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Israel Map and Flag The United States Government recognizes the Provisional Government as the de facto authority of the new State of Israel.

President Harry S. Truman, May 14, 1948

The world that emerged from the throes of the Second World War bore little resemblance to the one that existed on the eve of that terrible conflict.

Perhaps the most significant shift involved the world powers. The Western European nations, especially the once-great British Empire, lost their domination of the world stage. Asian and African nations were able to achieve independence from colonial rule. At war’s end, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the major political entities, or "superpowers." The U.S. became the backer of the Western European nations and helped rebuild them, while the U.S.S.R. dominated the Eastern European nations. Differences in political and social ideology led to rivalry between the two superpowers. For almost fifty years, they vied for influence in the Near East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, waging a "Cold War."

This unstable world situation was an important factor in Jewish history. The creation of the state of Israel, for example, was originally approved by both superpowers. In time, however, Israel closely allied itself with the U.S. Since its establishment, Israel has managed to survive five full-scale wars with its Arab neighbors, including the War of Independence (1948), the Suez Campaign (1956), the Six Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), and the Lebanon War (1982). Each of these wars has left its mark on Israeli society. The Six Day War, which brought hundreds of thousands of Palestinians under Israeli rule, was a turning point for both Israelis and Palestinians. The debate within Israel over how best to achieve peace intensified. The two main camps—those in favor of giving up land for peace and those determined to keep control of the captured territories—became more and more polarized. At the same time, the Palestinian resistance movement increasingly turned to violent acts of terrorism. In late 1987, unrest in the West Bank erupted into a prolonged period of street-fighting known as the Intifada. International pressure on Israeli and Arab leaders to negotiate an end to the conflict has grown. A series of peace agreements negotiated in the 1990s led to hope that lasting peace was on the horizon, but there have since been many setbacks to the peace process.

Meanwhile, Israeli society has continued to evolve. Since its inception, it has absorbed many waves of immigration. The most recent influxes have been from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. The schism between "hawks" and "doves" has been accompanied by mounting tensions between religious and secular Jews and between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. In 1995, the assassination of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin by a right-wing extremist who opposed his government’s negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians threw Israel into turmoil.

American Jewish life has also changed greatly since the Second World War. The destruction of former centers of Jewish life in Europe left American Jewry the largest Jewish community in the world. Having ardently participated in the fight against Hitler— America’s and Jewry’s common foe—most American Jews were now confident that they were entitled to full participation in American society. The younger generation was willing to leave traditional Jewish enclaves in cities and settle in the suburbs or new urban centers, such as Miami and Los Angeles. Many took advantage of postwar prosperity and a decline in prejudice to work in new areas in the economy.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Jews around the world continue to grapple with what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. Although there has never been an easy answer to the question, "Who is a Jew?," the issue of identity seems especially complex in an era of great diversity in Jewish life. In Israel, some wonder: Is being Israeli synonymous with being Jewish? If so, how is Jewishness more than a national identity? In America, some Jews are trying to imbue Jewish ritual and theology with a new emphasis on spirituality. Others, seeking to define for themselves a secular Jewish identity, are turning to the experiences and culture of their immigrant grandparents for inspiration.

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