Above the Fray: Escaping the Israel ghetto

The lack of visionary leadership in Israel today has served to entrench the notion that the future of the state is at risk.

Binyamin Netanyahu 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Binyamin Netanyahu 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, his policies are encouraging a mass exodus of Jews from the country.
Today, the notion of a Jewish refuge in the Land of Israel is greatly at risk. Much has been made of what former prime minister Ehud Olmert once called a “demographic time bomb,” with the Palestinian birthrate soon to boost the number of Palestinians over the number of Israelis between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Yet Palestinian demographics aside, more Israelis are living abroad than ever, and many are eager to join them.
The lack of visionary leadership in Israel today has served to entrench the notion that the future of the state is at risk, and that opportunities for a prosperous, secure livelihood are better sought elsewhere. Netanyahu’s Israel is increasingly beholden to extremist religious and intolerant voices. As a result, Israel is looking more like its avowed enemy, Iran, than an ally of the United States, with whom it claims to have shared values. In effect, life in Netanyahu’s “Jewish state” amounts to a new kind of Jewish ghetto, which many Israelis are opting to escape.
To be sure, calling Israel a “ghetto” may seem like hyperbole, and of course in some ways it is. However, Israel is now in control of its own fate; it has the tools and resources to defend itself, and the means to establish a nation-state with a bright future shaped by the vision of bold leaders, empowered by a diverse, vibrant democracy. This is the vision of Israel that captured the imagination not only of world Jewry, but also of the country’s friends and allies across the world.
The problem is that the vision that characterized Israel when it was created in 1948 is rapidly disappearing.
Israel today is more isolated than ever in the international arena, with friends and allies dwindling amid rising anti-Semitism. The idea of creative and bold leadership that enhances diversity even within the Jewish community has become, sadly, laughable. Rather than uphold democratic values in shaping a bright future for all its citizens, Israeli leaders are more apt to promote ideologically charged legislation like the recently passed anti-boycott law and pending legislation to investigate the funding of left-wing NGOs. Meanwhile, despite the repeated criticism of the prime minister by over a dozen ex-chiefs of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad, Netanyahu has failed to advance a compelling peace initiative. He and his coalition partners remain obstinate, and alarmingly clueless.
As a result, many Israelis feel caged in a small, increasingly isolated country, surrounded by enemies and led by people more interested in advancing warped ideologies than a secure and prosperous future. The economic conditions today may be bright, but the future looks uncertain and even bleak. It should be no surprise that many Israelis want out.
THE STATISTICS are plentiful, and worrying. Some already estimate the number of Israelis living abroad at nearly one million. A study by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in 2008 indicated more than 30 percent of Israelis had applied for a second passport or intended to do so, but some have put the number as high as 60%.
A 2007 study by Tel Hai Academic College showed that nearly half of teens aged 14-18 want to live elsewhere, with 68% citing Israel’s condition as “not good.” Seventy- eight percent of Israelis recently indicated that they would like the country to become part of the European Union, with 11% saying that with EU citizenship they would move immediately. Already, over 100,000 Israelis have German citizenship, and as many as 7,000 are given new passports each year.
Yet even more troubling is who is leaving. Recently researchers Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin wrote in Foreign Policy that “the Israeli emigrants are deemed to be disproportionately secular, liberal and cosmopolitan.”
Nearly half of Israeli emigrants have university degrees. Meanwhile, the haredi population in Israel, highly dependent on government assistance, has more than tripled in just 20 years.
This is a recipe for economic disaster and democratic atrophy, and secular Israelis know it. Combine these ingredients with the ongoing conflict, and the Netanyahu government’s propensity to ratchet up tensions with Israel’s neighbors rather than defuse them, and it becomes understandable why moderate and educated Israelis can’t bear to continue raising children in such a state.
Whereas the IDF used to serve as a national symbol of solidarity, defending the Jewish homeland from terrorists and enemy states, today it is increasingly viewed with apprehension as an occupying force. At present, fewer educated and secular Israelis are enlisting. Nearly half of military-age Israelis no longer serve in the military.
A 2010 study by Tel Aviv University professor Camille Fuchs showed that 59% of teens do not want to serve in combat units.
IDF statistics show that by 2015, 30% of recruits will be haredi, despite the fact that nearly 15% of militaryage haredi men receive a waiver for IDF service – a testament to the substantial growth of the religious community in Israel. Research last year by the military journal Ma’arachot showed that in 1990 the percentage of combat officers who were religious was just 2.5%. Twenty years later, nearly one-third are religious.
Historically in Israel, the one institution that brought the citizenry together as a cohesive unit was the military.
Sadly, today it is seen by the outside world and a growing number of Israelis as a tool of suppression.
MANY ISRAELIS witnessing these trends rightfully foresee the following: an Israel facing considerable economic challenges caused by brain drain, an exponential rise in religious families receiving government assistance, and continually increasing military expenditures to protect settlers while maintaining a state of military readiness.
Politically the picture is equally bleak: Israel’s future looks more right-wing, less democratic and more isolated.
So what is Netanyahu doing about this? Although this dangerous trend began with his predecessors, he is making the situation considerably worse. On the one hand, he demands that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, while on the other he is adding fuel to the fire of the Jewish exodus by advancing the politics of the ideological and religious Right. As a result, he is actually undermining the country’s Jewish future.
In effect, his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is nothing but a ploy to make up for his own bankrupt policies, which are jeopardizing the country’s future as a safe and secure heaven for all Jewish people. Indeed, the Jewish identity of the state cannot be maintained by Palestinian recognition, but only through a sustainable Jewish majority. As his fellow citizens despair of perpetual conflict and look for any possible way to escape it, Netanyahu is using Israel’s legitimate national security concerns to advance an ideological land grab in the West Bank.
NETANYAHU’S POLICIES are reinforcing the notion of the modern State of Israel as a ghetto. Israel is no longer about serving as the only secure refuge for the Jewish people. After all, as noted above, Israelis today are clamoring to return to Germany and other free countries. Of course, the notion of a refuge was a leading argument for establishing a Jewish state, one that would be a “light unto the nations” and promote a vibrant democracy.
Yet today, that notion of a Jewish state is unfortunately one of exclusion, not inclusion. More than half of Jewish Israelis polled by the Israel Democracy Institute last year stated that the government should be encouraging Israeli Arabs to emigrate, with even more saying that Arab communities should receive fewer resources than Jewish ones. No longer is the Jewish state about a safe, secure and prosperous future for the Jewish people living in a diverse democracy. Gone is the notion of Israel as a nation with a pioneering, democratic spirit.
However, Israel should not be – and is not – resigned to this fate. A new leadership can still change the country’s direction. The current government has already discredited itself. Netanyahu is unlikely to change course and initiate efforts to usher in a future based on a vibrant, educated democracy utilizing the opportunities that would arise from genuine, lasting peace treaties with its neighbors. Under this misguided leadership, Israel is becoming a garrison state, locking itself into religious and ideological extremism, international isolation and a future of perpetual conflict.
Israel could harness the spirit of the evolving region to create a vision for what President Shimon Peres used to call “a new Middle East.” Such policies would offer the kind of future Israeli emigrants are seeking, enabling them to expand their horizons and seek unlimited opportunities throughout the region while anchored in Israel instead of leaving it behind.
The writer is adjunct professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.