My last post, in which I call for a new agenda for Israel (one that focuses more on being a great country for its citizens and less on being a Jewish state) has gathered a lot of comments on Facebook, and so I thought I should reply to one of the most popular arguments that have been voiced. It goes like this:
Israel will never be a “great country”, so if living in a Jewish state is not a priority for you, you better move to a country which is already pretty great, like Australia
There are two problems with this argument. The first is the assumption that due to some given factors, Israel is doomed to lag behind. The second is that increasingly many Israelis think to do just that, and move elsewhere.
1) Not only Israel can realistically become a great country, in some parameters it already is. Israel’s healthcare system is one of the best in the world, significantly better than the American, with life expectancy for men, for example, being three years higher than in the US. With more startups per capita than any other country in the world, Israel has more companies on the NASDAQ than Canada. Subjective life-satisfaction in Israel is higher than in the UK or France. In addition to the good health, that may have something to do with the strong social connections Israelis enjoy and the amount of sunny days we get.
So why should we assume that Israel can’t improve in other areas? Why shouldn’t that be our priority?
Military spending will always be too high, obstructing improvements in education or economy ? Well Singapore’s per-capita defense spending is similar to Israel’s, and they have never received any significant American military help as Israel has. That didn’t stop them, in just 50 years since their independence from Malaysia, from becoming the third country in the world in terms of per-capita GDP. Singapore’s economy has been ranked as the most open in the world and the 7th least corrupt. Singapore’s students consistently occupy the first positions in international educational scores.
We have enemies for neighbors and they will never let us be? Well Egypt used to be our biggest enemy. But since the 1979 peace treaty, it pretty much stopped being a threat, and even the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government kept its commitments to Israel. And Israel isn’t the only one with problematic neighbors. South Korea’s northern neighbor is as crazy as they get, one that is conducting nuclear tests and launching attacks across the border. And just as Israel, South Korea has to maintain a mandatory army service for its male population. But that didn’t stop them from becoming the 13th world economy in 2015. One of the poorest countries only 50 years ago, ravaged by civil war in which more than 2 millions civilians were killed, in 2014 South Korea was ranked 6th in scientific and technological infrastructure.
2) The 2011 protests against the high housing costs, the cottage cheese boycott and the more recent “milky protest”, have shown that the middle-class Israelis are increasingly dissatisfied with the high living costs in Israel. Some labeled it as the protest of the spoiled Tel-Avivians. But the truth is that the majority of Israelis feel that the economic growth that Israel has enjoyed in the last decade didn’t trickle down to improve their lives, and the numbers show they are right. The burden of reserve duty that isn’t shared equally among the citizens (Orthodox Jews for example have been historically exempt from it) has also added to the feeling that the working middle-class is being “screwed”. And suddenly, the idea of moving abroad, to places such as Berlin or Australia stopped being a taboo subject. If previously Israelis leaving the country were silent about it, fearing shaming for “betraying the homeland”, now the tables have turned. Politicians that tried to remind the public that they shouldn’t forget the Holocaust or that the housing crisis isn’t of the highest priority, were ridiculed and memefied.
So becoming “a great country” is not just a lofty goal, it’s actually a necessity. Building settlements in the Palestinian territories, increasing the amount of hours the Torah is being taught in schools, demanding proclamations of loyalty from Israeli Arabs – the usual patriotic agenda won’t help here, it won’t stop Israelis from moving abroad. If there is a place for Zionism in the 21st century, then it must be about working towards making this country a better place to live in for all its citizens. That’s what will ensure the future of this country, not nationalistic legislation and not populistic policies.