Israel at 60
Weekending in Washington

Israel at 60: A Different Country than Planned



Living in Israel in the twenty-first century, one often wonders what Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, would think of this modern-day state if he could see it.

The malarial swamps of pre-state Palestine have been replaced by rapidly growing cities with glitzy shopping districts, carefully landscaped parks and six-lane highways that run between high-rise office buildings and limestone apartment complexes.

The agricultural pioneers of the era of the Halutzim who struggled to sow the seeds of the new nation-state armed with triangular hats and simples hoes have been succeeded by sunglasses-wearing settlers in the West Bank's Jordan Valley who have installed high-tech drip-irrigation devices to hydrate hybrid tomatoes for export to markets in London, Paris and New York.

And the nation whose birth defied the odds in a war of independence against invading Arab armies to the north, east and south has become a regional military superpower with an assumed nuclear arsenal, a crack air force and peace treaties with two of its four Arab neighbors.

Agricultural settlements have turned into sprawling cities, the 1948 population of roughly 800,000 has swelled to more than 7 million, and - perhaps most important of all - the Jewish state has become home for Jews from Russia, Europe, Iran, Ethiopia, Argentina, Egypt, North America, India and too many other places to count.

Sixty years on, Israel has much to celebrate, having raised a vibrant, diverse and occasionally bewildering society virtually from scratch.

In all likelihood, Herzl would not even recognize the place.

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"I think Herzl would be so perplexed," says veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a conservative think tank in Jerusalem, and a contributing editor at The New Republic. "He wouldn't know in what proportion to be thrilled and disappointed. Israel bears no resemblance to what Herzl imagined, conceiving a Jewish state from the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire."

Herzl envisioned a socialist utopia that would combine the best of European culture and Jewish ingenuity, imagining Jerusalem as the home of both a Palace of Peace, which would arbitrate international disputes, and the Jewish Holy Temple, which would be rebuilt according to modern, modified specifications. In his famous work, "Altneuland" (Old-New Land), Arabs hardly merit mention.

Halevi says Herzl would find Israel's radical Jewish diversity most perplexing.

"The East-West mixture, the racial mixture of Israel, Ethiopian culture, Moroccan music - all the elements that make Israel so unpredictable and so interesting are elements Herzl couldn't conceive of sitting in Vienna in the beginning of the twentieth century," Halevi says.

In many ways, however, Herzl's dream of a Jewish state has been fulfilled.

Israel has secured its place among the nations even though its leaders bemoan the existential threat posed by Iran and the demographic threat represented by the Palestinians. A state like any other, Israel boasts metropolitan cities, concert halls, theaters, centers of science and learning, skyscrapers, a stock exchange and a thriving non-profit sector.

Of course, as a state like any other, Israel also has poor people, failing schools, government corruption, run-down neighborhoods, traffic, drug problems and criminals.

But after 60 years, Israel still faces basic questions of existence and character most countries have resolved long ago: Can the state be both Jewish and democratic? What will the final borders of the country look like? Where, exactly, is the balance between religious and secular, Arab rights and Jewish character, change and preservation, future and history?

Sixty years on, the battle for Israel's soul is far from over.

Tel Aviv leftists debate right-wing settlers about whether the final borders of the state should encompass the West Bank or run along the pre-1967 border. Secular yuppies from Herzliya lobby to be able to buy pork products and shrimp in their local supermarkets while Knesset-sanctioned inspectors slap fines on malls that open on Shabbat.

Russian-Israelis say Israeli immigration policies unfairly exclude their non-Jewish relatives, while yeshiva rabbis warn that an influx of foreign laborers and non-Jewish immigrants erode the state's Jewish character. Arab-Israelis from Jerusalem ask why their Palestinian cousins from nearby Bethlehem are barred from visiting them while a Jew from Chicago can become an Israeli citizen simply by showing up at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv with a letter from her rabbi.

These are the growing pains of a state that, 60 years after its founding, still hasn't quite decided what it wants to be.

Eliezer Ya'ari, the Israel director of the New Israel Fund, says the battle for Israel's soul is between those who want Israel to be a democratic state like any other and those who want it to be a Jewish state.

"There is a constant fight in Israel between the 'Jews' and the 'Israelis,'" Ya'ari said. "The 'Israelis' want to become part of the Middle East," he explained; the "Jews" want Israel to be at one with Diaspora Jewry rather than of a piece with its neighbors and its own Arab citizens.

Yet even as they struggle with these basic questions, Israelis are continuing to build the state. This, essentially, is how Israel has developed throughout its six decades: Always in a state of emergency, under the threat of wars or terrorism, with the great questions of society still unanswered, Israelis have forged communities, launched companies, started rock bands, built cities, gone to cafes and raised their families.

This perseverance - the carrying on of daily life, despite all the craziness here - is what has sustained Israel for 60 years.

Growth and Innovation

One would be hard-pressed to find another country in the world that has experienced as rapid growth over the span of just six decades as Israel. That the growth has occurred amid frequent wars, the constant scourge of terrorism and other daily challenges have made it all the more remarkable.

