THIRD EYE - Ramon J. Farolan - The Philippine Star

Last year, while browsing through one of the shops in Makati, I came across a book on Israel written by Daniel Gordis, senior vice president at Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college in Jerusalem. It was the recipient of the National Jewish Book Awards as “Jewish Book of the Year.” On the occasion of the State of Israel’s 75th founding anniversary today, I wish to share with my readers some of the lesser-known events about this amazing country and its people, who have been able to accomplish so much in the face of scarcity of human and financial resources, while being surrounded by enemies bent on destroying the new nation.

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At about the same period (1892-1896) when Andres Bonifacio and his fellow Katipuneros were plotting their revolt against Spain, a young Jewish writer Theodor Herzl, born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, started a movement calling for the creation of a Jewish State that would provide a home for all Jews. For more than 2,000 years since they were exiled from Judea by Roman conquerors, Jews were scattered all over the world, mostly in Eastern and Western Europe. Many could be found in North Africa, Iran, Iraq and Yemen. But the dream of returning to their ancient homeland remained a central idea in the minds of many and would be reflected in prayers ending with the words “Next year in Jerusalem.”

For Jews living in exile, life was often difficult and dangerous. In 1898, Mark Twain wrote in Harper’s Magazine on the life of Jews in Russia. “In all the ages Christian Europe has curtailed his activities. Trade after trade was taken away from the Jew by statute, till practically none was left. He was forbidden to engage in agriculture; he was forbidden to practice law; he was forbidden to practice medicine except among Jews; he was forbidden the handicrafts...”

Theodor Herzl believed that once a Jewish State came into existence, anti-Semitism would gradually subside and disappear in many countries. He began to write about his plans and, in 1896, his book “The Jewish State” was published, making Herzl the central figure in the movement for the return to Zion (Palestine). In August 1897, the first Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland, with the goal of securing a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. The Congress also called for the establishment of a “Hebrew University” in Palestine, indicating the desire not just for political goals but also for the pursuit of the humanities, the arts and sciences and the advancement of education among its people. Ahad Ha’am, a key voice in the Zionist Movement, favored the establishment of a Jewish spiritual center rather than a State. Herzl’s view would prevail over that of Ha’am.

On May 14, 1948, 50 years after the first Zionist Congress convened in Switzerland, David Ben Gurion, standing at the Tel Aviv Museum under a huge portrait of Herzl, announced: “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” After the singing of the national anthem “Hatikva,” Ben Gurion declared the end of the proceedings that lasted for only 32 minutes. The new State with a population of less than a million – 950,000 – was confronted immediately by the combined arms of five Arab States. With assistance from abroad, including volunteer fighters, the nation survived.

Many of our readers are familiar with events in Israel, including the stunning Six-Day War against Arab forces in 1967 and the dramatic Israeli hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, led by Col. Jonathan Netanyahu, elder brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We are also aware of the massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

In the early years following the declaration of independence, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion realized that the economy was on the verge of collapse. Food rationing was in place, and housing was desperately needed for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had moved to Palestine. More financial assistance was needed for development purposes. In 1951, West Germany and Israel started negotiations for Germany to pay reparations for what it had done to the Jewish people during the Holocaust. The announcement resulted in a bitter dispute between Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, a former terrorist leader who believed Israel should not accept monetary compensation from the Germans. The debate in parliament was vicious, with violence erupting outside. In the end, the Knesset voted 60-51 to proceed with the arrangements. The money from Germany helped Israel to improve housing, build roads and telecommunication systems and establish a national shipping fleet and airline. Reparations also helped finance the country’s national water carrier project, bringing water to arid parts of the nation and making them habitable. Without the reparations, the project would likely not have been possible then. The total amount paid by Germany came up to about $714 million. In 1956, Japan paid the Philippines war reparations amounting to $550 million. Has there been some accounting of this particular fund?

Today, this tiny nation the size of New Jersey, with a population less than that of Metro Manila, has become a technological powerhouse. It has one of the highest concentrations of engineers, research and development spending, and is often known as the “start-up nation.” Last year, The Economist named Israel’s economy “the fourth-most successful economy in the world” with a GDP of $564 billion. In education, Hebrew University ranked no. 67 in one of the latest rankings of the world’s top universities.

Why have they succeeded, where so many have failed? My own take is the quality of their leadership and the unconditional love for their homeland. Former Prime Minister Golda Meir had this to say: “The Jews have a secret weapon: We have nowhere else to go.”

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