There is much admiration for Israel, and often rightly so, for its many achievements and for the legend woven around its armed forces in the neighbourhood and of the Mossad Aliyah Bet, the Israeli secret service. Since Israel’s antagonists are Muslims, there is even more admiration for them in certain predictable circles in India. This is not a recent development. Even before Israel came into being as a nation state MG Golwalkar and VD Savarkar supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine two decades before it came into being. Welcoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the visit was “70 years late in coming.” He could have very well said 90 years late.

The myth and legend of Israel was a clever mix of fact and fiction, and owed much to Jewish writers like Leon Uris who died on June 21, 2003. Uris was the author of internationally acclaimed bestselling novels like Battle Cry, Exodus, Mila 18 and Trinity. He also wrote the screenplay of the Hollywood classic, Gunfight at OK Corral, starring Burt Lancaster as Marshal Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. But it was the 600-page Exodus that created a sensation in 1957 and propelled him to high literary fame.

The legend of Exodus

It was a detailed and heroic chronicle of European Jewry from the turn of the last century to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Interestingly, India was one of the early countries to recognise Israel, whose creation had the support of both the USA and the Soviet Union. His book Mila-18 was published just as Joseph Heller was completing Catch-22. The original title of this best seller was Catch-18, and its publisher had to quickly give it a new number. But for this what we now commonly call a Catch-22 situation would have been a Catch-18 situation.

While being the epic story of a nation seeking a state even as it was emerging from the greatest nightmare of history, Exodus was also the touching love story of Ari Ben Canaan, an Israeli freedom fighter, and Kitty Fremont, an American nurse who joins Canaan’s fight for a Jewish state. The love became a metaphor for the relationship between the USA and Israel.

In 1958, after it became one of the most popular novels of the century, Exodus was made into a film by Otto Preminger and featured Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan. Paul Newman with his striking good looks, great acting ability and cool style was then the reigning Hollywood god. It was probably the first time that Hollywood had portrayed a Jewish man in such heroic dimensions. The book and the movie contributed the most to the mythologising of the Israeli fighter as an indomitable and idealistic hero.

Calling the forces

But it is not that Israel lacked such men those days. The founders of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah that was the forerunner of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), men like Moshe Dayan, Haim Bar Lev, Ezer Weizmann, Yigael Yadin, Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon, were all men of heroic proportions and each one could have been a prototype for Ari Ben Canaan.

But it was Yigal Allon who came closest of all to it. Allon began life as a Haganah field commander in 1936, when he was merely 18. In 1941 he was one of the founders of the Palmach, a commando style strike unit of the Haganah. In 1948 he was made an Lieutenant General and commanded Israeli forces in the south that “liberated” the Negev in what became to be known as the War of Independence. He retired from the IDF in 1950, at the ripe old age of 32. In 1960 after a long career in it, Allon went to Oxford University’s St Anthony’s College to study international relations! He later entered public life and became Deputy Prime Minister of Israel in 1967. He died in 1980.

The first Chief of the IDF was Yaakov Dori, who was one of the founding Haganah commanders. The Haganah was founded in 1920 as the underground military organization of the Jewish yishuv or community and was then a loose organisation of various local defence groups. The Palmach was its first mobilised unit, gaining battle experience in the Second World War as the Jewish Brigade under British command. It consisted of many first generation Sabras – Palestine-born Israelis – who were also fluent Arabic speakers, which gave it the ability to remain concealed among the Arab population and to wage a lethal unconventional war on them. The military training and equipment that came as a consequence of joining the British forces turned it into a professional fighting force.

The British learned much from this experience. Captain Orde Wingate, who led the famous Chindits Brigade in Burma, was originally from the Palmach. Wingate was a charismatic dreamer who, though a Christian, had joined the Jewish movement and led the Special Night Squad of the Haganah, which carried out reprisals against the Arabs. Wingate’s Palestine experience found expression in Burma and its successes led all traditional armies to establish special warfare forces to give them similar deep strike capabilities.

The combination of unconventional warfare by British SAS and US Special Forces and deep and precision air strikes by modern fighter and bomber aircraft in Afghanistan has now given modern warfare a new dimension. Of the three battalions who formed the original Chindits Brigade, the 3/4 Gurkha Rifles is still with the Indian Army and carries the Chindits tag with great pride. Orde Wingate was buried at an Israeli seacoast settlement called Sharon.

