A State is Born

The creation of an infrastructure for the state of Israel.

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The following article recounts Israel's state building process. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published Schocken Books.   

Independence advanced a pressing need for the institutional organization of the sovereign state. David Ben-Gurion, head of the prominent workers' party, laid down principles which were, despite some am­biguity, adopted by the representa­tive bodies with no major upheav­als. Israel was to become a western-­style parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage and the separation of powers. It was also proclaimed a secular state, and the Declaration of Independence pledged to "guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture." 

However, since throughout history religion has always been inexorably linked to nationality in Jewish collective consciousness, and because Israel's religious parties had considerable clout right from the start, certain theocratic elements were admitted, particularly in those aspects of legislation which sanctioned the exclusive jurisdiction of the religious courts in all matters matrimonial. Although no real kultrkampf ever evolved, the nonobservant majority resisted religious coercion, while the Orthodox persisted in trying to enforce halakhic law on modern Israel. This was but one point of contention which agitated political life in Israel, polarizing public opinion and dividing the population into a multitude of parties. Indeed, the ideolo­gical fervor sustained from the time of the yishuv, coupled with an electoral system of proportional representation established for the Zion­ist Congresses, created a highly heterogeneous system of political trends, movements, and factions.

Nevertheless, despite the ideological struggles which took place in the political arena and in the domains of Israeli literature, theater, and the media (and, on occasion, in the law courts), the two decades between the War of Independence and the Six-Day War were a time of growth and consolidation for the young state of Israel. First, there was a tremendous influx of immigrants which led to huge demographic growth. Thousands of long-suffering Jews flocked to the newborn state from the Displaced Persons' camps, from British detainee camps in Cyprus which held illegal immigrants, and, for the first time ever, from all the Islamic countries. This huge wave of new arrivals doubled the Jewish population of Israel within three years.

The absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants was a staggering task for such a small state lacking in natural resources. The early years were indeed very difficult: new immigrants were initially set up in tents,

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University