January 16, 2024

1954. The State of Israel in 1954

A U.S. Reporter's Impressions of the New State of Israel
Divided Jerusalem in the 1960s (source)
This text is from a typewritten draft of a piece (including some notes) which Bill Downs submitted to CBS in 1954:
Bill Downs

CBS Rome

May 14, 1954

This is the last of the background series on the Middle East. Again it should be remembered that this was but a two week trip in one of the most explosive and potentially dangerous areas of the world. The conflict of custom, religion, and time is a strange and bloody piecemeal war. The aura of emotional and intellectual conflict that surrounds the problem makes it most difficult to report objectively.

So this last report is on Israel. This new Zionist nation has been called many things—a "State of mind," or a "nationalized ghetto" by its critics; the most "glorious political experiment since the American Revolution"; the "Ireland of the Middle East"; and the "Indochina of the Levant."

Whatever you call it, flying into the State of Israel for the first time is a notable experience. You fly in from Cyprus with a special separate visa. The Israeli diplomatic service realizes the difficulties that visitors have traveling through the Arab east. For example, before getting the Jordan visa, this reporter had to get an affidavit that he is not Jewish. (The document was a one sentence letter from the PIO official in the US Embassy in Rome. The appropriateness of the Embassy in taking such a step is open to serious question, but the guy was acting quickly as a personal favor and I don't want to get anyone into trouble.)

Also, anyone caught carrying one of these special Israeli visas in the Arab countries is subject to arrest under suspicion of being a spy. Several persons have been picked up, but nothing much has happened to them except the inconvenience of an Arab jail, which is considerable. But the Israeli officials are only concerned with the fact that, after you have been everywhere else, you show up in Israel and take a look. What you see is pretty tremendous. Anyone who remembers Hitler's Belsen or Dachau—who saw the pitiful survivors of one of the most inhuman, deliberate race extermination programs in history—cannot help but be impressed by the fact that a Jewish state actually exists.

As a matter of fact, this reporter was a little proud and muchly pleased that as a Gentile he, for once, was a minority person. So you might say that Israel is not only a nation, but also an experience. This is the impact, despite the fact that you had seen the moral decay and stagnation now extant in the Arab refugee camps where some 800,000 persons have been living for the past five years.

As they say about Everest, Israel is there and apparently just about as permanently. It is no longer an experiment, but is now a cause with a difficult autonomy and a powerful army. The desert is not blooming, and the rocky hills are as barren for the most part as they were in the time of Moses, but terraces are being dug out and trees are being planted. And if there is a portent, the people tell you that already the planting of pine forests is beginning to change the climate.

Still, there is war. Not a night or day passes without some kind of incident. Shots are fired at infiltrating Arabs. An Israeli patrol is shot up. Cars and trucks are sniped at along roads up the Jerusalem corridor, where communications are clearly under observation by both sides. The war is real for the men and women of Israeli communal farms along the border areas who each night shoulder rifles and do guard duty. On the Arab side, a newly organized home guard performs a similar duty. And whether it is in Indochina or Korea or Palestine or Jordan, the tension of the not-quite-hot war is everywhere along the border.

By contrast, cities like Beirut and Tel Aviv in the Bistros flourish. The tourists are gay in bars and night clubs as elaborate as in New York or Paris. Sin and vice have their foothold there too. The irony is that the Arab home guardsman or legionnaire patrols opposite the Jewish farmer and soldier to protect this easier and flamboyant life far behind the lines.

The contrast between the two sides is perhaps best seen in the frontier city of Jerusalem. We are not sure it is typical for the entire struggle.

The Arab side of Jerusalem embraces the Old City, which includes Mount Zion, Calvary, the famous Christian and Moslem shrines, plus the suburban Mount of Olives and the residential section surrounding the Hebrew hospital and university.

The Western Wall of the Old City forms the boundary line, and on the Israel side is the new section including the "Country Club District" and the modern shopping center. A no-man's land, sometimes a half block long, separates the two quarters. Wealthy Jews with whom I have talked resent very much the fact that they are cut off from the ancient and venerated place of worship.

The difference in appearance between the two sides is tremendous. On the Arab side, it is not uncommon to see a Bedouin family with a herd of goats and a train of camels making its way along the walls. There are, of course, many automobiles, jeeps, and trucks. But the ancient ways of the tribes seem to make these later inventions seem superfluous and temporary. On the Jewish side of town, emphasis is on the twentieth century. Jews who themselves were in the night shirt of the Persian fellah a few years ago are now driving trucks or running tractors. Girls from Morocco who would have been subjected to a life of traditional slavery or worse have been mustered into the Israeli army and have emerged as individuals and citizens.

The State of Israel not only has succeeded in a mass movement of populations, but has introduced a modern culture into the land. The interesting thing to watch will be to see how irresistible this culture will be in the long haul. The Egyptian revolution is a sign of the times. The question is: can the Arab states of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and other members of the Arab League make a cultural defense against it?

But the greatest contrast comes in the condition of the children. On the Arab side, where refugees sometimes live in caves (incidentally, a cave in the side of a Palestine hill is not the most uncomfortable place to live; it's dry in winter and cool in summer), the children are neglected, for the most part unwashed, allowed to run free to beg or steal or just wander. They often are dirty, diseased, underfed, and generally neglected. By way of contrast, we saw no child on the Israeli side, including the children of the few remaining Arabs, who did not look well-nourished, healthy, and content. It might be said that the children of the Arab peoples appear to have assumed their ancient burdens at birth, while Israel in the modern manner attempts to give their children a running start on life through food programs, schools, and nurseries before they take on the burden of being Israeli citizens. The Arab states create only Moslems.

The above few paragraphs are an attempt to picture the contrasts between the two sides. No fourteen day wonder, which defines what this reporter is, can completely reach into the roots of the two civilizations. Again, it is oversimplification to say that the twentieth century has arrived with Israel while it is hidden behind a curtain of ignorance and tradition on the Arab side of the line.

In fact, there is developing in the hearty and confident Israeli citizen the same conscious national arrogance against which the Jewish peoples struggled for so many centuries. Talk to a red hot Zionist and you get strangely reminiscent arguments about "the natural untrustworthiness of the Arab;" "the historically proven treason of the Moslem;" "the racial and religious instability of those people who amorally will jump automatically to the strongest side." In other words, say the Jews, "You can't trust an Arab." The words are the same that have echoed tragically in the history of Jewish persecution.

We admit that this is an incomplete analysis of the situation, but it is as best as we could judge it in the short time available.