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Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University. - Daniel Bar-Tal (Dept. of Political Psychology) conveniently omits Israel’s Academic Fifth-Column in his list of dangers confronting Israel at Sixty

A Survey of Israel at Sixty

Daniel Bar-Tal

When a state reaches a round-numbered birthday we usually try to evaluate a balance of its achievements and failures and at the same time ask questions. The question that I would like to ask is what should be the role of world Jewry in Israel's attempts to find its way to the future in view of the crises that it experiences? First let's see the balance as I see it.

The Glass Half Full

There is no doubt that the state of Israel with its over 7.2 million citizens has great achievements. First of all, it is rare to find a state that has succeeded to make out of people, who were dispersed through centuries in different parts of the world, a renewed nation. In this process, it successfully absorbed through the years waves of immigrants (close to three million) who came to build a new life—and many arrived after experiencing trauma.

From the beginning the emerging society succeeded in developing a democratic structural system in a region where authoritarian regimes are the rule rather than exception. With the years, this society developed a tradition of freedom of information and media openness, with daily newspapers, many other types of publications, a few TV channels and many radio stations, all carrying vivid debates about Israel and the world. In addition, the Israeli public has openings to various world channels of commutation, including Arab ones, to absorb information and knowledge. During the last decades the society also witnessed the accelerated development of civil society that consists of hundreds of NGOs which raise many different issues and serve as a place for involvement and participation. These trends also indicate a positive ongoing process whereby different excluded societal sectors enter political and social arenas and expand the scope of issues that the society debates.

Also many of the founding fathers, being influenced by socialistic ideas, established a state that took the responsibility for the weak, sick, elderly and needy. Thus Israel enacted already from the beginning a wide range of social legislation and set up extensive social programs for all Israeli citizens and especially for the needy to provide them with a broad range of benefits and assistance. In 1995 The National Health Insurance Law came into effect. This law assures provision of a standardized basket of medical services, including hospitalization, for all residents of Israel. Israel's extensive medical network and high doctor-patient ratio are reflected in the low infant mortality rate (4 per 1,000 live births) and high life expectancy (82.2 years for women, 78.5 for men). This reflects a high standard of medicine in Israel and high-level training for medical professions, including a very advanced research level.

Similar achievements should be noted in education, in spite of the recent setbacks. School attendance is mandatory from age 5 to 16 and free through age 18, though less than half obtain matriculation which serves as a passport for higher education. Higher education with over 270,000 students is well regarded and plays a pivotal role in the development of the country. The universities are well known and developed and serve together with other R&D (research and development) institutions as vehicles for scientific achievements and technological development. Today, the percentage of Israelis engaged in scientific and technological inquiry and the amount spent on R&D in relation to its GDP are among the highest in the world.

The described achievements are related to economic success. After having enjoyed for many years one of the fastest GDP growth rates of all world economies, Israel is now continuing the economic recovery that began in 2003. Israel’s GDP has been rising at about 5 percent a year, per capita income reached about $21,000 (in 1980 it was about $5,500), unemployment has steadily decreased to 6.6 percent in 2007, inflation is under control, and foreign debt has been eliminated, with Israel becoming a creditor in recent years and very attractive to international investors. This was achieved with very tight budget control and cuts in public expenditures.

International level strides have been made in the fields of medical electronics, agro-technology, telecommunications, fine chemicals, computer hardware and software, food processing and solar energy. Hi-tech industries, which accounted for only 37 percent of industrial product in 1965, grew to 70 percent in 2006 ($29 billion plus another $5.9 billion of hi-tech services) and almost 80 percent of hi-tech products are exported.

In noting the half full glass it is necessary also to look at cultural achievements. The society succeeded in developing out of a dying language a culture that can pride itself on many positive indicators: writers whose works are translated into many languages, films getting awards in major festivals, plays that are performed on prestigious stages of the world. Some 2,500 titles are published annually and may be found, alongside republications of classics and imported books, in many bookshops in every town and city.

All these achievements are taking place under conditions of continuous threats and dangers. Israel is coping with a conflict that broke out prior to its birth. Through the years of its existence Israel has fought at least six major wars and suffered from ongoing hostile violent activities and terror. To be successful in withstanding its enemies, Israel invested enormous efforts in satisfying its security needs, and at present it has the strongest and best equipped army along with becoming a regional power which has great influence over the events in the region.

