This summer, like the last, I am guilty of neglecting my blogging duties, instead spending several weeks traveling for both work and pleasure. Following a week-long maiden visit to Israel, I thought I would document a few thoughts, much as I did last year with China. In many respects (size, orientation, history) China and Israel are beyond compare. But like the Middle Kingdom, I found even a brief visit to Israel led to a much greater appreciation of the country’s contradictions. I left, in short, with more questions than answers. Without further ado, a few impressions:
1. Israel’s surprising diversity. For many of us, our perception of Israeli society is one dominated by European Jews or Ashkenazim, a result—perhaps—of well-documented post-War migration, Hollywood, and the Jewish diaspora. This has promoted a sense of kinship among promoters of Israel in the United States and Europe, but also lends racial overtones to criticism of the country and the conflicts it has been embroiled in with its neighbours. Yet one of the first things that strikes visitors to Israel is its immense ethnic variety; it’s a veritable rainbow nation. Not only does about 20 percent of the Israeli population consist of non-Jews (mostly Arabs), but less than half of Israeli Jews are, in fact, of European descent. Over 100,000 new immigrants are Jews from Ethiopia, and a surprising 80,000 (or 1% of the country’s population) are from India. Israel, in a proportional sense, is about as ‘Indian’ as the United States.
2. Conflicted Arabs. Several interactions with both Arabs and Israelis gave hints of the complexities of being one of the 1.2 million Arabs who are also Israeli citizens. On the one hand, Arabs, in private, expressed satisfaction about being in Israel, rather than in Syria or Libya where brutal crackdowns continue. They acknowledged the benefits of residing in a country where freedom of speech, a representative government, a stable economy and social welfare were guaranteed. At the same time, they complained about being treated like second-class citizens, often by virtue of not having served in the military. This meant that jobs—including in the hi-tech sector—were often harder to attain. Some Jews also acknowledged a level of “de facto” discrimination against Arabs and believed that efforts should be made to ameliorate it. “We owe them full equality as a Jewish value,” one told me.
3. “Start-up Nation”. The world may still associate Israel with religious orthodoxy, internecine conflict and, perhaps, Jaffa oranges. But something remarkable is underway: Israel today boasts a booming hi-tech sector that puts Bangalore to shame. Companies like Intel and Deutsche Telekom have enormous presences in the country (it should really say “Israel Inside”, several interlocutors joked). I was unaware that the country had more companies listed on NASDAQ than any other, the United States and China excepted. HP now has 5700 employees in Israel, Google has two research centers, and Microsoft’s R&D for its future operating systems is now based there. And none of that includes the (literally) hundreds of little-known Israeli start-ups that have developed everything from electronic billing and DVD chips to jump drives and call center software. The Indian corporate sector may conduct business with Israel on defence, agriculture and pharmaceuticals, but there are many unexplored openings in the hi-tech sector waiting to be seized.
4. Just Don’t Call them “Settlements”. I was fortunate to visit one of the 150-odd Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and passed by many more. News footage and the very term “settlement” had conjured up images of ramshackle mobile homes or poorly-built concrete compounds, but these communities were more akin to wealthy American suburbs: million dollar homes, SUVs, manicured lawns, elementary schools and community centers. It’s easy to say that settlers should leave in the event of a permanent two-state solution, but it was much harder to imagine these lavish developments being completely bulldozed or abandoned.
5. Palestinian Grievances. While I didn’t manage to visit Gaza—only overlook it from a hillock a few kilometres away—I did manage to get to the Palestinian-administered West Bank. The brief visit was hardly enough to derive any firm opinions about the plight of the Palestinian people, but that coupled with conversations with Arabs, Israelis and foreigners seemed to suggest that their problems were primarily non-material (again, Gaza may be a completely different matter). This may be due at least partially to the peculiar relationship between Israel and the PLO—neither of which wants Hamas to come to power in the West Bank—and the relatively generous assistance provided the Palestinian Authority by the West. Although there are a lot of things the Palestinians of the West Bank may require from the international community, I left with the strong impression that more development aid was not one of them.
6. History? Or Mythology? Much like the Indians and Chinese, the folk history of Israelis and others in the region greatly inflates the antiquity and authenticity of their living past. Today’s old Jerusalem is primarily a medieval town. Much like China, several old sites have been thoroughly renovated over the years and in a few cases are entirely modern recreations. Biblical associations with physical locations for both Jews and Christians are often tenuous. Go much farther back than the Roman period—and certainly beyond the first millennium BCE—and the line between history and mythology becomes terribly blurred.
7. America’s Abandonment. A running theme among Israeli policy wonks was the end of American hegemony in the Middle East, a development naturally seen as negative from an Israeli standpoint. Israelis spoke of Washington as an unreliable ally (sounds familiar?) that had made a mess of the Middle East peace process through its erratic demands and inattentiveness. The Oslo peace accords, and its enduring legacy, also came under fire from several directions for diverse (and often contradictory) reasons.
8. The Arab Autumn? A second major theme among policy wonks was deep concern about the so-called Arab Spring. Developments in Egypt—in particular—were being viewed with considerable suspicion, and most Israelis believed that there was no certainty that the end result of these popular uprisings would be a stable and democratic Arab world. Religious populism in places such as Jordan, Syria, Libya, Turkey and Iran were repeatedly invoked as reasons to be pessimistic about the region’s future.
9. The Complexities of a Jewish Democracy. Identity remains a complex issue in Israel. On the one hand, Israelis are justifiably proud of their liberal democracy, and the accompanying freedom of speech and action, the often colourful politics, and (generally) good governance. At the same time, they remain committed to the notion of Israel as a Jewish state. The fate of minorities is only one area where this apparent contradiction comes to the fore. Immigration policies, based as they are on religion, could eventually prove limiting. And Hebrew, which is mandatory for all new immigrants as well as all students through college, might limit the aspirations of young Israelis seeking to operate in an increasingly global environment. English-language classes are, however, offered in a growing number of graduate programs.
10. The Virtues of Military Service. One can’t help but be confronted with regular reminders about Israel’s mandatory military service. All men serve three years after high school, all women two. Officers and those in special units serve more, and men can be called upon to undergo training for a month each year until the age of 45. Israel’s is, consequently, a martial culture. But military service does a lot more than ensure security in a hostile region. Those with specific talents are able to hone valuable skills, such as in scientific research or analysis, through service in special units. One employer said he could tell more about the skills of potential job applicants from the IDF unit they served in than from a standard curriculum vitae. Military service also instills in Israeli society a palpable and infectious sense of camaraderie.