Terra incognita: Fear and myths are harming Israel

The narrative of “young” and “encircled” also feeds the view that Israel is a temporary state. Despite almost 70 years of existence many seem to question Israel’s future.

IDF vehicle drives along Gaza border fence [file] (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF vehicle drives along Gaza border fence [file]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Anyone discussing Israel for long enough will eventually come across a conversation like this: “Everything is so expensive in Israel, why am I paying three times what Europeans pay for olive oil?” The response: “Israel is a young state and has been under siege since its inception; surrounded by enemies, prices simply can’t be a priority.”
This mentality of Israel, the “young” state, always “under siege” or surrounded by enemies baying for its blood, is a common motif.
It is also a narrative that feeds not only into fear-mongering and excuses for failings, but has also has led to increasing numbers of people leaving the country and calling into question its permanence.
Let’s start with one of the most historically naive myths, namely that Israel is a “young” or “new” country.
This is often trotted out when people point out a societal failing, from high taxes to the seeming unsolvability of the Beduin issue in the Negev to inability to control illegal fencing at the Sea of Galilee. The theory is that because Israel was “just founded,” it can’t possibly come to grips with many social problems.
But it isn’t a young state. Almost every country in the world is living in a more recent political system.
Israel has a long track record of stable democracy by contrast.
Putin’s Russia may technically be an old country, but its modern manifestation has undergone massive upheaval since Israel was born. Most Middle Eastern states, even if they are part of an ancient civilization like Egypt, have undergone several regime changes since the birth of Israel. All of Africa was decolonized after Israel achieved independence. Eastern Europe emerged from the clutches of Soviet imperialism only in the 1990s.
There is nothing particularly “young” about Israel, and so this should never be an excuse for why, for instance, everything costs so much. After all, if at each problem one faces one throws up their hands and says, “The state is young, this can’t be fixed,” it will never be fixed.
When will the “young” myth end? When Israel is 100 years old? 150? Another story told about Israel is that it is “encircled by enemies,” which was the headline of a piece in the Economist in 2011 and which appears in almost every new book about Israel, and in many articles.
Most of Israel’s enemies are themselves surrounded by enemies. Lebanon was occupied by Syria. Syria has fallen apart. Jordan is jittery over ISIS.
Iran is surrounded by threats (even as it threatens others). Israel isn’t in a worse position than Armenia or Taiwan.
Singapore was born in a hostile neighborhood, up against a Malaysian bully that sought to control it.
Often being surrounded by enemies makes countries stronger and more innovative and can be an asset.
Since the 1970s two of Israel’s enemies have signed peace deals with it, and other implacable foes, such as Saudi Arabia, have shown willingness to work with it. Yet the narrative of embattled Israel, barely surviving against implacable foes, continues unabated, when all logic points to the fact that it is the strongest military in the region, has among the highest GDP and to the fact that almost everywhere in its neighborhood, states have disintegrated. Threats should be put in perspective; Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS are threats, but not comparable to Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s.
The narrative of “young” and “encircled” also feeds the view that Israel is a temporary state. Despite almost 70 years of existence many seem to question Israel’s future.
This is especially true among the old elites on the Left. Those like Ari Shavit write about Jerusalem “being lost” because there are too many haredi and Arab children in grade schools. A recent interview with former Meretz leader Haim Oron touched on this subject, when he asked the interviewer, “What you’re actually saying is ‘let’s start looking for foreign passports.’” Avirama Golan, another stalwart of the Left, wrote on July 23, “Many among you [our children] have already managed to find yourselves a foreign passport.”
Roger Alpher went further in an op-ed on August 31, saying he was “leaving my homeland” because Israel gave him a bad deal and that “missiles will continue to fall.”
The “foreign passport” crowd in Israel is a large one. Too many of the descendants of Israel’s founding generation have gone abroad, and many of the children of prominent politicians, even former prime ministers and generals, have also left. In other countries do the children of the elites mostly move abroad, and do major newspapers have frequent op-eds about obtaining foreign passports? These are signs of a feeling the country is temporary and has failed.
One of the basic tenets of Zionism is that it sought to make a Jewish state like other states so that the Jews would be similar to other peoples, such as the Irish or Japanese. The problem is that the self-perception of Israel, on the Right and Left, is that it is temporary, has just been born yesterday and is fighting a never-ending war with its neighbors. The reality is far from that. Whatever troubles Israel faces with Hezbollah, the neighbor that hosts Hezbollah has far more.
Israel is in a far better position than its neighbors.
Yes, Israel is less stable than Europe – but it is doing fine compared to the former Soviet Republics, and better than many countries in Asia and Africa. It hasn’t faced the turmoil faced by much of Central and South America. The myth of “barely surviving” and “we can’t accomplish X and Y because we are surrounded and young” is feeding a frenzy of fear mongering and failure-excusing that does the country no good.
Follow the author @sfrantzman