Israel: And Now for the Good News…
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University
Anyone following the news might think that Israel is the most dangerous place on Earth – and that it is a country torn by constant political and social strife. In fact, based on the media, one might wonder how it exists at all!
I don’t have any pretensions to definitively clear up this distorted perception but rather wish to offer parts of a picture that one hardly ever sees or reads about in the news (foreign or Israeli), mainly because the media do not deal with “good news” (and all of us are partly at fault – imagine our response to a newspaper that reported mostly good news…). Moreover, the media are not geared to offering a long-term perspective on matters of state – what happened 2 days ago (not to mention 2 years ago; forget about 2 decades ago!) is alta zakhen. But “good news” and “bad news” is a contextual matter – the real question is in which direction is the trend going, and how do things compare with the way they were in the past?
This is not merely an academic exercise but rather has important consequences. For example, if overseas Jews get the feeling that Israel is a basket case of bombs and internal turmoil, this will impact immigration into the country. If Gentiles get the same impression, that will influence for the worse their willingness to support Israel; people tend not to want to be on the side of a “loser”. Not to mention Israel’s enemies who have the impression that Israel will ultimate collapse of its own weighty problems – and thus these opponents have no incentive to compromise with Israel and end the conflict.
1) Ethnic Tensions
As a result of historical injustices, perceived and real, the Jews from Arab countries suffered greatly in their absorption process after the state’s establishment. By the 1970s a severe backlash ensued with second generation “Black Panthers” rioting in the streets of Jerusalem (and other slum areas). By the early 1980s, Israel was rife with election strife around this social issue, leading to the rise of the TAMI party and later SHAS.
Today, while perfect equality has not been achieved, there is little (if any) strife at all. Progress has been very impressive. On the political and public front, to name but a few high level positions, Israel has had 2 Mizrahi Presidents of the State (Navon, Katzav); a Speaker of Knesset (Itzik); 3 Chiefs of Staff (Levi, Mofaz, Ashkenazi); major businessmen (Gaon, Tshuva). Moreover, huge numbers of Mizrahim are highly prominent in the entertainment field, while there has been a significant narrowing of the higher education and income gap in society between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim.
2) Macro-Economic Policy
Unprofessional economic policy and poor decision-making under both Labor and Likud governments led to a complete banking system collapse in the early 1980s and subsequent hyper-inflation. At that point (1984), the newly elected National Unity Government with PM Peres and Finance Minister Moda’i at the head, called in the academics to try their hand at saving the country, and in 1985 the New Economic Program was promulgated under the leadership of Prof. Michael Bruno.
“Miraculously”, inflation was stopped cold in its tracks – and ever since, the “Finance Ministry Youth” have run Israel’s economy in practice, with spectacular results. This responsible macro-economic policymaking laid the foundation for overseas investment in Israel that in turn contributed to the high-tech miracle (“Silicon Wadi”) as a result of massive foreign investment. Obviously, Israel is not immune to the vicissitudes of the world economy, but it now is able to weather such storms without asking for emergency aid from Uncle Sam and other world institutions – indeed, lately the shekel has been stronger than the dollar!
Israel‘s early quasi-socialist, highly centralized approach to governance ultimately led to a huge, sclerotic bureaucracy. One example among all too many: by the 1970s, the average wait for a phone line was 2-3 YEARS!
Starting in the 1980s, Israelis decided to take matters into their own hands in what I have called the phenomenon of “alter-politics” – the quasi-legal and occasionally illegal establishment of alternative “social services” by the citizenry itself: Black Health (paying for medical attention in hospitals after hours), Black Dollar (illegal foreign currency transactions), Underground Economy (circumventing tax payments for services rendered), Gray Education (in-school, after hours, “private” classes), Pirate Cable TV (neighborhood wires strung from apartment to apartment for video movie viewing) and Pirate Radio (by the 1990s over 150 stations!), private “public transportation khappers” plying the same routes as the always-late buses, etc etc.
All this eventually forced the government into massive reform of the system (parallel to improving “macro-economic” policy), along the lines of decentralization and privatization. Today, citizens can get their blood test results on the internet, in a top notch health system (Obama Administration, take note); no one goes to the bank anymore (total online banking); one can get as many landline and cell phone numbers as one wants with much better reception than in the U.S.; Israelis can renew their driver’s license thru the internet; there has been an explosion of colleges (63 institutions of higher learning in a country of merely 7 million souls!); over a dozen licensed, regional radio stations are broadcasting; ditto regarding a plethora of cable & commercial TV stations. It’s a completely different, and radically improved, social service landscape.
Despite the “myth” of female kibbutz equality, Israel has always been a very macho society (Golda Meir was a fluke – a “temporary” compromise candidate between two young males, Yigal Allon and Shimon Peres, on whom the party elders could not decide). Women had very little influence de facto and were not found in any important public positions. Today? True, because of the centrality of Israel’s army (and general security problems) the country remains male-“oriented” to a certain extent, BUT…
Women now serve in 90% of all army jobs (including fighter pilots); Israeli women receive 60% of all BAs and 50% of university PhDs; the country has enacted strong sexual harassment laws with heavy penalties (see: President Katzav and former army General Yitzchak Mordechai!); women by law cannot be fired if pregnant, and receive 3 months of paid maternity leave (with a guaranteed return to their job); there are a growing number of women mayors (e.g. Netanya, Herzliya) as well as women holding high level government positions (today’s Leader of the Opposition; the recent Speaker of the Knesset); they have even made impressive inroads in corporate Israel (e.g. CEO of Bank Leumi, the #2 bank in Israel, not to mention the owner of #1 Bank Ha’poalim)!
5) International Hasbarah
Because of the too close government / national-media relationship over the years as well as for other cultural reasons, Israel had almost non-existent overseas public relations, as government officials tended to believe that overseas media would print/publish whatever it sent them. The situation today has changed radically for the following reasons: a- the coming to power of a more media-sophisticated political leadership understanding the power of image and images; b- the clear, steady erosion of international support for Israel; c- a huge expansion of Mass Communication programs in the country’s universities and colleges – forming the core of a more media savvy public service corps.
The recent Gaza campaign is illustrative of this turnaround: Foreign Ministry emissaries were sent all over the world before the outbreak of hostilities to explain why and for what; the army now devotes significant ancillary resources to its media campaign (e.g. drones filming Hamas shooting from citizen’s homes to prove the enemy’s immoral war tactics, and immediately uploading such video evidence to YouTube); Israel’s Foreign Ministry updating the news media every few hours (not days), all the while responding immediately to the other side’s “accusations” of army “atrocities”.
Let there be no mistake: Israel is still far from being a social, political and economic “utopia”. Problems abound, and will not be eliminated for a long time to come. However, it is important to understand that despite massive security concerns, Israeli society has successfully dealt with, and in many cases successfully resolved, many of its original flaws and serious problems. With a clear conscience, I can honestly say about the State of Israel on her 61st birthday: “you’ve come a long way baby”!
April 27, 2009