Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig – What Israel Doesn’t Have (Thank God)
Whenever you think about “current events”, it’s (almost) always about what’s in the news or something that is occurring nearby. But some of the most important aspects of life involve things that don’t happen. Israel today is an interesting case in point.
Democratic politics around the world has become “crazy”: Trump’s astounding victory, the Brexit vote, Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism, Europe’s frightening rise of xenophobia – and that’s just a partial list. The common denominator is not what previous “crazy” eras (1920s-1930s) were all about – economics. Rather, it is mainly a function of too rapid technological, social, and cultural change, with a large part of the public at a loss to deal with it (or demonstratively against such change: feminism, homosexuality, massive immigration, outsourcing jobs, etc). Worse still: the political world seems to be equally impotent in the face of the “old world coming to an end”.
That’s the foundation of the recent rise of populism and populist leaders who promise to “drain the swamp”, “bring back the good old days”, “throw the bums out”, “retain our historical culture (read: color)”, and so on.
So why isn’t any of this happening in Israel? Anyone who has lived here for at least a decade or two knows full well how far and fast this country has also changed drastically – not just physically (skyscrapers, freeways, modern trains) but also socio-culturally (homosexuals openly accepted in the army and politics; tens of thousands of Asiatic construction and agricultural workers; women making huge advances, e.g. most Israeli bank CEOs are women, as were three political party leaders in the 2013 elections). To be sure, there has been some anti-immigrant sentiment (regarding those fleeing northern Africa strife); and racism (against Ethiopian Jews and Palestinian Arabs) has not been eradicated. But outright, widespread populism a la Trump and LePen, et al? Not much of that going on here. Why?
There are two possible reasons – not mutually exclusive. First, Israel continues to suffer from existential threats (Iran, Hizbollah, Hamas), so that “playing around” with populism that “promises”/threatens to tear down the system and rebuild it with something else is a risk too great for Israelis – certainly at this juncture of the country’s still-vulnerable situation.
Second, one would never know this from the Israeli media, but the majority of Israelis are quite happy with their lives – as every annual poll survey has found over the past several years (the country also ranks quite high on the international “Happiness Index”: 12th place out of 156 countries surveyed!). Israelis might be unhappy with this or that political policy or party, and don’t hide that fact (after all, Jews love to complain – it’s in our cultural heritage: stiff-necked people), but we are quite satisfied overall with the way things are going. So why rock the boat – or risk sinking it for a “better yacht”?
At one time or another, everyone in Israel proudly says “what a crazy country we live in!” True – but compared to what’s going on with some of our friends and allies overseas, we’re not that crazy…