Opinion |

What Israel Can Celebrate After 74 Years of Independence

We should be proud: Technology didn’t rise in Israel because God put it there for us to exploit

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Israel Independence Day (2018)
Israel Independence Day, Tel Aviv (2018)Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

At age 74, Israel is no longer the youthful country symbolized in its early years by the boyish Srulik dressed kibbutz-style in sandals, the iconic Israeli “tembel hat” and khaki shorts. Most of the world’s colonized nations received formal independence later than 1948, during the wave of European decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, so if anything, we are one of the world’s more elderly states.

How do we shape up after 74 years? Perhaps it’s unbecoming to turn Israel on its Independence Day into a player in a global sweepstakes of national accomplishment. But why not? The competition plays out the other 364 days of the year in international sports events, beauty pageants, film festivals and the endless stream of global rankings of countries for their relative performance in everything from personal happiness to global innovation.

For the record, we rank 12th among 149 countries for happiness and 15th among 132 countries for innovation, which may come as a bit of a disappointing surprise: It's Thailand that’s the land of a thousand smiles (though it ranks 53 on the happiness index); Israel is the Startup Nation.

Yet, being No. 15 for innovation doesn’t even put us in the top 10 percent of innovators. We’ll get to why we rank so low later on, but it is safe to say that at age 74, Israel should be celebrating its high-technology industry more than anything else.

Tech is Israel and Israel is tech. If cartoonist Kariel “Dosh” Gardosh were to reimagine him today, Srulik would have a potbelly and have less hair, and he would have left the kibbutz a long time ago for Tel Aviv and the startup world.

For the record, we rank 12th among 149 countries for happiness and 15th among 132 countries for innovation, which may come as a bit of a disappointing surprise: It's Thailand that’s the land of a thousand smiles (though it ranks 53 on the happiness index); Israel is the Startup Nation.

Yet, being No. 15 for innovation doesn’t even put us in the top 10 percent of innovators. We’ll get to why we rank so low later on, but it is safe to say that at age 74, Israel should be celebrating its high-technology industry more than anything else.

SrulikCredit: דר אבישי טייכר

Tech is Israel and Israel is tech. If cartoonist Kariel "Dosh" Gardosh were to reimagine him today, Srulik would have a potbelly and have less hair, and he would have left the kibbutz a long time ago for Tel Aviv and the startup world.

There’s no need to repeat how important tech is for the Israeli economy and how much it can assure Israel’s place in the 21st-century world. Tech is no longer just another industry, like automobiles or insurance – it’s merging into these industries and taking them over, which for Israel means that the sky's the limit. We don’t need an automobile industry, as we don’t, to have an important autotech industry with global reach, as we do.

But if we are talking about what to celebrate, it’s not the output side of high-tech that we should be taking pride in as much as the input side.

Unlike oil in the 20th century or lithium in the 21st, technology didn’t rise in Israel simply because God put it there for us to exploit. Tech is about people – about their ability to innovate and then bring those innovations to the market. Unlike Silicon Valley, with its big population of expat engineers and entrepreneurs, Israel isn’t a magnet for the world’s best and brightest to come and start up companies. It’s an entirely Israeli phenomenon.

The fact that a tiny country with no history of industry or entrepreneurship, succeeded is a testament to Israeli culture and Israelis themselves. What could be better to celebrate?

Soul versus realpolitik

What we have far less to celebrate is the poor state of our schools and infrastructure. Those are what weigh down on our innovation ranking. On pure tech indicators we often rank No. 1, but on measures like student-teacher ratio in high schools and online government services our rankings sink quickly.

Those low rankings aren’t just a matter of diminished pride – they represent the very things that could one day destroy our high-tech achievements. Today, tech is an elite phenomenon that employs only about a 10th of the workforce, but it can’t keep growing, as it must, unless more Israelis are equipped with the skills and training to work in the industry. But the reality is the rest of Israel’s workforce is not only tech-deficient, but deficient in fundamental workplace skills.

High-tech, with its enormous salaries and generous stock options, shares some of the blame for Israel’s high rate of income inequality. That is something else that diminishes the celebration, but there is a limit to how much we can blame ourselves. Rising inequality is a global phenomenon, not uniquely Israeli, and we are in an unusual position of having a large and growing minority of ultra-Orthodox who refuse in principle to join the modern workforce.

A lot of Israelis don’t take much pride in the country’s economic achievements. To the right, all that matters is settlements and patriotism; if anything, the tech sector smells too much of globalism and the soulless pursuit of money. The left is far more concerned with Israel’s moral standing than with its material accomplishments, even if those accomplishments are the foundation of a strong and prosperous society.

Does Israel fail the moral test? With our long history of wars, terrorism and occupation, that is too big an issue to address here in its entirety.

Suffice it to say, that if we were going to look at Israel’s moral standing as a global contest, I believe we would not come out looking bad. Alas, I am unaware of any ranking for country niceness, but if there were, it would only be fair to take into account the difficult choices Israel has had to make in the struggle for survival.

The moral dilemma vis-à-vis Ukraine is a case in point. Israel has been condemned for its failure to come out forthrightly on the side of the Ukrainians. Israel, it is said, has chosen realpolitik (we don’t want to upset the Russians, who might take revenge by limiting our freedom to attack Iranian targets in Syria) over the fight for truth and justice (helping Ukraine resist a brutal and unjustified invasion).

Anti-Russia protest by the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, Saturday, March 5 Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

But moral choices are rarely so simple, and the one Israel faces over Ukraine is no exception. Israel’s interests in Syria aren’t just about realpolitik: they have a moral dimension because they are aimed at saving lives in the future by preventing Hezbollah from arming itself with precision missiles and Iran from creating a forward base in Syrian territory.

If it were a simple decision of risking Israeli lives in the future in favor of saving Ukrainian lives today, Israel would have a serious moral dilemma. But on a practical level, Israel has the power to effectively protect its civilians by acting in Syria; its contribution to the Ukrainian war effort would at best be marginal.

In other words, we would be trading a concrete moral act for a symbolic one.

In any case, even if Israel’s stance is dictated solely by realpolitik, that hardly makes it an outlier. Even Ukraine’s staunchest Western allies have drawn the line when it comes to their economic interests: Israel may not have joined in the sanctions imposed on Russia, but neither is it importing Russian oil to the tune of $1.1 billion a day, thereby financing the Russian war effort.

I don’t blame Europe. We live in an interconnected world that doesn’t make it easy to boycott countries that misbehave. And, it’s not as if when Europe does wean itself off Russian oil, it will be replacing it with less morally tainted energy – the leading candidates to replace are unsavory places like Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

There’s no reason to take particular pride in our Ukraine policy, but there is no reason to hide in shame either. We can get back to debating its rights and wrongs next week. This Thursday, Independence Day, we have enough to celebrate without embarrassment.

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