Friday, May 25, 2007

Israelis take stock of their middle-aged state

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, May 25, 2007

Like vigorous baby boomers who wonder whether their current good health or inevitable decline is the more defining reality, Israelis celebrated their country’s 59th anniversary uncertain about the state of their state.

From the outside, Iranians’ and Palestinians’ genocidal threats – reinforced by a relentless assault on Israel’s politics, history and ideology – makes the Jewish national project appear precarious. From within, post-Lebanon-war recriminations, political corruption, ideological drift, and social tensions intensify the pessimism.

Yet, this supposedly dysfunctional society is remarkably functional. Palestinian terrorism has been reduced, with the improved security restoring Israel’s characteristically vibrant normalcy. The stock market is booming as Israelis continue their friendly competition with Americans for the title of world’s most charitable citizens, based on donations per capita. Even the summertime war produced a bomb-shelter-induced baby boom this spring. Never underestimate a country whose citizens can transform being bombed into making babies.

The magic numbers four billion, 3,186,739, 257,000, 9.2 and 2.7 quantify Israel’s everyday miracles.

• Billionaire Warren Buffett spent $4 billion buying Iscar, part of foreigners’ $23.7 billion investment in Israel’s economy, which grew 4.5 per cent in 2006.

• In a country of seven million people, 3,186,739 Israelis voted in the 2006 election, the Middle East’s 17th free election, uniquely involving Muslims, Christian and Jews.

Israel’s marvellous universities teach 257,000 students cutting-edge and traditional skills.

• The percentage of the Israeli economy devoted to the non-profit sector – 9.2 per cent, ranking the county fourth worldwide – illustrates Israelis’ exceptional commitment to charity, volunteering, and tikkun olam, fixing the world.

• Finally, the Israeli Jewish birthrate of 2.7 children per woman represents the highest rate among developed countries. More than 100,000 new babies last year joined a future-oriented, family-friendly, community-building, values-rich society.

Still, the country faces serious problems, many of which are Israel’s version of broader western dilemmas. While Israel’s quest for peace with its hostile neighbours is unique, the underlying dilemma is familiar to post-9/11 westerners. Many Israelis have lost faith in diplomacy. The failure of the Oslo peace process to yield peace despite major Israeli concessions, along with the exterminationist culture feeding Islamist terrorism, has made many peaceniks skeptics. Diplomacy requires certain common rules and limits. Just as Cold War liberals wondered whether it was possible to negotiate with Communists, most Israelis and westerners doubt diplomacy can work with jihadists.

While Israel’s neighbours need to restore Israeli faith in diplomacy, Israel’s leaders need to re-establish their people’s trust. The scale of corruption is outrageous. Israelis wonder whether their leaders are a particularly bad bunch, whether society is experiencing a deeper values crisis, or whether the investigative scrutiny magnifies misdeeds into major crimes. Amid the modern media magnifying glass, Israel desperately needs worthy successors to David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, founding fathers of the country who despised each other ideologically while both leading simple, modest lives.

Whatever explanation people offer for the corruption contagion, Israel’s material success has triggered a broader cultural crisis that all westerners will recognize. The new generation of Israelis – especially the secular majority – tends to be wealthier, more individualistic, more self-confident and more selfish than the founders’ generation of only decades ago.

Modern Israelis, like so many of us, are the children of modern consumerism, with television-compressed attention spans and iPod-induced self-involvement that’s balanced out by computer-fed creativity and connectivity. Israelis have to develop a communal ethos that cultivates modern individualism and ingenuity without abandoning a sense of national mission and idealism.

For a people battered recently and historically, the ability to be normal is quite exceptional. Living well truly is the best revenge, a repudiation of Nazi exterminationism as well as Palestinian terrorism. Israelis do and should delight in sharing their modern dilemmas with fellow westerners. At the same time, this celebration of normalcy and the powerful realities of daily living should not eclipse the special dimensions of Israeli life or the country’s unique challenges, even though they appear to Israelis living through them as quite normal, or at least familiar.

The Zionist revolution built on Jews’ exceptional history and sense of togetherness while promoting a vision of national normalcy. Modern Israel dances on the head of a similar pin, hoping, like the traditional fiddler on the roof, not just to keep balance but to live a life filled with meaning and joy.

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