The Empty Half of the Glass

However, precisely from the recognition of the impressive achievements of the state of Israel I have chosen to focus on the empty half of the glass, which is related to a number of important areas. This direction is taken in order to engage the Jewry of the world in the ongoing public debates and civil struggles in which Israeli society is engaged. These debates and struggles are of crucial importance as many feel that Israel is losing its way and its soul and is facing a grave crisis. Moreover, when you talk with many Israelis, irrespective of their personal political orientation, it is possible to observe despair and feelings of helplessness and even hopelessness in their assessment of the situation—though they focus on different problems because they differ in values, ideology, goals and concerns. Still they spotlight the half empty glass that is well salient to them as it appears in public debates in various channels of mass media and is relevant to various aspects of their personal and collective life. The choice to focus on the half empty glass as I see it derives from the concern and the desire to awaken the Jews in the world and involve them in the public debates that take place in the Israeli society since I deeply believe that it is their responsibility and duty to be part of them.

In discussion about the half empty glass I would like first to highlight two colossal failures of Israeli society and then to elaborate on more specific major defaults.

The first failure consists of the fact that since the establishment of the state many hundred thousands of its citizens (it is estimated about 800,000, but no one can provide a validated figure) emigrated to various countries in the world, mainly to United States, Canada, Germany, Australia and even to Russia. Although the emigration was done in different periods and because of different reasons, this number is staggering and indicates that the state did not succeed in creating satisfactory conditions for its citizens.

The second colossal failure relates to the continuation of the occupation of the territories conquered in the Six Day War in 1967. This occupation underlies many of the problems that Israel is facing and has many negative implications on life in Israel. The continuation of the occupation of the territories touches first of all on the security problems and on the moral soul of the state. The fact that the occupied territories were settled by Jews adds special folly. This act not only negates international law but also constitutes one of the biggest barriers to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict peacefully. In addition, it is estimated that directly and indirectly Israel spent through the years at least 100 billion shekel to build the infrastructure, settlements, and roads and maintain their security, which violate both the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israeli laws. This act will either bring an end to the nature of the state the founding fathers dreamed about, or Israel will have to spend almost a similar amount of money to pay compensation to those who will have to leave their homes, feeling alienation, frustration and anger.

Looking deeper into the crises that the society is going through, I will identify the most serious problems that in my view and in light of my values pose a challenge to the state of Israel today.

The Dominance of Neo-Liberal Policies

When neo-liberalism was questioned for its severe consequences in various parts of the world, Israeli society accelerated its attempt to institute this economic-social policy—a move that began already in the 1980s. With the celebration of the sixtieth birthday the outcomes of this policy are well known. The state is diminishing its role in the life of the citizens, abandoning social responsibility towards them but favoring the business sector. Through the years the government has been decreasing its expenditure on education, health and welfare and as a result these systems are constantly deteriorating and require increased personal spending, which still does not provide the solution to the destructive policies. Also, the economic growth is not equally beneficial to all classes. Over the past twenty years, income inequality has been rising and social disparities have grown to the extent that Israel is now ranked second in the Western world (after the U.S.) in terms of growing gaps between rich and poor (at present one percent of the citizens account for 60 percent of the wealth in Israel). This widening gap between rich and poor coincided with a significant narrowing of the middle class in Israel and a dramatic increase in poverty, even among the working families. In 2007 24.7 percent of Israelis in general and 35.8 percent of the children were found to live below the poverty line (in 1998 only 22.8 percent of the children lived below this line).

Dysfunction of Liberal Democracy

Although the state of Israel succeeded in establishing a well-functioning structural democracy it still suffers from many deficiencies, especially with implementing democracy's spirit and its values (human and civil rights, respect for the law, equality, treatment of minorities, and preserving basic freedoms). One of the major problems is the disregard of laws and ethics practiced by the public at large and even by the state institutions and leaders. A diagnosis of the situation is presented by jurist Moshe Negbi, who describes the process being undergone by the Israeli political culture in recent years as “a slope leading from a government of laws to a banana republic”. A specific example can be seen in the report by attorney Talya Sasson, appointed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to investigate the functioning of the state institutions with regard to building outposts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She concluded that public authorities such as ministries, the Israeli army, and the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization, as well as municipalities, used their authority illegally to actively assist and/or did not prevent the establishment of the unlawful enterprise. A recent report shows that about one third of the settlements were built illegally according to the Israeli law. In addition, according to the reports of Israel's state comptroller governmental institutions are plagued by protectionism, politicization of the public service, and use of public resources to advance personal-political interests. In this vein of special danger, close connections are observed between the government, capital and mass media, as well as penetration of criminal groups into party centers and the extensive economic and political power of several dozen very wealthy families. Furthermore, a study that was recently carried out determined that Israel ranks sixth among developed countries around the globe in terms of the scope of its black market.

