In a normal country – as the cliché favored by Israeli pundits goes – we would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War this week. The story of a plucky little country besieged by bigger enemies and soundly defeating them within days would seem like a heroic myth from some murky past, if it weren't documented history. What’s there not to be happy about?
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But this isn’t a normal country (which probably goes a long way to explain why we won in the first place). So, for much of the chattering class, it’s been a time to mourn the Good Old Israel that preceded the war, and rue the victories that brought it all to an end.
The root of all occupation
As the reasoning goes, the war led to the occupation, the occupation caused Israel to lose its moral compass, and without that compass, Israel has become the dysfunctional, morally stunted and brutal society we live in today.
The occupation by itself isn’t immoral. But everyday acts required to impose your rule on an unwilling population, as soldiers have to do, requires difficult choices, that basically come down to a binary bad or worse. The settlements, with their version of apartheid- lite, are morally indefensible. It’s to Israel’s credit that after a half century, many of us remain bothered by the dilemmas.
If the occupation was everything that Israel is about, we would be in a very serious state. But let’s look at Israel as it is inside the pre-1967 borders, and there you find a country – in stunning contrast to the claims of the 1967 critics – that is more democratic, more egalitarian and more inclusive than it was before the Six Day War.
In 1967, Mizrahim (Israelis of Middle East and North African origin) were most definitely second-class citizens in 1967.They still lag behind Ashkenazim economically, but the income gap has narrowed sharply since the 1990s. Moreover at the top of the income scale, Mizrahim are now represented in proportion to their population.
Israeli Arabs, who were living under military rule until the eve of the 1967 war, are still an underclass. But they have also been making rapid strides economically and educationally, and enjoy a cultural autonomy unimaginable in Europe or America. A recent survey of youth found Israeli Arabs far more confident about their future than their Jewish peers.
Good old Israel
The fact is that the Good Old Israel the 1967 critics laud was dominated by an Ashkenazi establishment.
At the time of the war, the cabinet counted just one Mizrahi minister and two religious ones. Today's counts five Mizrahim, three Russians, five religious (some of them overlapping) and even one Druze, out of 23 ministers. Imagine now trying to send Mizrahim off to remote development towns as was done in the 1950s.
Economically, it is true Israel was more egalitarian half century ago, when everybody, it seemed, made 1,000 lira a month. Young Israel accomplished great things that a free market economy could never have done under the circumstances, like absorbing huge numbers of immigrants, building a defense industry from scratch, and generating sustained economic growth.
But even as Israeli tanks were conquering the Sinai Desert and Golan Heights in those heady days of June 1967, that quasi-socialist economy was starting to show strains. It would get a brief lease on life in the years after 1967, but by the 1970s, it was ailing, and by the 1980s, it had died.
There is a lot to criticize in today's economy that arose from these ashes. Our poverty rate is embarrassingly high, income inequality is too, it’s overregulated and dominated by cartels, and Israeli workers aren’t as productive as their counterparts elsewhere in the developed world.
But we are past masters at high-tech innovation, which is a good place to be in the world of 2017. Our healthcare system is affordable and delivers, as evidenced by Israelis’ having among the world’s longest life expectancies. Our schools stink, but the economy still creates jobs and opportunities that Europe can only dream of. Our politicians are corrupt, but the justice system works and government functions. Per capita, we produce more Nobel Prize winners, have more top global universities, and register more patents than we should relatively to our size; and we have enjoyed 14 years on non-stop economic growth. We must be doing something right.
So what’s make the 1967 critics so angry?
They would be nothing less than mortified by the comparison, but they are akin to the Trump voters who pine for an idyllic past, when the country was more to their liking.
Trump voters look back to a pristine America of the 1950s, before the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and free trade upset their world. Israel’s 1967 critics idealize the years after 1948 when life was simple, everyone shared the same values and we all lived in 100-square-meter walkup apartments.
But it wasn’t quite so idyllic back then and 1967 wasn’t responsible for the changes that followed. The Israel of today arose over the decades that followed with the rise of the Likud, the shift to free markets and the emergence of high tech. The war and the occupation that followed simply make a convenient scapegoat. It is easy to blame everything on the occupation and the settlers, and avoid asking more probing questions.