Although he was only a toddler when Israel became a state in 1948, Valley resident Jacob Zilber learned about the country’s formative days at an early age.
Zilber, who moved to Arizona three years ago, said he was raised with the stories about what happened during Israel’s war of independence, as well as what led up to it.
“We knew the history of the stories of the people involved,” he said. “We knew all the activities that took place. We were made aware of everything that was going on and that happened.”
His father, Moshe, traveled from Poland in 1926 to settle in what was then Palestine. By 1931, his whole family had joined him.
“They were Zionists from the beginning,” Zilber said. “Their dream was to have a Jewish state established.”
His father served in the Haganah, the underground military organization in the Jewish community of Palestine until 1948, when it was absorbed into the Israel Defense Forces. At that time, he worked in construction and was involved with building the defense line east of Petah Tikva, where the Zilber family lived. During the war of 1948, the Iraqi army was stationed near there, Zilber said. The town is about 10 miles east of Tel Aviv and was near what is now referred to as the West Bank.
“They were on the frontline because at the beginning of the war, there was no real defense line or there were no battle lines that were defined,” he said. “People were very concerned, but very determined because they knew they had no other choice.”
The declaration of Israel becoming a state “was a dream come true” for his family, Zilber said. “That was their dream and that’s what they worked for.” He explained that most people don’t realize that before 1948, the Jews in Palestine were “establishing all the institutions and processes needed to create and maintain an independent country.” When Israel gained its independence, the political structure, medical services, welfare system and infrastructure were already in place.
“Once they declared independence, they were ready to move forward” and function as a country, Zilber said.
By the time Israel became a state on May 14, 1948, only three years after the Holocaust ended, the magnitude and the ramifications of the Shoah were well-known, and many survivors were arriving in Israel.
“People knew they had no choice but to fight and defend what they have,” Zilber said. “It was a combination of apprehension and confidence that at the end of the day, they would prevail and they would win.”
Zilber said the story of Israel’s creation not only was discussed in his home, but it also was part of school curriculums.
“The story of how Israel came to be was embedded into everybody who was growing up and living in Israel at the time,” Zilber said.
Even children not living in Israel knew the significance of its independence.
Andi Minkoff of Scottsdale was 6 years old and attending Sunday school at Temple Beth Israel in Phoenix (now Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale) when she first heard about Israel gaining its independence.
“They gave us all little blue-and-white flags for the Sunday morning assembly,” she said. “I remember walking around waving this blue-and-white flag and just knowing something very, very important had happened that was good for me and for every other Jewish person. I knew that this was something special because I didn’t remember ever being in a situation where there was so much excitement that was focused on the Jewish people.”
Minkoff, who co-founded the Jewish Genetics Center of Greater Phoenix with her late husband, Dr. Sherman Minkoff, first visited Israel in 1972 and has returned more than a dozen times since, including during the country’s 40th anniversary in 1988. That year also marked the 50th anniversary of the United Jewish Appeal, a predecessor of what is now Jewish Federations of North America. At that time, she was the chair of Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s annual campaign.
“That trip was a really big deal,” she said. “I even got interviewed on Israeli TV.”
She also visited Israel during the country’s 60th anniversary in 2008.
Not everyone in the Jewish community was thrilled about Israel becoming an independent country.
Mort Scult, who was in high school at the time, remembers that many German Jews in his small town of St. Joseph, Missouri, were uneasy about it because they thought it would increase anti-Semitism in the United States and cause war with the Arabs. There was a lot of reluctance to create a religious Jewish state, he said.
“There was definitely some pushback from people,” Scult said. “It was not a universal ‘hurrah, hurrah, this is the best thing that ever happened.’ ”
He remembers thinking it was strange that there were some people who were not in favor of the founding of the state of Israel.
When his family moved to Phoenix later that year, he didn’t encounter any negative sentiments about the founding of the Jewish state, “but people were very apprehensive about whether Israel was going to be able to defend itself.
“It was scary because you didn’t know whether the Israelis were going to win,” Scult said. "They were surrounded by Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon. There were no friends. There was nobody that was championing their cause other than Jews around the world.”
Since Israel’s independence, the nation has evolved into a power center in the Middle East. And as with all successes, controversy ensues.
Zilber noted that he feels frustrated when he hears people today say they are against Israel. He wishes they would understand the distinction between Israeli policies and Israel as a country.
“Unfortunately, especially among the young people in the United States, they do not understand the distinction between the two and the significance of the separation between the two issues,” he said.
He equated this to those who are against the Trump administration.
“It doesn’t mean they are against the United States,” he said. "Yet often people don’t make that same distinction about Israel. They may be against Israeli policies or against the Israeli government, but Israel is here to stay.”
“It’s the homeland of the Jewish people, the only one they have,” Zilber said. “It’s gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. I believe we’ll survive, hopefully for many, many years to come.” JN