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This Year, Israelis Lived It Up While Diaspora Jews Were on a Downer

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Protesters demonstrate near Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue where President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump were visiting a memorial in Pittsburgh, October 30, 2018.
Protesters demonstrate near Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue where President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump were visiting a memorial in Pittsburgh, October 30, 2018.Credit: Matt Rourke/AP Photo
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

2018 - Great year for Israel, not so good for Jews

The passing year in Israel and the Diaspora is pretty simple to summarize. For Israelis, 2018 was a bumper year with a blooming economy, now growing for a straight decade, attaining for the first time ever an AA credit rating and with its all-time lowest unemployment figures. On the security front, despite a few scares, no major war or intifada broke out. Gaza nearly boiled over but was pacified with Qatari money. There were a few murders in the West Bank but the corrupt Palestinian Authority kept a lid on any major unrest. And across the northern border, Iran and Hezbollah were kept in check. Nothing was solved, but then no one expected that to happen. But ever-increasing prosperity on the hillside of a volcano has never felt so comfortable.

Haaretz Weekly podcast, Episode 10

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The numbers don’t lie. This year’s United Nations Happiness Report puts Israelis in the 11th spot. Only Scandinavians, Swiss, Canadians, Australians and Kiwis, are (just slightly) happier than Israelis. It’s not a blip. Israelis are as happy as the citizens of those fair and happy lands, and have been so constantly for the last few years.

>>Read more: 9 low points in Israel-Jewish Diaspora relations in 2018 | Analysis

I’m not aware of anyone having carried out a survey of the levels of happiness of Diaspora Jews, but the overwhelming impression you get from talking to non-Israeli Jews this year, is far from positive. In the U.S. Jews are contending with a surge in anti-Semitism, which culminated in the worst massacre of Jews in American history in Pittsburgh. With Donald Trump in the White House, the overwhelming majority of them have never felt so estranged from the nation’s leadership. And all around, especially from younger Jews, there’s a feeling of angst over identity, community and continuity which may eventually lead to useful conclusions, but right now comes over mainly as frustration.

Matters for European Jews are if anything worse, with communities from Britain all the way to Russia, buffeted by the national crises being played out across the continent. This year there were no casualties from Islamist terror attacks on Jews in Europe, as there were in previous years this decade, but the domestic political currents, mounting populism, nationalism, xenophobia, historical revisionism and parochialism, from the right and the left, have caused mounting disquiet in just about every place where Jews live in Europe. Jews in the west are disproportionately middle-class cosmopolitans and 2018 has been a particularly bad year for this demographic. And the large majority of Jews live in less happier countries than Israel, if the Happiness Report is anything to go by.

Israelis light candles to commemorate the victims of a deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Tel Aviv, OCtober 28, 2018.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo

2018 has felt at times the most confrontational year ever, between Israel and the Diaspora, especially American Jews, but even from the normally less vocal Europeans, there were more noticeable ructions. There are the known reasons for this - the political differences between nationalist Israel and the liberal Diaspora, the tensions between Orthodox and progressives, Diaspora expectations that Israel treat migrants and its own minorities differently. But perhaps there’s a deeper underlying cause.

Not that long ago, there was a clear material difference between life in Israel and the west. Most Israelis didn’t own a car or fly on vacations abroad. There was one black-and-white channel on television and the variety of cheeses in most stories was limited to white and yellow. The transformation of the Israeli economy in the last quarter of a century, not only changed all that, but removed one of the chief distinctions between Israeli and western Diaspora life.

There was more or less a silent agreement that the Diaspora Jews were the ones living a comfortable life while the Israelis were the ethical and spartan pioneers. Of course that was never the full reality. From early in its history, most Israeli citizens aspired to urban living, and the country’s politics, while being nominally “socialist” in its first three decades, was certainly never liberal or progressive. But while most Jews in America and Europe had a much nicer life, it was probably easier to maintain an illusion of relative morality and an ideological society. Perhaps the reason that western Jews are today more prepared to criticize has less to do with any major change in Israeli policies – after all the occupation of millions of Palestinians has been going for 51 years, before that Israeli-Arab citizens were held under martial law and the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has held its stranglehold over major sections of Israeli life from the state’s foundation.

But as the distance between Israel and the west has shrunk, and more Diaspora Jews have visited Israel and seen with their own eyes that life here is nearly as comfortable than back home, the balance has been upset. It was one thing sticking up for the Israelis when they were living simple austere lives, it’s quite another thing to turn a blind-eye to its expansionist policies when Israelis are living it up. Also, it’s interesting that much of the criticism is coming from younger Jews, many of whom belong to the generation that expect to be less well-off financially than their parents, so less guilt about having more than their poor Israeli brothers.

The irony is that young Israelis and Diaspora Jews are not becoming more different, they actually have never led more similar lives at any point in the last seven decades. No wonder they find it so hard to get along any more.

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