Israel at 75: Past achievements and future challenges - opinion

I believe that Israeli society is mature and strong enough to draft a new social contract that will take its diverse sectors into account.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Yoav Kisch applaud at the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem on Independence Day. We can look with pride at our achievements.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Yoav Kisch applaud at the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem on Independence Day. We can look with pride at our achievements.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

On its 75th birthday, the State of Israel can look with pride and satisfaction at its achievements thus far. Israel has built one of the world’s strongest military deterrent forces while implementing peace agreements and normalization with major Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Israel has a strong economy that is appreciated internationally, as evidenced by its credit rating by companies such as Moody’s (A1) and Fitch (A+). Despite Moody’s recent decision to reduce Israel’s credit outlook from positive to stable, its credit rating was not affected.

Since its foundation, it has successfully absorbed more than three million immigrants, many of whom needed its support in housing, work, and food.

Israeli science regularly breaks new ground, as reflected, among other things, in the number of Israelis who have won Nobel Prizes, hi-tech exits, and the high scores of Israeli universities in international rankings. Israeli culture is flourishing in literature, poetry, theater, cinema, and music, all in Hebrew and in many cases, also translated into English and other foreign languages.

This helps to explain why most Israelis are happy to live in their country and are in fact one of the happiest people in the world. All these successes have been achieved despite constant security threats, wars, emergencies, and the need to divert a massive share of national economic resources, unmatched by other countries, to security requirements.

 JERUSALEM’S JAFFA Road is decorated with flags for Independence Day.  (credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post) JERUSALEM’S JAFFA Road is decorated with flags for Independence Day. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

At the same time, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not seem solvable at this time. The gaps between the sides over the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the right of return, and perhaps the very right of an independent Jewish state to exist, are wider than ever. Israelis may have become accustomed to this, but when we step aside and look at daily life in a society that aspires to be modern and democratic, it is highly unreasonable.

More specifically, for more than 50 years, Israel has held the Palestinian population under its military and civilian control. Palestinian terrorism claims Jewish victims every year, with 19 people killed in shooting, stabbing, and vehicular attacks since the beginning of 2023 alone. In no other country have so many Jews been killed or murdered during this period, simply for being Jews. In no other country but Israel are Jews urged to bear arms for self-defense.

When Israelis buy a new apartment, it comes with a protected room built of reinforced concrete and anti-missile steel. And Israel may soon find itself facing a direct nuclear threat from a country that explicitly calls for its destruction.

Two states seem unfeasible

RESOLVING THE Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the two-state framework does not seem feasible now. One state for two peoples in the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River would undermine the Jewish majority and put an end to a Jewish state.

Regardless of the identity of the government that serves in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority, what is needed in the coming years are courageous leaders, new and creative thinking to manage the conflict and later to end it, and significant involvement of world powers, including economic and political sanctions on both sides.

In fact, the security threat to Israel has always served as an important unifying factor for Israeli society. The Israeli glue, however, also derives its strength from mutual agreements and concessions among its population sectors, especially between the secular and the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, and Right and Left, and recognition of their power or, alternatively, the limitation of their power.

The size advantage of the secular sector in the first three decades of statehood and the clear political and cultural hegemony of the Labor Party, led mainly by immigrants from Europe, shaped a socialist welfare Israeli society that turned culturally toward the West and perpetuated the concept of a melting pot with a clear preference for modern and progressive values.

The political upheaval of 1977 marked not only the rise of the political Right. It also encouraged and gave free rein to the externalization of the ethnic expression of, and pride in, the particularistic identity of immigrants from Islamic countries. At the same time, the share of ultra-Orthodox and religious Jews in the Jewish population has been increasing.

The Israeli social mainstream has changed and is becoming more diverse. It has received a tailwind from the penetration of general social and cultural transformations – essentially American – of multiculturalism and individualism that recognize and cherish racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, political, and other ascribed and cultural traits.

Tensions over resources and influence have intensified as erstwhile minority groups sometimes seek to channel memories of discrimination and deprivation, justified or not, into aggressive verbal attacks. On the other end of the social and political spectrum, there are offensive expressions of cultural values different from their own and comparisons of political attitudes and actions to those of benighted regimes of the past.

Therefore, the public protests in recent months reflect not only opposition to reform in the way judges are chosen, a legislative clause allowing the override of High Court rulings, or the definition of the attorney-general’s role. What we are witnessing is a struggle over the expansion, and in some areas change, of elites who will affect the nature and priorities of Israeli society.

Each of the camps has different social and cultural values and worldviews and their demographic equilibrium finds them able to compete for the country’s path. The side that built and shaped Israel’s values as a democratic and Jewish state feels that the current regime is diverting it in other directions. Consequently, longstanding disagreements about inequality in the burden of military service, taxation, and funding of educational and cultural institutions are now coming out with great force.

Israeli society is strong

I BELIEVE that Israeli society is mature and strong enough to draft a new social contract that will take its diverse sectors into account. Statements by politicians and high-profile extremists do not reflect the will of the majority of Israelis, who seek the common over the different, the unifying over the divisive, and compromise over rift.

Jews from different sectors share families: the rate of inter-ethnic marriage, marriage between secular and religious, and children switching from secular to religious practices or vice versa, exposing their families to a different lifestyle, are all growing. Ethnic mixing in residential neighborhoods has accelerated over the years, strengthening interaction among children from different backgrounds in schools, youth movements, and social activities.

Military units, especially those designated for combat, are now much more heterogeneous than in the past. In institutions of higher education and the professions one encounters people from all walks of the Israeli public, including – even if still at lower rates than their share of the population – Mizrahim, haredim and Arabs.

Perhaps the best evidence of the Israeli public’s affirmation of compromise, is the steady increase in the polls in the strength of MK Benny Gantz and his party, National Unity, which embrace a moderate approach of continuity and change in the current social controversy.

Consideration should be given to taking the debate on reforms out of the politicians’ hands, transferring them to public figures in the fields of education, economy, and culture, and perhaps bringing their proposals to a referendum or some other type of voting that will require a clear majority of at least two-thirds for approval.

Finally, from an economic and welfare perspective, the Israeli population is expected to grow from about 10 million today to 15 million by 2050. This increase will not be distributed evenly among the different age groups, such that the dependency ratio – the size of younger and older age groups that do not belong to the labor force divided by the size of groups that can work – will rise. This, in turn, will exacerbate the productive population’s burden of funding for children’s education and elders’ pensions.

Likewise, special attention should be paid to adults aged 65 and older, whose number is expected to increase by one million people. Those in this demographic cohort will need medical care, welfare services, and social and community support sooner or later.

This requires planning and allocation of economic resources that will assure conditions for aging with dignity, including the addition of geriatric departments, construction of new hospitals, training of more doctors and professionals, and more importation of caregivers from abroad, who have become pillars of long-term care in Israel.

This is the eighth and last in a series of op-ed articles which appeared once a month during Israel’s 75th anniversary year.

The writer is a professor and head of the Division of Jewish Demography at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he also holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations.