IN THE MEDIA

A remarkable achievement, but still much more to do

Apr 28, 2023 | Colin Rubenstein

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

An edited version of this article was published in the Daily Telegraph – 28 April 2023

 

Israel’s 75th Independence Day, on April 26, has seen Israelis celebrate the revival of Jewish self-determination in the land where the Jews became a people.

But it is also a troubling time as large and significant segments of Israeli society still demonstrate against the highly controversial judicial reforms being advanced by PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s Government.

While this debate has been angry and divisive, paradoxically, many of the robust qualities which have made Israeli democracy such a success story have also been on display- patriotism, commitment, engagement and productive political passion have been expressed from virtually every sector. Both sides insist their quest is to uphold Israel’s national charter as laid down in its Declaration of Independence that Israel should remain a Jewish and democratic state “based on the ideas of liberty, justice, and peace… [that will] uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex.”

Without diminishing the seriousness of Israel’s political crisis, it’s vitally important not to lose sight of the resilient and positive outlook in the country as a whole – a country whose history, and current overall national life and institutions, reflect economic, cultural, defence and technological achievements that are so remarkable as to be almost miraculous.

The Economist ranked Israel as the fourth most successful economy among OECD countries in 2022. Simultaneously, the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network has rated Israel as the fourth happiest country in the world in its 2023 survey.

Another number adds to the picture of a society that is both unique and uniquely successful – Israel’s fertility rate. Israeli women have an average of 2.9 children each – by far the highest number in the OECD club of wealthy economies.

While the reasons for this uniquely high birth rate are doubtless complex, they reflect not only values that emphasise family and children, but also Israel’s close and supportive networks of family and friends that help make life more fulfilling. Despite the violence Israelis constantly face, despite high costs of living and often small living spaces, despite the fact that Israeli parents know their children will have to enter military service when they turn 18, children are cherished in a life-affirming society.

Israel’s high happiness rating is also no doubt the product of an explicit and implicit social contract of tolerance, equal rights and opportunity engraved in Israel’s DNA. It is a small country whose political, social and cultural life is sometimes loud, sometimes tense, sometimes raucous, but still, basically a shared space where every tribe and subculture feels their voice is heard and way of life respected.

If Israel is a remarkable place today, so is its 75-year journey. It’s the story of how a people returned to their ancient homeland, reinvigorated and reinvented their ancient language; integrated the largest per capita immigration in modern history; overcame massive hostility from powerful neighbours and numerous wars to become militarily unchallengeable and widely emulated and envied on the security front; went from a dirt poor third world country to the hub of innovation and entrepreneurship encompassed by the name “start-up nation”; built a uniquely vibrant culture blending Jewish traditions with other values, customs and ideas brought from Europe, the Middle East and beyond; and so much more.

It is hard to think of other national stories over that same period that have been as eventful, amazing and, despite many tragedies, uplifting.

As it reaches the milestone of 75 years of existence, Israel is also both more accepted in its own region and better connected to the rest of the world than ever. 

The 2020 Abraham Accords which normalised relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are continuing to bear fruit.

From practically nothing before 2020, Israeli exports to the UAE alone reached US$635.53 million (A$976m)  last year, surpassing even the value of its exports to Australia. Significantly, Oman and Saudi Arabia have tacitly supported the Accords. Everyone expects further progress on the front in the next few years.

Of course, huge challenges remain and must be overcome. The judicial reforms controversy has exposed growing internal divisions that require healing and reconciliation based on tolerance and mutual respect.

Israel’s fundamental security and acceptance in its region are still a work in progress, and Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons capabilities represent a huge challenge, together with its proxies Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in particular, upgrading their aggressive multifront strategy against Israel.

And of course, the Palestinian problem still persists – thanks to a Palestinian political culture and leadership which largely rejects co-existence and has missed repeated opportunities to create a negotiated two-state peace. Israel will have to continue to manage that problem, with all its unfortunate dilemmas and costs, until the situation changes enough and genuine peace becomes achievable.

But despite it all, and the undoubted intensity of current domestic controversies and ongoing external challenges, Israel’s 75th birthday has been an occasion to reflect on a remarkable achievement.

Dr Colin Rubenstein, executive director, Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

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