We''ve been traveling between relatives in the land that has been home to several generations of wandering Sharkanskys. Family members and others we are encountering look on Israel with a combination of admiration and disappointment. Some of those disappointed want it to be more aggressive in solving its problems, while some want it to be more forthcoming to its adversaries. All of them know more or less what it is like, some of them much less rather than more.
Everyone once in a while I find it necessary to describe what I think are Israel''s distinctive elements, while also indicating that--on many of its important traits--it resembles other democracies.
What is distinctive?
Its small size, about that of Massachusetts or New Jersey. And even smaller in practical terms, since close to half is desert with scattered settlements and only two real cities (Beer Sheva and Eilat). The heart of the country with more than 80 percent of the population, is barely 100 miles from north to south and about 50 miles east to west at its widest part. I recently heard from an American friend who flies four hours and then drives more in order to visit his grandchildren. We travel to the other side of Israel to visit our newest grandchild, and it takes us about an hour and 15 minutes, depending on traffic.
The structure of government is European in its nature. (Like almost every real democracy except the United States.) That means a centralization of authority, with most of the power resting in the hands of professionals in national ministries. The Knesset is sovereign, but like other parliaments, almost always follows the lead of the government. There are no protracted quarrels in the style of the American Congress and Presidency, pretty much all the time, but especially when one or both Houses of Congress are controlled by one party or faction and the White House by another.
In parliamentary democracies elected politicians serve as ministers at the head of the major departments, but they move from task to task. In Israel, the average tenure is about two years. Ministers typically accept the recommendations of the permanent professionals who are their nominal underlings. In some important matters, including spending from the budget, the laws in Israel provide authority to the professionals rather than to the ministers. The Finance Ministry attracts the brightest of university graduates, and as a result of law and skill has considerable control over other ministries.
The national government is supreme. Local authorities have limited powers, and are under the thumb of the Interior Ministry which is under the thumb of the Finance Ministry. There is one national police force, and one national Ministry of Education. In the realm of policing, local officials do little more than pass out parking tickets. In education the locality does little more than care for school buildings, but not what is taught within them. Ultra-Orthodox education is another matter, with national government money but no government control of any kind.
Also as in Europe, there are no juries. Professional judges, with panels of three or more for important cases, rule on law, about the facts in dispute, decide if the accused is guilty, and pronounce sentencing. It is not likely that O.J. Simpson would have walked free from an Israeli (or European) court. The lack of juries also moderates the awards made in suits against physicians and other professionals for mistakes, malpractice, or their clients'' bad luck.
Israelis also resemble Europeans in their attitudes toward government and concerns for privacy. We have much less concern about big brother than Americans. Having to carry government-issued identity cards--needed for doing business in banks or government offices--is not an issue in dispute. We all must enroll in one of a few HMOs. When a health professional swipes our card, the computer terminal shows a full record of what all professionals have entered: personal history, allergies, medications and other treatments, plus the results of several years'' blood tests and other data. The ease of access to shared information may contribute to our living longer than Americans. There is virtually no paper work that requires the patient to argue about who pays what.
What is most distinctive about Israel is its Jewishness.
Not easy to describe, as anyone knowing anything about Judaism and Jewish history should realize.
No other country comes close to the country''s 80 percent Jewish population, admitting that not all pass muster as such with the Orthodox Rabbinate. The key symbols of flag and holidays, a substantial part of the educational content, literature, and popular songs deal with themes of Jewish history. The culture is Jewish in accepting dispute in conversation and governing. The criticism of elites prominent in the the Books of the Biblical Prophets (and recited as part of religious ritual) makes itself apparent in the shrill criticism of authority in the media, and the law empowering the State Comptroller to audit public bodies on the basis of moral integrity as well as the accuracy of their financial records.
Security is prominent . It takes a higher percentage of economic resources and a greater share of citizens'' time than in any other Western democracy. Virtually every hourly news has something to say about a dispute or an event concerned with national security.The pale of delegitimacy imposed on Israel by Palestinians, other countries with Muslim majorities, and by international leftists has created a situation where the country has acquired aspects of the beleaguered ghetto of medieval and early modern history. Muslim claims that they were more accommodating to Jews than Christians bear no more resemblance to historic reality than Muslim assertions about the centrality of Jerusalem in Islam or Israelis'' treatment of Palestinians.
Virtually all Jews--excepting the ultra-Orthodox and religious women--serve in the military, while virtually no American Jews serve in the American military. Memorial Day is not an occasion for shopping; millions go to the military cemeteries to remember lost relatives.
Israelis emphasize the various differences between their country and others. We should expect no less from the Chosen People in the Promised Land.
However, on many of the social, economic, and political traits examined by social scientists, Israel ranks somewhere in the middle among similar countries, i.e., members of the OECD. Moreover, it "behaves" like a typical country in showing that its scores tend to correspond to its level of economic development.Many social traits show close statistical relationships to countries'' economic indicators, like Gross Domestic Product per capita. A country''s scores on health, education, and other measures of well-being tend to be high or low, depending on whether its GDP/c is high or low. Israel is a well-to-do country, but is not among the most well-to-do. Its traits--ranging from income equality to road safety--correspond with its per capita level of resources. They are neither especially high nor low. On some traits, like health and the quality of its universities, various measures show that Israel Israel does better than expected on the basis of its economic resources, and put it among world leaders.A similar description of distinctive and shared traits can be made about every other country. However, few of them are as prominent in the headlines as Israel, and few of their populations have its history of insecurity and live under the threats that Israelis experience. That the country is so normal while it is also distinctive may say something about its population''s adjustments to being distinctive, and being threatened.