The heroic sheen of the IDF has gone with its emergence as a mighty army with the latest weapons and the unstinted support of the USA. It is now no longer David with a slingshot facing a mighty Goliath. In the four major wars it has fought, the IDF has worsted numerically superior Arab armies with ease. It was only in the 1973 Yom Kippur War that the Egyptian and Syrian forces managed to score some major initial successes, enabling them to cross the Suez Canal.

Saad Shazli’s Egyptian forces breaching the Bar-Lev line, and the subsequent defeat of the Israeli armored counter-attack, are the only military successes of modern-day Arab armies. The Palestinian intifada is now the heroic struggle of a people seeking to find their identity and their freedom. Just like Israel was before 1948.

The reality of the nature of the Palmach may have never been very different from that of the IDF now, but for the contribution of people like Leon Uris who mythologised the Israeli cause. Even way back in 1948, Yigal Allon had written:

We saw a need to clean inner Galilee and to create a Jewish territory in the entire area of Upper Galilee…We therefore looked for means, which did not force us into employing force, in order to cause tens of thousands of sulky Arabs who remained in Galilee to flee…I gathered all the Jewish mukhtars, who have contacts with Arabs in different villages and asked them to whisper in the ears of some Arabs, that a great Jewish reinforcement has arrived in Galilee and that it is going to burn all the villages of Huleh. They should suggest to these Arabs, as their friends, to escape while there is still time.

— "Book of the Palmach", Yigal Allon

If the Palmach fighters were driving the Arabs from their traditional homes by psychological means, the terrorist end of the Haganah spectrum like the Irgun of Menachem Begin and the Stern gang led by Yitzhak Shamir were using more direct methods. Shamir, who was extremely short and extremely good at assassination, later became a senior Mossad operative. The notorious massacre at Deir Yasin, where a whole Arab village was butchered, was the handiwork of these two, both later to become Prime Ministers and one even a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace! But thanks to Leon Uris, we saw the young Israel as idealised by Ari Ben Canaan.

Sifting fact from fiction

The atrocities during the War of Independence can even be justified by the fact that there was a war declared on the Jewish state by all its Arab neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, supported by the entire Arab world. The moth-eaten Israel mandated by the UN was not tenable in terms of security, and addition of territory to gain security could have even been understandable.

But the occupation of the West Bank since 1967 and the continued building of settlements in defiance of UN resolutions and in the face of world opinion are ugly and contemptuous manifestations of a narrow nationalism. Israel is no longer the valiant and beleaguered underdog, it is seen as an arrogant oppressor seeking to crush a nation under its jackboots. The determined visage and striding corpulence of Ariel Sharon told it all.

The first generations of Israeli leadership were drawn from the European Jewry known as the Ashkenazim. The Ashkenazim were generally liberal and progressive, and this was seen in early Israel when most agriculture was under co-operative farming organised around the Kibbutz, which also entailed a communal (sharing) lifestyle.

The Histadrut, the labour union, which was the bedrock of the Labour political movement led by Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion, is also Israel’s biggest employer, owning much of its transportation, dairy, construction and services sectors. Israel was intended as a progressive, socialist and democratic state. Most Jews who migrated to Israel were fleeing centuries of European oppression that culminated with cataclysmic consequences for them in Hitler’s death camps.

At present, the real power in Israel is vested with Menachim Begin’s successors in the Likud party, which derives much support from the post Soviet collapse Russian migrants and the Sephardim, as the Jewish people from Arab nations are known. The Likud leadership is still Ashkenazim, but the animosity towards Arabs has a sharper edge, honed by the memory of the sufferings of the Sephardim in Arab nations.

Thus, while leaders like the Labour party’s Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were from the Ashkenazi elite, who are generally willing for a more equitable and just compromise with the Palestinians, leaders like Binyamin Netanyahu would like nothing better than the expulsion of all Palestinians from their remaining homeland in the West Bank. Ariel Sharon initiated the policy of settlement in the occupied territories when he was the Minister for the West Bank in Yitzhak Rabin’s first coalition government. The sad truth about Israel is that Ariel Sharon is fact and Ari Ben Canaan is fiction.