More than anything else, Israel owes its growth to immigration. The millions of Jews that have come to Israel's shores - by boat, airplane and secret missions - have been the lifeblood of the Jewish state.

They have created the country's national institutions, populate its universities, wear the uniforms of the Israel Defense Forces, start its innovative companies, lead its yeshivas and even work the farms that dot the landscape in the state's picturesque pastures.

Israel's prime ministers have come from Russia, Poland and Milwaukee, and even the current generation of political leaders include some relatively recent immigrants, among them Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman, both from the former Soviet Union.

Despite the apparent lack of natural resources in Israel - the country has no oil reserves to tap, no verdant breadbasket and a relatively small population - Israel has made the most of its greatest resource: its people.

Jewish ingenuity has made Israel a center of innovation, from medical breakthroughs to emerging technologies to the marketplace of ideas.

Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than any other outside the United States. The world's leading technology companies, including Intel, IBM and Microsoft, maintain extensive R&D facilities in Israel. The country has the highest proportion in the world of university graduates per capita. Outside of Europe and North America, Israel leads in the number of patent applications.

Israelis invented the video camera that fits inside a pill, giving doctors a new non-invasive way to view their patients' insides. Four young Israelis invented the first instant-messaging technology, known as ICQ, which was later sold to AOL. The disk-on-key, now almost universally used in place of diskettes, was created in Israel.

"Israel has the highest concentration of talent in the world," says Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University, Israel's largest educational institution.

David Brinn, until recently the Israel director of Israel21c, an organization that disseminates information about Israel beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, says the Israeli knack for innovation has to do with the chaotic nature of life here.

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"The innovativeness and the improvisational aspects of Israeli society have really helped," Brinn says. "It's a combination of necessity - not having natural resources, like oil - and having to use just your own ingenuity."

"It's about using a Jewish mind," he says. "We don't have anything else to work with."

Brinn and others attribute that ingenuity in large part to the army, where Israelis learn at a young age how to adapt and find solutions for life-threatening problems. "Having to react on the fly and do things quickly has really been a real asset," Brinn says.

That ingenuity carries forward later in life, which is partly why Israel has been such a successful incubator for start-up companies. Investors continue to flock to Israel to invest their money in what has become known as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East.

"There's so much vitality. There's so much creativity," gushes Halevi. "Israelis are an extremely restless and creative people. We have the second-highest number of high-tech start-ups in the world. That's a manifestation of the result of restlessness here. The thing about Israel is you never know what's coming next and the changes happen very quickly."

Competing with the Diaspora

With such restiveness, it's no surprise Israel also has the highest proportion in the world of people who travel abroad. Crammed into such a small country, Israelis often speak of the need to escape - whether to London for a weekend shopping trip, a summer trekking in the Andes, a year at an ashram in India or a stint at a technology company in California.

Sometimes, they don't come back.

Kaveh says this is because as Israelis become stars in the worlds of high-tech, business, academia and even entertainment, they often move abroad where there are more opportunities, bigger paychecks and larger markets.

Because Bar-Ilan is a research institution with limited means, Kaveh says he feels this brain drain acutely.

"The state almost cannot provide the conditions that exist at labs at other universities around the world. My budget is 10 percent of that of a mid-sized university in the United States," he notes.

The brain drain is not just in academia. Corporate titan Lev Leviev, Israel's richest man and originally an immigrant from Uzbekistan, announced in December 2007 he'd be moving to London to be closer to his business ventures. Yitzhak Tshuva, the Israeli real-estate magnate, spends about half his time working out of New York. Fashion model Bar Refaeli, the longtime girlfriend of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, told Israeli reporters in 2007 she was relocating outside of the country.

Israel is at risk of losing its biggest success stories, Kaveh says.

On the flipside, immigration to Israel, or aliya, has slowed to a trickle. This is largely because immigration to Israel always has been dominated by aliya of necessity: Jews expelled from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran; Holocaust refugees coming from Europe; Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union; Ethiopians in search of a better life.

But with 80 percent of the world's Jews already in Israel or North America - where Jews live freely and mostly prosperously - and the remaining 20 percent in mostly stable countries where the opportunity to emigrate long has been present, the era of mass aliya movements appears to be over.

The remaining form of immigration - aliya by choice - has had limited success. Even in banner years, the number of immigrants from North America, where the majority of Jews live outside Israel, barely breaks 3,000 people per year.

With little chance on the horizon for another major aliya movement anytime soon, Israel is experimenting with different ways to raise those numbers.

Groups like Nefesh B'Nefesh offer cash grants, free one-way tickets and job-placement aid to citizens of certain Western countries interested in immigrating. The Jewish Agency for Israel recently announced that it is planning a "flex aliya" program that would offer assistance to Jews interested in aliya but who are on the fence about committing to a lifetime in Israel. In 2007, the Israeli government launched a campaign to draw home Israelis who have been living overseas.

One Israeli artist and magazine editor who moved to Germany a year and a half ago to study, Ronen Eidelman, 36, says Israel will fail to retain its own and draw new immigrants so long as the country's political discourse is dominated by messianic and religious ideas, such as the quest for the greater Land of Israel. That's why, he says, Israel is unable to attract very many immigrants by choice other than religious Jews.

