Israel today marks the 50th anniversary of its independence and half a century of remarkable achievements, the first of which was withstanding invasion by five Arab states just hours after it was born. The cost of survival in that war and in the conflicts that followed has been high. Israeli cemeteries hold the graves of nearly 19,000 soldiers killed since 1948, as well as hundreds of civilian victims of terrorist bombings and cross-border attacks. These sacrifices have helped Israel win a large measure of strategic security. But they have not yet brought the acceptance by its neighbors that Israel has always craved.
A snapshot of Israel at its jubilee shows a nation vastly different from what many of its founders dreamed of and what most of its ill-wishers would have been able to imagine. Israel now counts nearly 6 million citizens, about 20% of them Arabs or other non-Jews. Its gross domestic product exceeds $90 billion and its per capita GDP of $17,000 gives it a living standard equal to that of many European Union members. Among its notable accomplishments has been the ingathering and absorption of successive waves of immigrants, most recently thousands from Ethiopia and more than 700,000 from Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. In the vast area stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan, Israel remains the only functioning democracy.
The diversity that has defined Israel from its inception has never been free of frictions. Class and communal tensions continue to agitate Israeli society. Antagonism between the secular majority and the politically powerful ultrareligious minority has become especially bitter; one recent opinion poll found Israelis more worried about this rift than about conflict with the Arabs.
Despite rising wealth, many Israelis remain mired in poverty and woefully underserved by their government. This is especially apparent among Israel’s Arab citizens and its Jews of non-European origin. Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasts, is rapidly becoming “one of the two or three most advanced technological societies on Earth.” That may be true. But--as in the United States--enormous technological innovation and increasing national prosperity do not by themselves assure universal advancement.
Israel’s notoriously fragmented politics mirrors the conflicting interests of its diverse constituencies. Its system of proportional representation assures a place in parliament for any party that can attract as little as 1.5% of the national vote. As a consequence, 13 parties currently sit in the 120-member Knesset. The result has been a steady series of coalition governments, most of which have been forced to cede inordinate power to small special interests, usually the religious parties. The sense of national purpose that held Israelis together in their years of greatest adversity has eroded. Philosopher and rabbi David Hartman worries about “a society that has lost sight of where it is going.” What he sees in today’s Israel is “an apathy, an inner paralysis.” We are, he says, “tired of listening to people screaming at each other.”
If anything in Israel’s near future can be safely predicted, it is that the arguments will go on, growing more raucous as the time approaches when final decisions must be made on partitioning the West Bank as a prelude to a formal peace with the Palestinians. A strong majority of Israelis continues to support the necessity of making peace based on territorial compromise. Reaching that goal will require the kind of determined leadership and moral self-confidence shown by Israel’s visionary founders when, against all odds, they wrote the ineradicable opening chapters in what would become a thriving, vibrant and courageous national success story.