A survival saga bookended by history and memory
TEN MONTHS AFTER India secured its Independence, on May 14th, 1948, another nation took birth at the other end of Asia. David Ben-Gurion, the great leader of the Jewish people, declared on that day standing in Jerusalem that Israel, a Jewish nation by its constitution, came into existence on the sacred lands of Yahweh and Moses, called Palestine.
The two nations—India and Israel—have many historical similarities leading up to their respective freedoms from alien rule. Both the lands were under British rule before independence. Both were subjugated for centuries by foreign rulers. In India’s case, it were the invaders from Central Asia, the Ghurids, the Ghaznis, the Mughals, and finally, European powers such as the British, French and Portuguese, who had occupied and ruled over large parts of Indian soil. At the other end, the Jews were expelled from their ancestral lands in the first century CE by the Roman empire. They either lived the life of slavery or dispersed all over the world seeking refuge in various countries.
Both had waged decisive battles in the early 20th century culminating in freedom around the same time. Courtesy the British deception, both had to endure a religion-based partition of their respective lands. Both nations had their own leaders who led the popular struggle from the front. In India it was Mahatma Gandhi, while in Israel it was David Ben-Gurion. Both were considered moderates in their battles against the British and acquired the title of ‘Father of the Nation’. Both countries had a strong streak of armed nationalist wars against their oppressors. In India it were revolutionaries and the INA, and in Israel it were groups like Irgun, Haganah, etcetera.
The fervour with which both Indians and Jews had struggled for the freedom of their respective motherland and promised land is also instructive. Every foreign invader was fought ferociously by the contemporary Indian rulers. It took more than three centuries for the Mughals to finally establish their Delhi Sultanate, but it lived for hardly a century-and-a-half. It took more than a century for the British to gain complete control over major parts of India only to return to London in 90 years’ time. History tells us that not a single year had passed without the occupiers facing resistance from the natives.
The case with the Jews was slightly different. They were dispersed all over the world in the first century CE, suffered great ignominy in many countries except perhaps in India, and generations had passed without them ever being able to return to their motherland. Yet the successive generations of Jewish leadership had kept the fire of freedom alive in the hearts of millions of Jews across the globe. Every year the Jews would meet at one place in their respective countries, remember their history, triumphs and travails, and while departing, would shake hands with each other with the slogan: ‘Next time in Jerusalem’. For generations on, year after year, the Jews had prayed for their return, never forgot, never gave up. And finally, when that moment came nearer, toward the end of the Second World War, millions of Jews had started migrating to Palestine leaving behind everything that they had amassed over centuries in their host countries.
Arabs and non-Arab critics argue that the Jewish concept of the ‘promised land’ was just a piece of mythology and was exploited by the European powers, who hated the Jews for religious and other reasons, to push them to the West Asian corner of Palestine. Fact remains that one of the biggest human migrations happened during the time of Hitler and Second World War from Europe to Palestine. Israelis believe that nearly 6 million Jews had been exterminated in the most brutal genocide unleashed by Hitler’s army during the war. It is called Holocaust by the Israelis and in Jerusalem one can visit the Holocaust Museum to understand the horrors that the Jews were subjected to.
The survivors of the Holocaust and Jews from various other parts of the world started pouring in to the promised land around the time of the war in large numbers. And the final push for securing Israel’s independence began then.
Israel’s freedom struggle took a different turn from that of India’s around this time. Towards the end of the Second World War, the Indian leadership was faced with a challenge. The British had agreed to leave India, but before leaving, they wanted to divide India on religious lines. At that critical juncture, especially when the mobs led by Muslim League were out on the streets of Kolkata and elsewhere creating murder and mayhem, the Indian leadership had developed cold feet. Partitioning of India into Hindustan and Pakistan was agreed to, and finally, it led to the emergence of two independent nations. Years later, Nehru would concede that the leadership was not willing to carry on with the struggle any longer because ‘we became old’, and hence, agreed for Partition.
What happened in Israel was just the opposite. The Arabs in Palestine were determined not to allow a Jewish state to come into being. Armed struggles broke out all over Palestine with the Jews and Arabs engaging in pitched battles. After the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of partitioning Palestine and carving out a sovereign state of Israel on November 29th, 1947, all hell broke loose. The fidayeen groups supported by the Arab League countries led by Egypt had launched armed attacks on Jewish villages and civilians with an avowed objective of annihilating or extraditing the last Jew from the territory of Palestine. “This will be a war of great destruction and slaughter that will be remembered like the massacres carried out by the Mongols and the Crusaders,” bragged Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, the Secretary General of the Arab League.
It was an unequal war for the Jews as they didn’t have an evolved state as yet, and they were pitted against several powerful Arab states. It was sheer grit, heroism, patriotism and determination of the Jewish leadership and the people alike that finally led to a newly born state of Israel defeating enemies who were at least five times more powerful than it.