"People who are not messianic and religious feel they don't have a place in the country anymore," said Eidelman, editor of the Israeli art and culture magazine Maarav and now a student at Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany. "I can look in my phone book and see that the majority of my friends are not in the country."

Eidelman says he is conflicted about whether or not to return to Israel after he completes his masters degree in Germany.

He points to Israel's growing gap between rich and poor, struggling schools and bleak political horizon as evidence of the government's myopic approach toward securing its future.

"What's going to be in the future?" he asks.

Leadership and Vision

Even after 60 years, the question of what Israel will look like 30, 20 or even 10 years from now is not at all clear.

In Israel, different groups hold radically different visions for the country's political future, the relationship between church and state, immigration law and even the army.

The one thing they all seem to agree on, however, is that the country's current generation of leaders has failed. One after the other, these leaders have been cast out, some due to political ineptitude, others due to malfeasance.

In the last year alone, Israel's president resigned in disgrace amid charges of rape; the son of a former prime minister was sentenced to prison for fraud but had his term reduced and repeatedly postponed; Knesset members have been convicted of bribery; and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found himself the subject of no less than five separate investigations.

"This is not a generation inspired by our leaders," says Halevi, of the Shalem Center. "That's the biggest crisis we're facing. Everything else is manageable. This is not manageable."

Israel has experienced a major shift in leadership over the last few years. Stewardship of the country has passed from those who played a role in the country's founding - Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon - to the generation of those raised in Israel.

The question now is whether Israel can successfully make the transition to political maturity, and whether the new generation of leaders can articulate a vision for the country that works.

"It's a country that's only 60 years old, but I think we're just coming out of our infancy," Brinn says. "In a sense, it's turning the corner. Because of the wars, we haven't been able to have any long-term planning."

Despite the worrisome headlines in Israel's daily newspapers about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, Hezbollah's resurgence along the Lebanon border and Hamas' growing power in the Gaza Strip, Israel has become an increasingly stable, normal country.

In 2007, terrorism-related deaths in Israel fell to 13 - the lowest level in years. Even during the heavy fire of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the 4,000 rockets Hezbollah fired at Israel failed to do any lasting harm to Israel's economy, and there were relatively few Israeli civilian casualties compared to the number of Katyusha rockets that were fired and the number of casualties on the Lebanese side of the border.

The question for Israel isn't so much whether people will be able to live here in 10, 20 or 30 years, but whether they will want to.

"Our great shortcoming," Brinn says, "is that we have had great ideas that have gone by the wayside due to lack of long-term planning or foresight."

If quick reaction and lighting development have been the hallmark of Israeli success - from the business sector, to the army, to building the country from scratch - a lack of long-term planning has been Israel's Achilles heel.

After 60 years of focusing on survival, Israel must now address its internal challenges, Israelis say, particularly the ones that threaten national unity: the religious-secular gap, the Arab-Jewish gap, the rich-poor gap, the right wing-left wing gap.

The problem is that the country's leadership has failed to articulate a coherent political or social vision for the country, often pursuing contradictory paths simultaneously.

Even as the government says it is committed to the rights of its Arab minority, some Knesset members support a law that would bar an Arab parliamentarian from becoming prime minister. Even as Jewish Israelis take Arab Israelis to task for marking Israel's Independence Day as the "nakba," or catastrophe, they overwhelmingly support a flag, a national anthem and immigration laws that favor Jews over Arabs.

The government decries the high rate of unemployment and welfare-dependent families among the country's ultra-Orthodox population, but it has kept in place laws that forbid young ultra-Orthodox men from working if they want to maintain their exemption from compulsory military duty. Israelis complain about Orthodox control of the Chief Rabbinate and marriage, divorce and Sabbath-day laws, but the political parties they support - on both the right and the left - refuse to change the status quo.

Israel has welcomed hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who qualify for citizenship because they are descended from a Jewish grandparent, but the Jewish state has no avenue to enable them to marry Jewish Israelis and no policy for dealing with their non-Jewish relatives who wish to immigrate.

Even as Israel negotiates with the Palestinian Authority on the contours of a future Palestinian state, the government continues to fund Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank.

The country has moved toward increasing privatization, but not quickly enough for many Israeli-born companies that are relocating overseas to countries with more favorable tax laws. At the same time, the government has cut its investment in the country's greatest incubators of future leaders - public schools - where class sizes have risen to more than 40 students, underpaid teachers are fleeing the profession and new curricula are failing to inculcate students with an appreciation for Zionist ideals or Jewish heritage. Many Israelis say the nation's public schools, once considered among the best in the world, also are failing to provide the students with adequate math, science and writing skills.

As development in Israel struggles to keep pace with growth, Israel is at risk of sacrificing the quality-of-life elements that make those people want to live here: clean water and air, urban green spaces, unspoiled natural parks.

These are some of the issues that have Israelis wondering what the country will look like a generation from now.

Perhaps contradiction is the only way possible for the Jewish state. After all, what could the Jewish state be other than a place where 7 million people with different ideas and visions all compete to make theirs the future?