This failure is related to the deterioration of Israeli leadership in the last decade. The leaders have been accused of corruption, lack of accountability, lack of vision, and manipulation of the public and as a result they have been losing the trust of the society members. In a recent survey it was found that 86 percent of the citizens state that the government is not dealing adequately with the country’s problems and 68 percent believe that the people running the country are motivated by personal interests rather than the public good.

Another deficiency with which the Israeli democracy must cope is the growing political power and influence of anti-democratic groups. The centers of these groups within Jewish society are found mostly in the ultra-religious sector, which rejects democracy both as a value and as a mechanism for governing. This view is expanding as about half of the public reject the democratic system. On another level, the trend of undermining democracy is reflected in steady and continuous attempts to undercut the legal system and especially the Supreme Court (even by the present Minister of Justice) by trying to limit its functioning and politicizing its control.

Moral Deterioration

The problem of democratic deficiencies is related to the deterioration of the moral values and standards in the state of Israel. Beginning with the internal problems, corruption has been on the increase dramatically through the years. While in 2001 Israel was in sixteenth place among the world states in the Transparency International Corruption Perception, in 2007 it fell down thirtieth place. In the last decade all the prime ministers, some of the ministers and over a dozen lawmakers were accused in various affairs of corruption. In addition, trafficking by migrant workers became an industry with a staggering annual turnover, officially estimated at no less than $300,000,000 annually. This includes illegal trafficking of women for sex as Israel became one of the major sex trade centers in the world. Moreover, various practices towards them by the mediators, the employers and even the government indicate a consistent violation of human rights.

Institutionalized Discrimination of Arab Minority

Problems of democratic dysfunction are also reflected in the way Israel is treating its Arab citizens, who are an indigenous minority. Israel is probably the only current state among the developed countries that is practicing institutionalized and cultural discrimination of the Arab minority, including legal discrimination. This discrimination has created, in essence, an ethnic democracy and not a liberal democracy—a reality in which structural preference is accorded to the dominant Jewish majority.

Formal discrimination of Arabs by Israeli law and practices is not only restricted to symbolic areas, but is inseparably linked to continuous discrimination in every aspect of life. As a result there are continuously growing gaps between Arabs and Jews in socio-economic and living conditions in all major areas of life such as housing, health, education, land, welfare, employment, and more.

The governmental Orr Commission Report, published in 2003, presented for the first time an official recognition of the depth of discrimination and institutional exclusion experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens since the establishment of the state. The report stated that, “the state and all of its governments have failed to cope deeply and with the difficult challenges posed by the existence of a large Arab minority within the Jewish state. The governmental handling of the Arab sector is mostly characterized by neglect and deprivation. The establishment has not demonstrated enough sensitivity to the needs of the Arab sector and has not done enough to assure equal allocation of state resources also to this sector. The state has not done enough, and has not tried enough, to grant equality to its Arab citizens and remove manifestations of discrimination and deprivation”. A special failure is the substantial support of the discriminative practices by Jews in Israel and normative discourse of Arab delegitimization. For example in 2007 it was found that about 45 percent of the Jews in Israel deny existence of Arab discrimination in Israel; about 56 percent of them supported full equal rights between Jews and Arabs, citizens of the state, but only 22 percent support political equality for the Arab minority and about 55 percent support a governmental encouragement of Arab immigration from the state.

The Ruthless Outcomes of Occupation

In my view the most salient sign of the democratic and moral deterioration of Israeli Jewish society is the lasting occupation. During the years of the Israeli occupation, a deep-rooted system of dual sets of legal norms developed in the West Bank: one for the Jewish settlers and one for the Palestinian population. These dual sets enabled the establishment of a system of segregation, discrimination and control on ethnic grounds in the occupied territories, with all the negative implications.

Through the years many thousands of Palestinians, including civilians and children who were not engaged in any violent activity against Israel, were killed or injured by the Israeli forces. More than 600,000 of the Palestinians were arrested through the years of occupation, many thousands spent years in prisons and as detainees, many were tortured, some were expelled and their houses demolished. Many aspects of Palestinian collective and individual lives are controlled by the Israelis and through the years this has had an immense negative effect on the development of their economic, societal and political infrastructure. According to UN 2007 report 57 percent of the households in the territories live in poverty. In principle, this occupied population lives without basic human and civil rights under continuous humiliation and discrimination that cannot be accounted for by threats to the security of Israel. As examples it is possible to provide about 100 checkpoints and several hundred roadblocks that turn the lives of the Palestinians into a miserable experience, or the fact that many of the settlements and the outposts were built on private Palestinian land confiscated under false pretexts, or the attempts to build security the fence well beyond the green line in order to take hold of more Palestinian land.

