What Do Israel and Sweden Have in Common?

Almost nothing, except that of late we’ve become a normal country without any existential crises to cope with.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
Reactions to exit polls are subdued among supporters of Sweden's Moderate party at election-night party, September 14, 2014.
Reactions to exit polls are subdued among supporters of Sweden's Moderate party at election-night party, September 14, 2014. Credit: AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Sweden is the country Israel is not. Swedes are always at the top of OECD rankings for the best this or the most that, while Israel is nearly always at the bottom. While the Swedes are discrete, orderly and efficient, Israelis are loud-mouthed, chaotic and prefer to do things on the fly.

The last time Sweden fought a war was a brief affair with Norway more than 200 years ago; we wage war once every few years on average. They’re cold; we’re hot. They’re blond; we’re not. Sweden is the archetypal “normal” country that Israeli pundits love to compare us to (needless to say) unfavorably.

From over here in the Middle East, Sweden seems like the kind of place where nothing really ever happens; the antithesis of Israel, where we’re in chronic existential crisis mode.

Okay, with all due respect to Sweden, things do happen there, but they are more in the order of elections, business failures, sports scandals, debates over immigration and the kind of things the happen in any dynamic society of 10 million people. The funny thing is that in that respect, Israel has been looking more and more like Sweden, where things do happen but in the range of normal rather than in the upper reaches of crisis mode.

Here are five current situations in Israel widely seen as crises or crises-in-the-making, and the facts that say otherwise:

Fiction: Netanyahu’s coalition is on the brink of collapse.

Fact: Of course, with just 61 MKs (and a few of them none too cooperative), it should be on the brink. But it’s not. As loathsome as the alliance of right-wing parties and Haredim is, and despite Netanyahu’s singular ability to alienate allies, he is presiding over a happy partnership that after a year in office shows no signs of breaking apart. As has been the case for several years now, there is no opposition worthy of its name to threaten Netanyahu.

Fiction: The chaos in Syria threatens Israel.

Fact: At the start of the civil war, the working assumption was that either Assad or the rebels would strike at Israel for one reason or another. But, five years later, nothing of the sort has happened. Assad hasn’t tried to rally Syrians with an attack on Israel, although Israel has given him plenty of justification with regular air raids. The rebels have decided to focus their wrath on the government, on each other and oddly enough on Europe, which has not only been flooded with refugees but with Islamists blowing and shooting things up.

Fiction: There’s a Third Intifada.

Fact: Many people would love there to have been one, except apparently the Palestinians themselves. Whatever you want to make of the phenomenon of lone-wolf stabbings, they never gathered momentum nor morphed into more organized violence. Despite the high-pitched media coverage, the Israeli public took it all in stride and now it appears the violence is winding down.

Fiction: The economy is heading toward a recession.

Fact: Economic growth is certainly slower than a few years ago, but there is no sign of a downturn even though the last serious recession Israel suffered was 15 years ago and we are due one. Unemployment is very low, and the economy is creating jobs. Even though the middle class is supposedly being crushed by tycoons and high prices, consumer spending is driving economic growth.

The fact that we don’t take comfort from the above is a credit to the crisis industry – the media and social media, nongovernmental organizations and politicians. Each for its own reasons needs problems, it’s their raison d’etre. No one reads news about nothing, so news needs to be generated – and bad news, as every journalist knows, is the only news worth its salt.

NGOs need societal failings, like human rights violations, poor schools and healthcare, and social inequality, to write reports about and raise money to keep writing them. Politicians in the opposition need to attack the government for something it did wrong. Failing a present crisis, you can always point to alarming trends. Statistics are the crisis industry’s friend because they can always be configured to show something is amiss.

The crisis industry, however, only bears partially responsibly because the atmosphere of perpetual crisis has very deep roots. Since 1948, Israel has been the beneficiary of crisis. Its image as the plucky, hero state courageously and cleverly keeping more powerful enemies at bay, whose survival was constantly endangered, was what made it the central concern of Diaspora Jews for so long.

Israel’s role as a Western bulwark in a perpetually strife-torn Middle East won it billions of dollars in American aid and the respect of American and, for a long time, European public opinion. Israelis bask in the attention they receive, even when it’s bad. How about the Gallup poll that ranked Israel as the fourth greatest threat to world peace. How many countries of eight million people can claim to be up there with America, China, Pakistan and Iran?

Deep down, a lot of Israelis know that the country is doing well economically and is more secure than any time since the peak of the Oslo process more than 20 years ago. They didn’t return Netanyahu to office because he scared them into thinking Arabs were “heading to the polls in droves,” but because he’s done a good job of keeping the country relatively safe and prosperous.

The crisis industry, which loathes Netanyahu as much as it would the prospect of true peace and prosperity, can’t accept that. Attributing his election victory to his remarks about Arab voters tars Netanyahu and Israeli voters, fodder for a deluge of news reports about the phenomenon, press statements by opposition politicians and a host of citations in future NGO studies about growing Israeli racism and a crisis with Israel’s Arab minority.

Saying that Netanyahu and the Likud won because Israel is in a relatively good place right now is a non-starter.

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