Australia/Israel Review

Only in their Dreams

Apr 24, 2008 | Amotz Asa-El

How Israel’s founders would view the past 60 years

By Amotz Asa-El

For better or worse, Israel is famous mostly for its wars and their aftermaths; and for good reason. The drama, defiance, and frequently surprising twists and turns that accompanied the Jewish state’s seven conventional wars, two terror wars and three peace treaties, were followed closely by millions the world over. Many feel involved, one way or another, through intensive media coverage and amid pitched political debate.

However, in a 60-year retrospective Israel’s domestic challenges seem to have been even more daunting than its neighbours’ hostility, and the way they were met even more impressive than Israel’s military victories. In fact, Israel’s domestic record makes it the post-colonial era’s most – some say only – successful exercise in political construction, social architecture and economic engineering.

Though it had just won its War of Independence, there was no certainty in 1949 that Israel could survive as an independent state – even if regional enmity was left out of the equation. With fewer than a million inhabitants and no oil, gas, precious or heavy metals, timber, or any other mineral resources, including water – it wasn’t at all clear that Israel would manage to feed even its initial population, let alone the millions of other Jews it was determined to absorb.

For a long time, Israel was indeed perceived as an economic basket case, most notably in the 1970s, when it needed American aid to recover from the costs of the Yom Kippur War, and then in the 1980s, when its currency became little more than paper as inflation reached 415%.

Now all this is history. Israel today is the developed world’s fastest growing economy, with a GDP higher than most European Union members. Inflation and interest rates are among the world’s lowest and the currency is among the world’s strongest. Foreign investment inflows are proportionately three times the energetic Russian economy’s, exports comprise nearly half the GDP, and the government is running a current account surplus for the fifth consecutive year.

Of course, all this came at a price. The two major reform waves, in 1985 and in 2003, effectively undid Israel’s originally elaborate public sector economy and social safety net. Still, with its many newly built shopping malls swarming with customers and with the middle class’s purchasing power well within OECD norms, the Israeli economy is today a living testimony that prosperity can be achieved even without natural resources and despite a perennially exorbitant defence budget.

Israel’s early social problems were not much less profound than its economic challenges.

With its founding fathers having practically all been products of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, the large immigration waves absorbed throughout the 1950s were increasingly Middle Eastern. Initially, the material and cultural gaps between Israelis from the Christian universe and Israelis from the Muslim sphere seemed unbridgeable. The Jews of Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and neighbouring countries arrived in Israel almost penniless, most much less formally educated than the European-born elite, and almost always more traditional than the predominantly secular, and socialist, ruling class. They also were often recognisably distinct due to their names, accents, and looks, and mostly ended up living in separate neighbourhoods and towns.

The result was a growing social divide, as Israelis of Middle Eastern stock were usually somewhere between the working and lower-middle class, while those socially above them were, almost without exception, of European stock. In Israel’s first decades, it went without saying that a senior government official, a bank manager, a university professor, a wealthy industrialist or almost any doctor, scientist, engineer, lawyer or literary figure was a so-called “Ashkenazi” – European.

By the late 1950s, these ethnic gaps produced violence. By the 1970s – as non-European Israelis’ share in the overall population was quickly approaching 50% – there was reason to worry that the Zionist enterprise’s main goal, to gather the Jews from all the world and make of them a functioning society, would prove impractical at best, a tragic failure at worst.

Today much of this is also history. Not that all social gaps have been completely bridged, but Middle Eastern Israelis are now in the thick of the country’s economic success, as exemplified for instance by the personal stories of Haim Saban, now the owner of Israel’s telecommications giant Bezeq, or Yitzhak Teshuva, the country’s biggest real estate tycoon, or Tzadik Bino, one of most successful bankers – all children of the Middle Eastern immigrants of the 1950s.

Similarly, well more than a third of the legislature and government are now Israelis of Middle Eastern stock, as are much of the military and police high command. Moreover, these changes continued while the non-European Israelis’ share in the overall population has decreased sharply – to about a third – in the wake of last decade’s immigration from Eastern Europe. Today, about one third of marriages are between Israelis of both groups, and increasingly it is difficult to “classify” an Israeli child according to his or her Jewish ethnicity, as the parents, and sometimes also the grandparents, are Israeli-born and “intermarried”.

Perhaps most impressively on this front, Israel showed last decade that it had learned from the mistakes it had made in the absorption of previous waves of immigrants. Now immigrants were being less managed and more empowered – while markets were allowed a decisive role in housing, educating and employing the massive immigration that followed the end of the Cold War. The fact that, less than twenty years on, about one million immigrants are rather solidly relocated in Israel, often in the middle class and sometimes above it, is a major accomplishment with no parallel among other modern immigration societies.

Politically, in 1948, many suspected Israel would not manage to produce a sustainable political system, one that would prove resolute in moments of crisis, and yet also demonstrate sufficient flexibility in the face of the social diversity with which the Jewish state was challenged from its inception.

Six decades on there indeed is broad agreement in Israel that the political system needs reform. However, just like there is no agreement among Israeli scholars, politicians and pundits on the nature of the desired reform – some focus on the legislature’s clout, others on the way it is elected, some on the further empowerment of the executive branch, others on checking the judiciary, and yet others on introducing a constitution – there is also no arguing that the Israeli system, warts and all, has delivered 60 years of leadership and governance that are the envy of the entire post-colonial world.

