Telling the story of Israel’s founding in a new light

In Short

The founding of Israel is one of the crown jewels of Jewish history, and a remarkable accomplishment in the history of Western civilization. But to pretend Israel is perfect rather than explore the tough questions is a project in both futility and falsehood. Rather, let us be honest with them and ourselves. 

One of us, Dan Elbaum, had not written a fan letter since I was 10 years old when I wrote to my favorite baseball player. But here I found myself emailing Noam Weissman after having listened to the first season of “Unpacking Israeli History.”

I had never heard anything like it. Noam and his colleagues at OpenDor Media (Unpacked) had created something extraordinary — a nuanced and thoughtful account of Israel’s history. In each episode, Noam shared stories about Israel’s successes and failures in a way that demonstrated a passionate attachment to Israel without being one-sided or myopic. 

This podcast was fun and entertaining, and was produced in a way that Gen Z and young millennials could actually appreciate.

Noam graciously wrote me back and a friendship was born. A few years later, Noam approached me about partnering on their latest project — a series of episodes on the story of Israel’s founding — and I immediately said yes. 

The two of us agreed that now is the time to tell the story of Israel’s founding in a new light, and here’s why. 

Broadly speaking, there have been two founding narratives of the State of Israel. The first goes something like this: Less than three years after the Holocaust, a beleaguered people with practically no army or financial support miraculously overcame the combined armies of nearly every Arab country, which had countless resources at their disposal and millions more people to fight. Although they begged the Arab residents to stay, most fled because their leaders urged them to do so rather than become part of the region’s only true democracy.

The second version of the story is pervasive throughout the Palestinian and Arab worlds and has gained popularity on college campuses and other parts of life in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries. 

That is the narrative of the Nakba (Arabic for “Catastrophe”), which is the story of violent wide-scale expulsion (some on this side of the aisle would even use the term “ethnic cleansing”) and deliberate, premeditated murder of countless innocent Palestinians by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army.

Both of these narratives are simplistic, with either half-truths or complete falsehoods, and have mythical qualities which serve to keep each group cohesive and unified 

As the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding approached, we asked ourselves: Is there an alternative way to tell the story of Israel’s founding, which will be historically accurate, share different sides of the debate and ensure that this generation connects with the story of Israel?

That is why our two organizations, The Jewish Agency for Israel and OpenDor Media (Unpacked) have joined together for a three-part podcast miniseries to commemorate these historic events and tell this miraculous story in a more complete way. 

We make no claims of neutrality on this subject — we regard the creation of the Jewish state as a modern-day miracle and among the most extraordinary accomplishments in human history. Yet we do a disservice to that history when we gloss over the difficult parts of the story which also created the situation that we see today.

For those used to hearing only one of the typical narratives, this may feel new and different. But in 2023, with images, videos, ideas and perspectives readily available on every platform, our young people are actually used to seeing different sides of issues and demand authenticity. We hope that you will listen and share these episodes with both those who share your views and those who hold different opinions. If you do, we believe you will have a more genuine connection with Israel and you’ll be able to positively contribute to the conversation.

For one thing, the complete story of what actually happened is more interesting than the fairytale. It is a story of heroic and fallible personalities making difficult and morally-questionable decisions. It is a human story full of twists and turns and unanswerable questions about what would have happened had different choices been made.

Was the decision (or indecision) to not draft a constitution one of the most consequential moments in Israeli history?

How would God be incorporated (or not) into the Declaration of Independence? 

What can we learn about modern Jewish history from the different drafts of Israel’s Declaration of Independence? 

And 75 years later, let’s remember that there are around 14 million Palestinians living across the world. What is their story? 

How has their story been shaped by those six months between November 29, 1947, and May 14, 1948? 

What would life be like for Palestinians if their leaders made different decisions?

Many of us in the educational community know that promoting the notion of a blameless Israel has not worked for the younger generation. Recent surveys illustrate this. According to the 2022 Pew report, while 78% of Americans over the age of 65 have positive views of the Israeli people, only 56% of adults under 30 have such views. By comparison, 61% of American adults under age 30 have favorable views of Palestinians. In addition, a separate Pew study in 2020 found that one in four young American Jews did not see Israel as important to their Jewish identity.

We are not so naive and brazen to think that we can radically change these numbers with one podcast series, but we are committed to speaking to this generation “ba’asher hu sham” (where they are) and honoring them by showing the polychromatic story of Israel’s genesis. 

The founding of Israel is one of the crown jewels of Jewish history, and a remarkable accomplishment in the history of Western civilization. But to pretend Israel is perfect rather than explore the tough questions is a project in both futility and falsehood. Rather, let us be honest with them and ourselves. 

For example, if the first time a Jewish college student hears the words “Deir Yassin” is from someone who hates Israel, then we have made a fatal error in preparing him or her for college. We believe it is our educational obligation to provide proper context for understanding the events of 1948 and to merely show a pollyannaish view of Israel would be a form of educational malpractice.

Seventy-five years later, Israel is strong and secure in itself. As with every country, it takes time to be comfortable in its own identity. As Israel has progressed beyond adolescence and into adulthood, the time to tell the fuller story of Israel’s founding has arrived. You’ll listen to this series and tell us more.

Finally, as the debate over the government’s controversial judicial reform plan continues, the history of Israel’s creation provides much-needed context for understanding what is at stake, and reminds us that Israel has overcome adversity before. 

Against all odds and in the most perilous situation, Israel managed to survive. Its early leaders overcame disagreements, disunity and differing ideologies. They set aside their egos,  differences and doubts and worked together toward the goal they all shared: the creation of a Jewish state. If they could overcome their challenges, so can today’s leaders and Jewish community.

It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.

Dan Elbaum is head of North America at The Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development. 

Noam Weissman is the executive vice president of OpenDor Media.