What you need to know about Israel @ 64
On Thursday we celebrate Israel’s 64th Independence Day.
I will leave it to others to expound on Israel’s wonderful achievements over the past 64 years. There are plenty of examples, and many people are doing great things to shore up our morale and show our positive side. We indeed have a wonderful country, a miracle really, a dynamo which thrives on adversity and intensity. We are unique in the world, and I love my country very much. It is because of this love, and because I believe that my job as a journalist is to point out the cracks in the system, the things that need fixing, I will rather give you my analysis of some of the important things that I think you need to know if you are to make informed decisions regarding your life here. Furthermore, it is quite likely that we will have general elections here before next year’s 65th Independence Day, and if elections are to be held, and you plan on voting, which I hope you do, you should make an informed choice.
Our governments – and here I’m talking about all our past governments not just the current one – are unable to plan and execute long-term strategic national projects. About 70% of the government’s decisions are not carried through and implemented. There is a huge amount of populist legislation, tons of bureaucracy, foot-dragging, empty promises, lack of accountability, lack of oversight, nepotism and corruption. Year after year, our State Comptroller publishes reports showing vast amounts of incompetence, corruption and waste; and worst of all, non-implementation of previous reports. We, the citizens of Israel, continue to not hold our authorities responsible. This is our political culture; these are the men and women who staff our halls of power. We put them there, and we must demand more of them. As you look at the political parties on offer for the next elections, look for parties and politicians who have a record of getting things done, of honest, hard legislative work, and stay away from politicians who are just full of hot air.
We currently have 28 ministers and 11 deputy ministers, and all of them also serve in the Knesset, so their time and energies are split between running their ministries, servicing the needs of their political parties, and seeing to their own reelection possibilities. This is just not the right way to run a country.
There is a huge grey market, and lots of people are not paying taxes. A massive amount of money goes to waste every day because of our unwieldy and non-transparent bureaucracy and because our Tax Authority is understaffed and itself hobbled by suspicions of corruption.
It is crystal clear that we need to change the system of government, to make government more accountable to the voters, to break the power of small sectoral parties, and to stabilize our governments so that they can rule for at least 4 years and carry out long-term projects of national importance. We cannot continue to swap governments every 2 to 3 years. Nothing of consequence gets done.
We cannot continue to allow the ultra-Orthodox parties to hold their own people hostage to backwardness, poverty, and a life of blind servitude to hundred year old self-styled ‘geniuses’, while also holding the secular middle class hostage to their growing material demands, and bleeding it dry. 64 years after the establishment of the state, every working person in this country is supporting himself/ herself, as well as another person. If the ultra-Orthodox do not enter the workforce, and soon, this country’s middle class will collapse under the strain. Israel’s economy can’t support the growing ratio of work force versus dependents. The working-aged population is shrinking while the number of dependents (people under 15 and over 65 is growing) grows. The numbers don’t add up, it cannot work any other way. It cannot be that a young, secular, married couple, who both work full-time jobs, and who both served in the army, cannot afford to buy even a modest home in this country, while a young, haredi couple, who did not serve in the army nor perform national service, and who do not work, get subsidized housing in which to raise a family. There is no justice in this. I respect the Haredi way of life, but I do not see a contradiction with work, national service, and Torah study.
We need equality of service for all Israelis. Equal burden, equal rights. When Ben Gurion made an agreement with the Haredim that instead of serving in the army they would set up yeshivas and reconstitute the Torah study that was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, he agreed to some 450 of them. Now in 2012 there are some 66,000 young ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve and do not work. This is not equal burden. They get free education while secular students who serve in the army have to pay for university tuition. There is no justice in this. Why are we letting this continue? Only in Israel do Haredi men not work. Where I grew up in Johannesburg, haredi men work and learn. In America, they work and learn. All over the world Haredi men work and learn. Just here they don’t. The secular majority and the Haredi minority must learn to coexist in this country while respecting each other’s ways, in the knowledge that we all have to pitch in and do our part. Nobody is outside the tent.
