the newly built kibbutzim. Arabs were now starting to seek revenge, which came immediately after the creation of the state, under the form of the 1948 war. It was a disaster in terms of refugees: approximately seven hundred thousands of Palestinian Arabs were displaced, while some eight hundred thousand Jews were displaced from Arab countries surrounding Israel during or after the war. The war ended with an Israeli victory and with a strategic failure of the Arab League. The Suez Crisis was the first drawback for the Israeli state, as it ended with an Egyptian political victory and with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, on a huge wave of popularity and with huge ambitions for a Pan-Arabic project. The situation further complicated with the Six Day War, which demonstrated quite clearly the Israeli military superiority, won in quite a few years. Continuous territorial gains were to put even more pressure on Israel’s neighbours, and to deepen the Palestinian problem. Yet, it was for the first time in a long period when the Israeli general feeling was that of undisclosed optimism, which was to be confirmed a bit later, in 1973, with the Yom Kippur war, the critical moment when Gaza Strip and the West Bank came under the Israeli administration.
Yom Kippur was also the moment when the Israeli state was to acknowledge the fact that the military domination of the Arab world was rather impossible to guarantee, especially due to Sadat’s early achievements during the war. Yet, this was the moment when both parties, Arabs and Israelis altogether, realised the fact that war was too risky to be a permanent solution. The peace negotiations that occurred after the war were actually the first encounters of the belligerents since the 1948 war. The Camp David Accords in 1975 were a diplomatic breakthrough for the Middle East, and their consequences were to be seen on a long term period. First and foremost, the normalization of the relations between Egypt and Israel brought the death of Anwar Sadat, who was killed by fundamentalists enraged on the peace securement with Israel. Moreover, it changed Egypt’s perception in the Middle East and constituted the end of a united Arab world supposed to fight against Israel. Last but not least, it was the occasion on which the Palestinian issue became the predominant one in the Arab – Israeli relations.
Meanwhile the Israeli military forces were busy defending and gaining new territories, Israel devised its supreme weapon, a weapon supposed to defend the country from its enraged neighbours. The nuclear power plant in Dimona was – and still is, for most of its aspects – a denied and unrecognized project. Yet, small attempts to bringing this project and the engineers that worked on the development of the perpetually denied nuclear bomb have been done. The most recent one is Ari Shavit’s exposé, in this latest book, „My Promised Land” (a book recently published and rather criticised for seeming to favour the Israeli side, despite not claiming any objectivity over the situation), about the building and development of the power plant in Dimona, under the disclaimer that he and his editor have decided to remove from the aforementioned chapter the information that could potentially harm the national security of the state of Israel. It was a project built on clandestinity from the very beginning, as it was quite clear that none of the global powers in the 1960s would approve such a project while having to bear the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But it was a defence solution the Israelis felt they needed. It was part of a strategy of development which focused mainly on technology and it was the main engine for Israel’s growth, one that works even today. Not the same can be said about the secularism on which Israel was founded, since ultra-Orthodox Jews are gradually increasing in number and become more and more visible in domestic politics ever since the 1990s.
Nowadays, Israel stands in front of a huge mental challenge: the will of replicating the performances of the previous generation, the one that literally raised Israel from sand through Jaffa oranges up to the modern, shiny, glancing Tel Aviv. It was a generation that lived with the most fearsome of fears, that of the possibility of unforgiving disappearance of Israel, of the Jews altogether. A generation that built itself out of fear and into creating a future, that made possible Israel – one must definitely admit that the Israeli nation building process was one of the fastest and most successful ever seen in a democratic country. And it has to stand up to the challenge while the situation on the region is not an easy one at all, especially after one lost war with Hezbollah and Iran building its nuclear programme without being bothered by the international sanctions imposed upon them by the United Nations.
These are some of the reasons for which fear was one of the main engines of the Middle East. Once with the generation shift, things have changed in this respect – there is a huge difference in the cultural terms in which the Holocaust is perceived by and taught to the young Jewish generation. Furthermore, there is a shift in population, allowing the ultra-Orthodox Jews to become more and more numerous, thus challenging the secular type of education that ensured the technological and economic advancement of Israel during the later XXth century.
Of course, fear is not, nor will be everything about Israel and the Middle East. Each layer of issues – political, cultural, religious, and economic – bears its toll over the dynamics of the region, making it the one of the most volatile around the globe. Moreover, each leader has its own personality – and the current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has not made things any simpler for the whole region or for the international actors directly interested in the Middle East, especially the United States of America.
The identity of a nation transforms from and within its people. This stands true for Israel, too, a nations whose identity is composed also of fear. But with each generation fears change, and so does Israel.
 Mehran KAMRAVA, “The Modern Middle East. A Political History Since the First World War”, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005, pp. 9 – 34
Ari SHAVIT, ”My Promised Land. The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”, SCRIBE, Sage Publications, Australia & United Kingdom, 2014, pp. 26 – 27
Donna Robinson DIVINE, „Zionism and the Politics of Authenticity”, Israel Studies, Volume 19, Number 2, 2014, pp. 94 – 110
Elie REKHESS, „The Arab Minority in Israel: Reconsidering the “1948 Paradigm””, Israel Studies, Volume 19, Number 2, 2014, pp. 187 – 217