Looking back, and forward

Shlomo Maital recalls five decades of living in Israel since making aliya right after the Six Day War and looks ahead to what’s in store for the country over the next 50 years.

Art by Avi Katz (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Art by Avi Katz
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
ON JUNE 6, 1967, the day after the outbreak of the Six Day War, my fiancée Sharona and I were in suburban Philadelphia at the high school graduation of Sharona’s sister Suri.
With one ear, we listened to the moving address of Elie Wiesel, author and journalist. The other ear was glued to a transistor radio, tuned to station KYW, listening to Israel’s then-foreign minister Abba Eban’s eloquent address to the United Nations Security Council.
As a reporter writing for the daily newspaper Haaretz, Wiesel had been sent to Russia to cover the struggle of three million Jews living there to leave. The result was his book “The Jews of Silence,” which claimed that while Russian Jews were silenced, American Jews were silent (about the plight of Russian Jews) by choice.
Wiesel scrapped his prepared speech on this topic and instead blasted world leaders for their silence about Israel’s plight, noting “an Israel that stood alone” throughout May 1967. The Six Day War followed a three-week blockade of Israel during which Arab leaders and the Palestinian Liberation Organization promised repeatedly to exterminate the Jews of Israel, words that I recall terrified Jewry all over the world.
Wiesel said Israel’s plight in May 1967 reminded him of the days during and before World War II, when Jews stood alone, while his family was sent to the crematoria − and no one cared or spoke out. He asked, “Where was France, Israel’s only ally?” I recall that at the outbreak of the Six Day War, US State Department spokesman Robert McClosky announced: “Our position [on the war] is neutral in thought, word and deed.” Israel stood alone.
French President Charles de Gaulle later embargoed arms shipments to Israel after becoming its main supplier. Ironically, this later fostered Israel’s hi-tech industry when entrepreneurs, starting with Uziah Galil (the founder of Elron and Elbit), discovered they could make things previously bought and imported themselves faster and better.
While Wiesel spoke, we heard the silver-tongued Eban end his talk at the UN by saying, “I think that Israel has in recent days proved its steadfastness and vigor. It is now willing to demonstrate its instinct for peace. Let us build a new system of relationships from the wreckage of the old. Let us discern across the darkness the vision of a better and a brighter dawn.”
I remember those words vividly and, today, long for the days when Israel had an eloquent foreign minister to plead our cause. The combination of Wiesel and Eban, their deep passion and eloquence, was etched forever in our minds.
Sharona and I were married on June 25 in Atlantic City and left, as planned, the next day to make aliya, stopping in Europe to buy a car. On July 27, we disembarked from the ZIM car ferry “Nili” at the Haifa Port with our little Peugeot 204, part of the first wave of olim in the wake of post-Six Day War euphoria.
AS A young lecturer at Tel Aviv University, I used my bad Hebrew almost at once to help returning soldiers catch up on missed economics courses. I had learned Hebrew first in an awful after-school heder (Hebrew school) in Saskatchewan, and then in college, and in preparation for Aliya by reading the weekly edition of Maariv, then printed on onion skin paper and mailed abroad.
It has been almost 50 years since we made aliya. It is a good time to look back and reflect on our lives and on our beloved adopted country, its achievements and challenges.
Immigration: Israel is unique among the nations of the world. It has an overriding purpose – to provide a safe, secure and welcoming home for Jews everywhere who find themselves in trouble or simply those who seek a full and meaningful life. And for 50 years, it has fulfilled that vision, far from flawlessly but always steadfastly. I feel this basic fact is unduly neglected sometimes.
In 1948, the world Jewish population was 11 million, of whom 5.5% lived in the new State of Israel, after peaking at 16.7 million in pre-Holocaust 1939. In 1967, 2.4 million Jews out of a world total of 12.4 million lived in Israel, or about 20%. Today? Some 44% of the world’s 14.4 million Jews live in Israel after the country absorbed several waves of immigrants. Some 83% of all Jews now live either in Israel or the US. By 2050, a majority of Jews will live in Israel, according to the Pew Research Center.
Wiesel’s three million Russian Jews? Israel welcomed one million of them, beginning in late 1989 when the United States redefined Russian Jews as “economic migrants” rather than “political migrants,” and, therefore, they were subject to a small quota of just 50,000 a year.
Those immigrants provided Israel with immense high-quality human capital ‒ engineers, scientists, nurses, doctors – that, among other things, helped fuel the hi-tech boom of the 1990s.
Nearly five million Syrians have fled their country due to the bloody civil war. Except for Jordan, which erected refugee camps on its Syrian border, Arab countries accept no obligation to absorb them. Contrast this with Israel – if they were Jews, they would have a country to which to flee, no questions asked.
Social cohesion: In 1967, as a young lecturer at Tel Aviv University, I recall earning about 700 lirot (the lira was the Israeli pound, three to the dollar, not that different from today’s shekel), or about $233 a month. All workers made pretty much the same wage at that time.
In her 1979 book “Socio-Economic Disparities in Israel,” economist Fanny Ginor noted that “for the poor, Israel of the 1960s was very much a country of equality.” Only 8% of the population lived under the poverty line at that time.
Inequality in wealth and income in Israel has soared. In 50 years, we have fallen from nearly the lowest incidence of poverty among developed nations to nearly the highest. Today, nearly one in five Israeli households are poor, the highest in the OECD.