Israel’s politicians annually produce an elaborate and reasonably managed budget; they are checked by one of the world’s most independent and opinionated judiciaries; and they have performed smoothly six odd changes of power among the Right, Left and Centre, while respecting governmental continuity – most notably in 1996, when Benjamin Netanyahu upheld the previous administration’s commitment to the Oslo Accords, to which he was famously opposed personally.

Perhaps the least famous, and most spectacular, accomplishment Israel has registered since its inception is in the cultural realm.

Even most Israelis pay little thought to the fact that, until a century ago, the language they and their children speak at home, at work, in school and everywhere, had not been spoken as a vernacular language since antiquity.

Hebrew was never completely dead, but for the better part of two thousand years it was brain dead. It was studied by scholars, and chanted in synagogues and assorted religious rituals, and rabbis used a particular version of it to write their rulings. However, real life was lived in dozens of other languages, from Yiddish and Ladino that were particular to Jews, to German, Polish, Russian, Arabic, French and other languages of the larger community around them.

When the Zionist idea was conceived, at the end of the 19th century, not even all its followers shared a hope, let alone a belief, that Hebrew could ever be restored as the Jewish people’s main language. And yet it was. Not only is Hebrew today the language by which Israel is run, it is spoken by the country’s 7.2 million Jews and Arabs as well as up to a million more people outside of Israel.

Moreover, Hebrew has not only been restored, it has been modernised, and is today an innovative language that has words for the most modern terms, from computer software and hardware to electric circuits and airplane engine parts. When the early Zionists opened a technical college in Palestine on the eve of World War I, there was a whole public struggle over whether its language of instruction should be Hebrew or German. It is doubtful that even those who back then crusaded for Hebrew would have believed that less than a century in the future all would be done in Hebrew routinely and matter-of-factly – from scientific conferences, parliamentary debates and military manoeuvres, to ballet concerts and boxing matches.

Creation in Hebrew is proliferating with abandon, with book stores, theatres and concert halls brimming with readers, viewers and listeners thirsting for the latest Hebrew novel, film, play or opera. At a time when the UN reports that every several months another language dies somewhere around the world, Hebrew has actually come back to life, and every year it is spoken by more people.

Israel’s founding fathers faced their most complex challenge on issues of religion and state.

The last time there had been a Jewish state was ages before the rise of modern secularism. There was no precedent for maintaining a Jewish state whose leaders are not observant. Moreover, while the elite was usually secular, a good portion of the people were observant, as were also a clear majority among the new immigrants from the Middle East. The problems all this raised demanded immediate treatment. What should the first Jewish army since the days of Hadrian do, for instance, about allocating time for prayer? Will the Jewish state have bureaucrats or clergy perform marriages and divorces? How, if at all, will the Sabbath be observed by the Jewish state?

Israel’s founders were secular, but on these questions they ruled in favour of the observant minority. Still today, matrimony in Israel is the hands of the clergy, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze or Bedouin. And on the Sabbath it is forbidden to run a factory, or public transportation (except in the few places where it ran prior to 1948). At the same time, the religious population also makes huge concessions every day, from its viewpoint, to the secular population, for instance in acquiescing with the opening of restaurants, cafes, theatres, discothèques and soccer stadiums on the Sabbath, or in accepting the rulings of its courts, even though ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose the legal system’s liberal-secular sources of inspiration.

These are but a few of the many vestiges of the Jewish state’s need to incessantly balance between religion and state, and between tradition and modernity. Here, perhaps more than in all the other spheres, odds were that the obstacles would prove too tall for the young state to surmount. Yet Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and secular populations manage to cohabitate over the years, despite their inherent disharmonies.

While on the domestic front there is reason to argue that Israel’s accomplishments vastly overshadow its failures, it goes without saying that in a 60-year retrospective the most disappointing situation is the unresolved state of the Middle East conflict, which in recent years has only emerged as even more intractable than previously assumed.

Then again, even on this painful front there is plenty more achieved than most people realise. First, Israel has today peace treaties with the two neighbours with whom it shares its longest borders. Israel also has relations of some sort with Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar.

Moreover, during its first decades Israel was ostracised diplomatically by the entire non-aligned bloc. Things got worse after the 1967 war, when the entire Eastern Bloc (except Romania) broke off diplomatic ties with Israel. After the 1973 war, things deteriorated even further, when dozens of African countries surrendered to Arab pressure and severed ties with Israel.

Now all this has long been repaired. The end of the Cold War saw Israel restore ties with the entire Eastern Bloc, while African countries restored ties with Israel even before then. The more the world changed, the more foreign powers changed their attitude toward the Middle East, including recognising Israel’s significance, as well as the bias and futility of their previous attitudes. Thus, not only Russia, but also China established full diplomatic ties with Israel in the early ’90s, while India and Turkey raised their previously minimal-level ties to full embassies. In fact, since then Turkey and India have emerged as strategic allies of the Jewish state, each enjoy elaborate military, industrial and technological relations with Jerusalem.

None of this is to say that the messiah has arrived, or even that on any of these fronts, a panacea has emerged. The economic boom remains beyond the reach of many on the social margins; many Middle Eastern Israelis still feel disenfranchised; Israeli culture remains alien to many of the older immigrants who arrived in recent years; religious-secular relations remain frequently tense; the Supreme Court remains for many rabbis an eyesore; and hovering above it all is the Middle East conflict’s transformation into a religiously motivated assault on the Jewish state’s right to exist.

Still, on most fronts, Israel’s accomplishments resemble not what its founders would have predicted 60 years ago, but levels of achievement they would only have dared dream of.



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