As Israel approaches 60

Does the political echelon really think the patience of the people is inexhaustible?

60th Anniversary 224 (photo credit: Government Press Office)
60th Anniversary 224
(photo credit: Government Press Office)
As Israel approaches the 60th anniversary of its independence, many people will be asking themselves how long things can carry on the way they are. One could be forgiven for thinking that this question is addressed to our physical survival. We are told that a nuclear Iran lies just around the corner. Only last week I received a wordy and poorly produced booklet from the IDF's Home Front Command telling us how to prepare our homes for the next rocket attack. And now we are told that Osama bin Laden has reaffirmed his intention to destroy the Jewish state. All of this, of course, is cause enough for concern. However, our understandable obsession with the external threats to our physical survival perhaps blinds us to the malaise within Israeli society that could just as easily destroy us from within. AS ISRAEL approaches 60, there are a number of major challenges to our internal cohesion that could cause the Zionist enterprise to fall apart at the seams. • There is a limit to the number of yeshiva and kollel students that the taxpayer will be prepared to carry. The high birthrate among haredi families will inevitably lead to larger and larger numbers of yeshiva students, who will not go out to work but be dependent upon the public purse for their welfare. Compare their lot with that of Israel's university students, most of whom, having served their country through military conscription, are then required to pay tuition fees and support themselves while they make their way through college. One day such blatant discrimination and unfairness must end. One day the patience of those who put their lives on the line in defense of this country and pay the taxes that support the welfare state will be exhausted. • How long can a modern, democratic state tolerate an electoral system that fosters sectarian parties, makes it impossible to form a government without coalition horse-trading and gives minority groups, including the Orthodox parties, political clout out of all proportion to their numbers? It is as a result of this absurd state of affairs that a liberal-minded minister of education, Yuli Tamir, finds herself opposing attempts through the Supreme Court to force ultra-Orthodox schools to adopt a core curriculum as a condition for receiving state funding. • An ever-increasing number of young Israelis are seeking exemption from military service. Today it is not only ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who avoid playing their part in defending their country. More and more young people are finding ways of absconding. In a post-Zionist Israel, following the forced evacuation of Jews from Gush Katif and the disaster of the Second Lebanon War, the national consensus has been broken. Enlisting for military service can no longer be taken for granted. The inevitable consequences in terms of the cohesion of Israeli society are only just beginning to be discussed. • For reasons that are a product of the evolution of Israel's political system, this country has never had a strong, fully-fledged socialist party to look after the interests of the poor and the sick. The growing gulf between rich and poor has turned Israel into a country of haves and have-nots. One day the have-nots are going to demand their fair share of the cake. • Back in the early days of the Jewish state, the Orthodox religious establishment was granted a monopoly over the registration of Jewish marriages and divorces. As long as most Israelis fitted into their halachic box defining who was to be considered a Jew, the system was sustainable. The massive immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s, bringing with it hundreds of thousands of new citizens who were not halachically Jewish, has broken the mold. Repeated attempts by successive governments to encourage the Orthodox rabbinate to be more ready to accept converts have failed. One wonders how long many young Israelis will be prepared to serve in the IDF and put their lives at risk in defense of the state only to be forced to go abroad when they want to get married. What other democratic country denies the right of marriage to its citizens? • All of the above relates specifically to the Jewish segment of Israeli society. However, what is to become of Israel's Arabs, who make up 20% of the population? We demand that they be loyal citizens of the state, but they face discrimination when applying for jobs and seeking to become fully integrated in our society. The reasons that lie behind such prejudice are understandable given the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the fracture between Israel's Jews and Arabs is just one more element that contributes to the sense of disharmony with which we live. CAN ISRAEL survive given the high level of dissonance and discord that are features of our lives? Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz once said that the only thing we all shared in common was that when we went to war, we all sat in the same tank. As the number of dissenters and absconders rises, even that becomes less and less true. The real question is whether Israel can find the political leadership with the courage and ability to address and resolve these major issues. After all, it is much easier to stick one's head in the sand in the hope that it will all go away, or subscribe to the mistaken belief that people's patience is inexhaustible, than to take the bull by the horns and suffer the political consequences. However, at 60 it is time we took a good look at ourselves and drew the necessary conclusions that are as much a prerequisite for our survival as the government's defense plans to protect us from our enemies. The writer, a Reform rabbi, made aliya in 1985. His son, Yonatan, was killed while on active service in Lebanon.