One may claim that this behavior is a result of the threats that the Jews in Israeli society experience because of Palestinian goals and violent behaviors, and another one may claim that it is a necessary element of occupation and that Israel does not differ from other occupying states through the ages, and in fact is more restrained. These arguments, even if they are partially valid, cannot account in my view for the scope and extent of the violations of the Palestinian human and civil rights.

Militarization of the Israeli Society

Another major problem of Israeli society is the dominance of the military echelon. Compared to other democratic states, the security forces in Israel and especially the military have determinative influence on policies, decision-making, and the execution of actions, starting with the policies of peace and war and up through policies dealing with the allocation of resources and with infrastructure. Because of this influence military thinking was adopted by the political echelon, as the military serves not only as source for intelligence but also as national evaluator and chief source of strategic plans. The domination of public discourse by the IDF’s aggressive world-view and its status as epistemic authority brought about a degradation of moral values within Israeli society. Universal values of human rights and the sacredness of human life came to be associated only with the Jewish population.

This fact has a determining effect on the ability to carry out basic democratic processes such as criticism of the military branch by the political branch, or inquiry into military operations or “mishaps” by those who are not in uniform. Comparative studies of the political and democratic echelons have shown that Israel ranks thirty-sixth and last on the measure of military involvement in political and social affairs.

Influence of Religion

Israel is a state which did not separate itself from religion. This has an immense effect on the personal lives of the citizens and violates basic human and civil rights. For example, matters of marriages and divorces as well as of conversion to Judaism are under the monopolized responsibility of Orthodox Jewry. This monopoly creates tremendous problems for many of the citizens of Israel and especially for those who came in the last wave of immigration from the former USSR.

Of special importance is the fact that the ultra-religious sector is growing, with at least two implications. The majority of this sector does not serve in the army, constituting over 11 percent of the potential conscripts, and a substantial portion of this sector (over half of the men) does not work, relying on external financial assistance.

Objections to Peace

In contrast to the well accepted and shared belief among Jews that Israel never missed an opportunity to embark on the road to peace, the accumulated evidence indicates that Israel missed opportunities to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict peacefully and more than once carried out intransigent policies. Examples range from the refusal of Golda Meir to engage in negotiations with Egypt about the cease fire, or to accept the 1969 Rogers Plan, ignoring the possibility to try to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict proposed by various security institutions in 1967, the rejection of the London agreement with Jordan in 1987 by Itzhak Shamir, the decision to declare and treat Arafat as a non-partner after the failure of the Camp David meeting in 2000, ignoring the Saudi plan initiated in 2002, up to rejections of the Syrian attempts to begin negotiations in the recent years. Moreover as the stronger side in the conflict it is Israel that has much more power to move the conflict towards its peaceful resolution, but this supremacy rarely is translated into actions.


This essay aims to present the problems Israel is facing and encourage World Jewry to be aware of the challenges that preoccupy the great majority of their brothers and sisters in Israel, get involved in the debates and be part of the struggle about the direction Israel should take in view of the current crises. This involvement should be of great importance for the Jews of the world who would like to see Israel as a center for world Jewry, as an example to other nations, and as a place that in moment of emergency they will be able to find their refuge.

World Jewry cannot blindly observe Israel and disregard the problems that it is facing. Israel, on the other hand, should stop the unacceptable and detrimental practice of asking blind support for the Israel which is implied by the term “he/she supports Israel” and viewing any criticism as being anti-Israeli. This relates also to the frequent practice of hiding and omitting the problems that Israel is facing before the Jewish visitors, especially the tens of thousands of youth who come every year to Israel. On the contrary, I believe that supporting Israel means seeing Israel with all its achievements and deficiencies—and then engaging in the ongoing debates and striving to create a better society, which is the best indication of love and care. This is a true nature of patriotism. The clash over the future of Israel is a crucial struggle. Jews of the world should not stand as passive bystanders but be part of the forces that shape the nature of the place where our children and grandchildren live and yours may live in the future.

Daniel Bar-Tal is a professor of political psychology at Tel Aviv University.


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