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Israel at 70: mixing celebration with Jewish anxiety

(Tomer Neuberg Jinipix photo)

For Israelis, Independence Day celebrations are marked with a mix of bravado and nervousness. Every year is a reminder of the miracle embodied in the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, the “ingathering of the exiles” and succeeding in what remains a tough environment. In contrast to the overwrought media portrayals, Israelis rank high in the world  in “happiness” and quality of life indices.

At 70, Israel is not going to be erased, and the American Embassy move to Jerusalem is historic. But Palestinians still talk about a state “from the river to the sea,” echoed by their UN and NGO allies. Israel’s narrow borders have not changed, and security, or rather insecurity, remains the dominant concern. Existential threats from Iran and Hezbollah have increased lately, including the potential for a full scale war, as well as the ongoing violence from Gaza. The relationship with Russia, whose military in Syria protects Iranian bases, while the U.S. is reduced to an occasional visitor.


At the same time, many of the Arab states that waged war against Israel early on have changed direction. Menachem Begin’s gamble in making peace with Egypt succeeded, as did Yitzhak Rabin’s peace treaty with Jordan. The Saudis –  once the most implacable of religious rejectionists – made co-operative moves towards the Jewish state.

Economically, Israel has been transformed from a welfare case to a hi-tech superpower – we are still making the desert bloom, and exporting the know-how around the world. Thanks to aliyah and high birth-rate, the population has increased ten-fold, to almost nine million – another sign of success.

But – and you knew this was coming –  Israel has its share of problems, like other countries. The excitement and unbounded optimism of the early miracle years are gone, and we are slogging through one self-inflicted political crisis after another. The temptations of high office and power, which are thoroughly documented in the Book of Kings and in the prophetic harangues, are very much in evidence in the Israel of 2018. Watching the ridiculous spats over who gets to speak at the Yom ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day) ceremonies this year was another embarrassment –  Israelis deserve better.

The more humble and altruistic leaders of the past (David Ben-Gurion, Begin, Golda Meir, and their generation of pioneers) had sweeping visions uniting the diverse sectors of the Israeli public, while also inspiring the Jewish Diaspora. In contrast, today’s Israel is bitterly divided, between secular and religious as well as between left and right, with the politicians and pundits adding to and exploiting the polarization.

And while our economic growth has been impressive, the benefits are distributed in a very inequitable way. Among the 34 most advanced industrial economies, Israel is ranked at the bottom in terms of income distribution. Some of this can be explained in terms of the ultra-Orthodox population – where secular education and entry into the standard job market are eschewed –  as well as parts of the traditional Arab sector (Bedouin in particular). But elsewhere, the gap between lavishly paid executives, on the one hand, and minimum-wage low-level workers, on the other, is a huge problem. Instead of the choking socialism which dominated Israel for the first 35 years, we now have out-of-control crony-capitalism led by a few oligarchs.

Furthermore, even for families with reasonable incomes, the lack of affordable housing for Israelis who have finished their military service and are starting their careers, is a major source of dangerous alienation. The attempts to solve this crisis have been short-lived and ineffective – beyond corruption scandals, this is one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s biggest failures.

At 70, we are too old (for a country) to dismiss these failures as mere growing pains. Having worked so hard to regain control over our destiny, the Jewish people – Israelis and Diaspora Jews together – need to refocus on fixing the system, with the energies and dedication that were so successful in making the dream of a state into reality. n

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