In 1967, I recall frequent amusing encounters at stoplights. Our little Peugeot had low-pressure Michelin tires. The driver next to me would motion for me to roll down the window. “Hey buddy!” he would say. “Put some air in your tires.” I doubt this would happen today. If it did, the response might be, “It’s none of your business!”
A casualty of the high and rising economic inequality is that the core Jewish value “kol Yisrael arevim ze laze” (all of Israel is mutually responsible) no longer holds. Today, according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook, Israel ranks only 35th in “social cohesion,” largely, I believe, because of the huge disparities in wealth and income. It is hard to feel that we are all in the same boat, when some of those boats are yachts and others are leaky dinghies.
IN 1966, recounts Sever Plotzker, in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, a 13-year-old girl from Beit She’an was asked on a radio broadcast if she was hungry. She answered, “Yes!” That response shook up the entire country, Plotzker notes, and “nearly toppled the [Levi] Eshkol government.”
It turned out the girl was not really suffering from hunger. But no matter – the thought that there was a hungry child greatly disturbed the whole nation. Today? It takes far far more than hungry children to prick our collective consciences. We have developed distressingly thick skins.
Technology: Few countries can match Israelis’ genius at fast, creative solutions to pressing problems. Water shortage? Half of Israel’s water is now desalinated. Sewage? Some 86% of sewage is reclaimed for irrigation, tops in the world. Rocket threat? A three-tier, anti-rocket missile-defense system is now operational. Non-invasive surgery? An Israeli invention zaps tumors with ultrasound, no scalpels required.
Israelis discovered, explained or invented: Ubiquitin and quasi-crystals (which won their discoverers Nobel Prizes), quarks, Copaxone, Pillcams, memory sticks, instant messaging, drip irrigation, solar water heaters, Rummikub and an incredibly long list of things that enhance, enrich and prolong the lives of everyone, including those who want to boycott us. One day, Israeli scientists may cure cancer, help with dementia and help make self-driven cars safe and ubiquitous. With eight Nobel Prizes in physiology, medicine, chemistry, economics and physics, Israel ranks fifth in the world in per capita Nobel awards, tied with Britain.
The next 50 years: What do the next 50 years hold for Israel? There are many challenges, some predictable and some hard to foresee.
In May, Tel Aviv University Prof. Dan Ben-David and Ayal Kimhi circulated a terse document listing “policy areas requiring treatment.” Among them: low productivity, education, transportation infrastructure, housing, healthcare and the shadow economy. Here are some of their observations.
Israel’s per capita gross domestic product more than quadrupled between 1967 and 2017, from $8,000 to $35,000. The cause was rising output per hour of work (productivity). But, note the authors, in 1972, Israel’s total factor productivity, the “primary engine underlying the economic growth of all nations,” equaled that of the US. Since then, however, Israel has lagged far behind. One implication: the possible “exodus of educated and skilled people from Israel” as a result.
ISRAEL HAS performed well in absorbing those who make aliya. Now, it must work hard to retain its own bright young people and keep them from seeking greener pastures abroad. There are many places in the world where launching start-ups is easy and fun. Global competition for talent is getting fiercer.
Education has become problematic. International surveys show Israel now ranks second to last among developed nations in math, science and reading among 15-year-olds, and first in the degree of variation of education achievement across high- and low-achievers. In a nation that prospers because of its human capital, these figures are alarming.
“Children who receive third-world education,” note Ben-David and Kimhi, “will only be capable of sustaining a third-world economy.”
Our roads are clogged; the number of vehicles per kilometer of road is more than three times that of the smaller European nations. We need better public transportation and more and better roads.
In housing, more than two-thirds of Israelis now own their own homes but the one-third who don’t are despairing as housing prices soar. The solution lies more on the supply side – building housing cheaper, faster and smarter – than in tinkering with demand.
In health care, Israelis live long lives. Life expectancy has risen by a decade or so since 1967 to 82.4 years, eighth in the world. But Israel remains near to last in hospital beds per 1,000 population (2.3, compared to more than 6 in Germany and Korea), and there is a chronic shortage of nurses, with half the number of nurses per 1,000 population than in the US.
Israel’s shadow economy (unrecorded and untaxed business activity) is fully a fifth of the whole economy. This burdens those who pay taxes and work legally, and further damages social cohesion. Lower taxes might improve tax compliance.
And, of course, looming above everything is the dark cloud of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, seemingly intractable. Will we have to live with this struggle for another 50 years without an enduring peace agreement? Why does Israeli creativity reside solely in hi-tech and never appears in our dealings with the Palestinians? Will we ever see, in Abba Eban’s vision, “a new system of relationships from the wreckage of the old” and “discern across the darkness the vision of a better and a brighter dawn?”
Meaning and purpose: For my wife and me, living and working in Israel has given true meaning to our lives simply because everything we do and have done, small and large, helps in some manner to make our country better and stronger. This is a priceless gift that is sometimes taken for granted, especially by those who may lack our 50-year perspective.
Kierkegaard said we learn about life looking backward but live life looking forward. As we look backward, we cherish the deep meaning our adopted country has given to our lives. We are now both retirees, but remain very active, and can look back with satisfaction – my wife, a school psychologist, at the many children and families she has helped over the years, and me, at the generations of management students and entrepreneurs I have taught.
It has been a great ride, for us and for Israel − and the best is yet to come.
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com