Against the odds: Israelites, Jews (Part I)


For some of the people in the Middle East, Israelis and Jews are synonymous terms. For others, they are not. Israelis are citizens of a tiny state that was re-invented in 1948 with the full blessings of the United Nations but the hostility of neighbouring Arab states. A fraction of Israel’s population is made up of minorities, mostly Arabs.

The word Israel is older than the word Jews. It was the second name of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham; the ancestor of the Jews who after leaving his native city UR in what is now Iraq went and settled in the land of Canaan later called Palestine. This land Abraham was told by God was to be the home of his descendants.

Jews are people who live by the faith called Judaism and are found in many countries. They are nationals of those countries. In some of those countries, they do not feel welcome because of the thing called anti-Semitism. We will proceed with Israelis first.


We talk these days of diaspora without remembering that originally it referred exclusively to the Jewish dispersion from their home in Palestine when the Romans destroyed their Temple in the year 70 CE. They went into many countries of Europe including Russia but retained loose connection between them. In most of these countries, they lived in separate housing estates called ghettos. This partly explains why they were never fully assimilated into the societies they found. Their religion also ensured they could be distinct.

Despite their contributions to science, literature and technology, they suffered discrimination. Towards the 19th century, anti-semitism became worse. There grew a longing among Jews to go back to Palestine and re-establish the state of Israel. The movement for return to Palestine was known as Zionism. By the end of World War I, Zionism had found a dynamic leader in a chemist called Chaim Weizemann.

With the defeat of Turkey in World War I, Palestine formerly an Ottoman (Turkish) colony, was given to Britain to administer as a mandate. Lord Barfour, British Foreign minister, publicly stated Britain supported the Jews aspiration to have a homeland of their own. He offered them part of what is Kenya in East Africa. But Jewish leaders rejected the offer. They wanted to go back to the land of their ancestors where were the tombs and the holy places.


Pogroms in East Europe culminated in the holocaust in Poland and strengthened the resolve to go back to Palestine. This time, they received support from major powers which were appalled by the Nazi excuses. Nazis are said to have six million Jews.

On May 19 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed. The United States immediately recognised it. But Arab states, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan attacked Israel. After initial setbacks, Israel’s armies counter-attacked and forced the Arab nations to settle for an armistice without acknowledging the right of Israel to exist.

Immigrants to the new state of Israel faced two gargantuan huddles. First was the enduring hostility of the Arab states which organised a boycott of commercial dealings with Israel. Besides, they warned that they would punish any non-Arab nation that traded with Israel. Their first warnings were directed against France and Britain.

The second obstacles was that Israel no longer had milk and honey that Moses had promised the Hebrews when the exodus started in Egypt about three millennia earlier. A good part of Israel was made up of a desert called Negev. Most of the 1.6 million Jews who settled in Israel during the first 16 years found Israel uninviting. In Europe, they had been accustomed to moderation in heat, wind and the other vagaries of climate; getting acclimatised was very hard. But they had come to stay and would not go back.

On arrival, they found in the Negev 15,000 nomadic Bedouins who were growing nothing. There within that time about 400,000 Jews settled in the Negev and turned it into cultivatable land. They grew tomatoes, melons, potatoes, fruits and vegetables and flew them to Europe where they were out of season and sold them at retail prices lower than those domestically grown.

In the first 16 years of the new state, the government and the Jewish National Fund directed the planting of 83 million trees including six million in the forest of the Martyre outside Jerusalem. These trees were planted to honour the six million victims of the Nazi since known as Holocaust with a capital.

The trees are said to have brought depth and much-needed shadows to what used to be stark landscape.

Most of the pioneers arrived without agricultural skills because whenever the Jews settled in the diaspora, they were not allowed to own farming land. Now, though they still import some of the food, they grow a good deal of it locally and export some of their agricultural produce as we have indicated above. Israel has also become a manufacturer of a variety of goods which constitute foreign exchange earning exports. … to be continued.

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