The decision of ‘who is a Jew’ is determined by religious political parties who, together with our acquiescence to the situation, push away from the Jewish nation large groups of people who do not ascribe to the Orthodox worldview. An increasing number of Israelis, religious, traditional, and secular, are sick and tired of the rabbinates and their overbearing mandates and humiliations. As things stand now, any third-rate, self-styled ‘gaon’ rabbi in any city can rule whatever he wants – who is a Jew and who is not, who can get married and who cannot [like the chief rabbi of Ashkelon who ruled that only circumcised men can register for marriage], where women can sit on a bus and where they cannot, which buses can drive on which roads, which planes can fly on which days, and so on and so forth. City rabbis can also retroactively annul conversions performed by other rabbis in other cities – creating absolute anarchy, chaos, and much pain for ordinary people. In effect, much of this country’s day-to-day life – marriage, divorce, birth, death, food, cultural events, and public transportation – are determined by religious authorities. Fearful of these religious authorities, public companies remove women from their advertising. More and more Israelis are looking for alternatives to the rabbinates. It is time we opened Judaism up. People should be allowed to practice their faith as they see fit. The government can and should strengthen Jewish education, Jewish culture, Jewish history, and Jewish traditions, but it should do so in an inclusive way. And by doing this, we can liberate Judaism from its increasingly political overtones.
We still don’t have defined borders, we still don’t have a constitution, and we still cannot separate religion from state. We like to call ourselves a modern Western democracy, but on these fundamental issues, we are far from it.
The greatest threat to Israel, in my opinion, is that within the country there are several groups who are working to change the very essence and character of the state. These are no longer extremist, fringe groups. They are part of the political system. There are religious groups that want to turn Israel into a Halachic state, a country ruled by religious edicts, rabbis and the Torah. This would put us on the same footing as Iran. On the extreme right there are groups who say they want to establish the Kingdom of Judea in Judea and Samaria. On the extreme left there are groups who want to turn Israel into a binational state. In other words, not a Jewish state, not an Israeli state, but a state of all its people [including the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank]. Another group does not identify with the state at all, some of them are Arabs and some of them are Jews, and they would prefer this state falls. Again, these are not extremist groups on the outer edges of Israeli society. These are, rather, organized groups within the political system, with Knesset representation, some of whom are in the current governing coalition. And this is our greatest challenge: how do we, as a divided nation surrounded by hostile neighbors, bridge these enormous gaps in the world-views of the groups that make up our population? How do we settle on a majority, moderate view of Zionism without trampling on the rights of the minorities? How do we exist as a democratic state, while also trying to be a Jewish state? It is this vision, after all, that a majority of Israelis want to see here. All these tensions and fissures are pulling against each other daily; increasingly bursting out in violence and vitriol; and it seems that even now, 64 years after the establishment of the state, we are no closer to a resolution. The fissures within our society are threatening to pull us apart. The tone of our debate with one another has become shrill. Haredim call our policemen Nazis. Seculars call Haredim leeches. Settlers call Arab-Israelis traitors. Boycotts are flying left and right. We need to tone down, and we need to appoint leaders who are inclusive, not populist rabble-rousers.
We face extreme challenges from outside our borders. The ‘Arab Spring’ has unleashed volatile forces all around us; we are nowhere nearer a peace agreement with an increasingly recalcitrant, reticent, and bombastic Palestinian leadership; Iran is hell-bent on producing nuclear weapons; our peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan are teetering; our relationship with our American and European allies is strained; our legitimate right to exist and defend ourselves is being challenged on university campuses, across the world’s media, by trade unions, and even the German literati; and we are on the cusp of serious global financial downturn whose consequences on our economy could be severe.
I believe that it is in our power to successfully navigate all of these external challenges, but only if we pull together, tone down our harshness towards each other, treat each other with more consideration and respect. We must demand equality in our society and accountability from our governments. If we do, we’ll be OK.
Happy Independence Day.