Critical Currents: Spit image

Two very different renditions appear in the collective mirror.

September 20, 2007 12:37
4 minute read.
naomi chazan portrait 88

naomi chazan 88. (photo credit: )

The season of purposeful self-reflection is not only highly personal, it has distinct collective dimensions as well. The societal changes recorded this past year have accentuated our immense diversity, troubling inequality and increasing duality. A glance at the national mirror conveys a double image both existentially and subjectively. Unless a concerted effort is made to focus the picture by promoting systematic social change, the already tenuous fabric of social cohesion might unravel completely. The country is undeniably in a growth mode. The population increased by 1.8 percent during the past 12 months and now stands at 7,116,700. According to the most fascinating publication released on the eve of the High Holy Days, The Israel Statistical Yearbook, 75.8% of the population are Jews (5,398,400), 19.9% are Arabs (1,413,300) and 4.4% belong to that curiously Israeli category of "others" (mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who defy religious classification). On paper, the economy flourished this year - the GDP grew by more than 4%, expendable income by 4.4%, the standard of living by 4.6%. Annual per capita income places the country solidly in the range of fully industrialized countries (c. $30,000). Growth, however, is not always positive. Although gross poverty levels remained virtually unaltered at 20% (1,650,000 people), the number of working poor has increased to 45.9% of those below the minimal line. The National Insurance Institute's annual poverty report published last month indicates that 35.8% of children are impoverished (a staggering 796,000). And, most tellingly, income inequality increased by an additional 1.2% during the past year, giving us the dubious title of the most inequitable country in the developed world. Not surprisingly, these negative indicators are not evenly distributed among an increasingly heterogeneous population. Haredim and Arabs are more adversely affected than others. So, too, are those who reside in the periphery, far from the heavily populated Coastal Plain centered on Tel Aviv and its environs. Even though the bulk of Israelis are native-born (66% of Jews), the 39% of European extraction still do much better than the 27% who came from Arabic-speaking countries. There is a close correlation between ethnicity and widening income differentials. This trend, inevitably, spills over into other spheres. The educational achievements of Arabs are significantly lower than those of their Jewish counterparts: Their performance in elementary school tests is poorer, fewer complete secondary school matriculation, their representation in institutions of higher education is barely half that of other citizens. Projections of educational growth for the next five years anticipate a 1.2% contraction in state schools and a growth in Arab (11.5%) and haredi (19%) institutions. Systemic inequality clearly has an economic, religious and geographic flavor. THIS IS, then, in many respects the best of times for some and the worst of times for others. A good deal of the marked duality that characterizes the country is measurable. For example, the gains in the still tremendously fragile security from outside threats have been erased by rising incidents of violence domestically. Teenage criminality is particularly alarming, encompassing 1.8% of this age group (the same percentage for Arabs and Jews). Most of the binary manifestations of the quality of life are not so easily quantifiable. They are, nevertheless, exceedingly palpable: cutting edge innovation alongside retrogressive stagnation; openness alongside parochial biases; personal satisfaction alongside real distress. The bifurcated image permeates virtually every aspect of existence in the country. A majority of citizens exude a sense of personal well-being coupled with deep disaffection from the public sphere. The popularity of unaccountable oligarchs is reaching new heights precisely when that of elected leaders is at an all-time low. More people rely on charity to make ends meet, and a greater number are actively engaged in the voluntary sector. Duplicity and corruption subsist alongside a renewed quest for probity. Two very different renditions appear in the collective mirror. These distinct, opposite yet coexisting, worlds are the end result of three major factors: cultural and historical legacies, conscious and discriminatory policies and a common feeling of insecurity. They are maintained and entrenched by a combination of inertia, insensitivity and incompetence. These by now chronic inconsistencies replicate internally patterns of prejudicial norms sustained for too long across the Green Line. The perpetuation of these broken reflections constitutes the most profound risk to our future. This splintered communal reality must be confronted without delay. The best way to tackle the challenge of built-in discrimination that exists in this land of plenty and little is to renew the country's dedication to social justice through social change. This requires the placement of policies designed to bridge the gaping socioeconomic chasms that beleaguer the country as the top priority on the national agenda. It also demands a common commitment to combat all forms of discrimination as a matter of course. Above all, it entails the acknowledgment of the country's essential pluralism and the development of an accompanying ethos of mutual tolerance - the only way to make living together in incredible diversity possible. We cannot afford to see such a dichotomous refraction a year from now. Israel's pledge to sharpen its image through equitable management internally and externally is its most significant promise to itself for the New Year.

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