Israel didn’t have a regular army as yet, hence all the youngsters, boys and girls were commissioned into the army. ‘A piece of bread, a cup of tea, thrice a day’ was the meagre ration that Israel could offer to its fighting youngsters. But they fought without complaining, with empty stomachs. In fact, the ration was the same to even the civilians in Israel those days. Many elderly Jews used to forgo their ration and remain hungry so that the fighting youngsters could get an extra slice of bed, or an extra cup of tea.
While the Indian leadership had agreed for an atrociously haphazard Radcliff line dividing India into two, dividing families, homes and villages in a most irrational manner, the Jewish people under Ben-Gurion’s leadership had fought for every inch of territory given to them by the United Nations. There were instances when the Jews sacrificed an entire platoon protecting a lone synagogue in a remote village. Ben-Gurion would insist that Jewish soil cannot once again be allowed to be conquered until the last Jew was alive.
“Israel will not discuss a peace involving the concession of any piece of territory. The neighbouring states do not deserve an inch of Israel’s land,” Ben-Gurion would thunder.
In the end, while India’s independence came through a bloody Partition under the June 3rd Plan, Israel secured its independence through the blood and sacrifices of millions of its people, but without agreeing to part even an inch of its soil. There was hardly a family at the time of independence in Israel that had not lost a member either in the horrible Holocaust or in the battles against the Arabs during the days of independence. Hence the Israelis knew the value of their freedom more than any other country in the world.
A tiny country with just over 8.7 million population, out of which about 6.7 million are Jews and 1.8 million Arabs, and surrounded by hostile armies five times its size, what Israel achieved in the last seven decades is an immensely inspirational saga. Israel is today a technological and military superpower. It is one of the world’s top 20 highly developed economies with a GDP per capita of over $44,000. With just 0.2 per cent population in the world, the Jews are the largest number of winners of the Nobel Prize, constituting over 20 per cent of the total 900-odd prize winners.
Israel’s ways are a subject of animated discussion in the world. The Israelis have all along been at the receiving end of human rights and left-liberal lobbies. The UN has been pitted against them; the Palestine Liberation Authority has more supporters among world powers than Israel does.
Yet, the country moves on with its head held high. For an average Israeli, life is not easy; it is a daily struggle. Militant outfits like Hamas and Hezbollah continuously launch terror attacks inside Israel, targeting civilians as well.
No country is perfect. Israel too has had its share of excesses and mistakes. It has practically nullified the UNGA arrangement by taking over the Palestinian territories of Gaza Strip and West Bank, thus rendering Palestinians stateless. There is still no clarity on whether Israel would agree for a two-state solution to end the vexed West Asian conflict. Its treatment of Palestinians in those territories it occupied after the Six-Day War in 1967 is seen by many as less than satisfactory. In the initial years and decades, it had indulged in random targeted killings of Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, all over Europe and the Middle East on the suspicion of terrorism. Even now, it continues to attract criticism for aggressive and at times excessive use of force against Arab and Palestine targets.
But several of these acts were the result of exigencies under which the Jewish people live. Their precarious living conditions have led them to develop methods that countries in peaceful environment would find objectionable. One needs to be a Jew living in Jerusalem or Haifa or Eilat to understand the rationale behind some of Israel’s actions. It is easy to condemn them but difficult to appreciate the dangers of being an Israeli Jew.
What keeps them going? An immense commitment to their land and freedom. An ethereal element of devotion to the promised land is inbuilt in their psyche. A deep-rooted conviction that Israel’s future is in the hands of each and every Jew, not just in the hands of a few leaders, motivates them. In that sense, every ordinary Jew is an intense patriot. They have their ideological and political differences. In fact, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is the most fragmented parliament in the democratic world. But that doesn’t deter an ordinary Jew from working for his nation.
Military training is a compulsory part of every Israeli Jew’s life. Once you are eighteen, serving in the Israeli military is mandatory. In fact, those who escape this mandatory training due to health reasons, etcetera are looked down upon. After serving for a couple of years, most of the Israelis go back to civil life. But they are at the disposal of the Israeli defence establishment at all the times.
“Life is tough. Do you feel bad?” I asked my driver, a 35-year- old Jew, several years ago once when I was traveling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the Indian embassy car. “Yes, sometimes. I completed my military duties. But then I get a call to rejoin military every now and then. I am a married man with children now. I feel bad for my family when I go back to the barracks. Sometimes, I feel that God has been cruel to me. He could have dropped me some 500 miles away in Paris or London. I wouldn’t be facing all these problems,” he blurted out. “Must be very difficult for your family,” I tried to console him. He became stiff. “But when I join my colleagues in the army, I realise that God has given this duty to me in this life to protect my promised land,” he said to me proudly. It is this spirit that runs Israel. That is why Ben-Gurion used to say that Israel is not a country, but a people.
(The article was originally published in OPEN Magazine on May 10, 2019. Views expressed are personal)