Israelis celebrating their independence, as they did on Tuesday, is not a beautiful affair.
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The official celebrations were as usual pompous and formal, in glaring contrast to the country’s ordinary values and behavior. In the Netanyahu era, the theme of the day has become more about confronting our enemies and the constant threats to our survival, than it is about celebrating our virtues. At the popular level, however heartfelt the celebrating may be, it manifests itself in drunk teenagers prowling the downtowns, traffic jams, smoking barbecues, and piles of trash left behind.
Alas, after 69 years the public face of Israel has yet to adopt beautiful contours. But the fact of the matter is, as a country we are doing quite well, certainly in contrast to our peers in the developed world, and we have only ourselves to thank for it. Which is great. The question is what next.
The big black spot
Israel is undergoing the same ideological wars as the United States and Europe, but the populist tide here is not nearly as menacing.
Many thinking people justifiably loathe the prime minister and what he stands for, but Benjamin Netanyahu is no Donald Trump. There are Knesset members like Bezalel Smotrich who engage in thinly disguised racist hatred, and it a shame that they have a constituency. But there is no mainstream party akin to France’s National Front or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which is coming worrying close to achieving real power.
That is not to say that Israel is a beacon of freedom and democracy for the world, but given the tensions we live with – the divides between religious and secular, Muslims and Jews and the endless wars – it’s remarkable that we aren't more illiberal.
By a lot of measures, Israel is more progressive than it ever has been: the gap between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi is narrowing, Israeli Arabs are quietly mainstreaming into Israeli society, and gay rights are observed in law and in practice.
The big black spot in all this remains the occupation. But if we put the state of affairs in the West Bank aside, in Israel proper, by western standards, it feels like a normal country.
The West Bank aside
Over the decades there have been any number of dire warnings over the danger to Israeli democracy posed by the settlements, and military rule over a subject people. But the reality is that the West Bank is another planet, compared with Israel.
The violence and illegality in which the settlers, the army and the Palestinians live end at the Green Line. This in no way absolves Israel of the sins of the occupation. But after nearly half a century, it seems to have contained them.
How has Israel prevented malaise from seeping from the occupied lands to Israel inside?
I’d like to think that this is due to the deep wisdom of the Israeli people, but the real reason is more prosaic: In contrast to most of the West, Israelis have done well economically, and haven’t suffered the socioeconomic upheavals Americans and Europeans have over the last couple of decades. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 was barely felt; some industrial jobs were lost to the third world, but not a critical amount. Confidence in business and government, such as it was, remained unimpaired.
Israel’s growth rate has slowed from an average annual 4.5% in 2004 to 2011, to 3.3% in the last four years. But most of the developed world would have been thrilled to enjoy a slowdown like that. Unemployment is less than half the rate than in the euro-zone countries.
Israel's old industrial economy did not undergo painful disintegration because there was no industrial economy to speak of 30 years ago. Instead, we’ve seen the rise of Startup Nation.
Even if the vast majority of Israelis have no part in the technology revolution, we can bask in its glories and know that Israel has carved out an enviable place for itself in the global economy.
As for floods of migrants, there has been some influx from drought-stricken, war-torn North Africa but the only real significant wave of immigrants we absorbed in the last 30 years were fellow Jews from the former Soviet Union, who weren’t perceived as a threat by veteran Israelis.
Israel hasn’t created an economic paradise on earth. We have serious problems: high levels of poverty, inequality and low levels of productivity and poor schools, the imperative of integrating Israel’s Haredi and Arab populations, to name a few. But these aren’t existential problems.
They will however become existential problems is we don’t deal with them.
A high-tech economy can’t grow and flourish without enough engineers and other skilled professionals, and we can’t produce enough of them without tapping the growing Haredi and Arab populations. Israel’s core population of non-Haredi Jews is growing smaller as a percentage of the population, which is going to create a real culture war here if we don’t act to assimilate the outsiders.
Our schools are turning out graduates whose skills are inferior to the European counterparts.
These are problems glaring at us just over the horizon, which makes them a challenge to deal with today when everything seems to be running so smoothly. But if we don’t address them Israel’s 79th anniversary is going to look less happy, and our 89th will be cause for real angst about how we destroyed such a good thing.