If the behaviour of Israeli drivers and ‘plane passengers indicates anything about the population at large, it is that Israelis are not natural followers of rules. Which is interesting, given that the ‘rules’ of behaviour in Judaism cover every moment of the day from waking until sleeping and affect (though do not dominate) what and how a person should think as well as what a person should and should not do.
Perhaps it is precisely because of the religious rules, (whether everyone follows them or not) that anything that does not fall in that category is subject to the question – ‘why?’ and to the attitude that the rules do not apply to me. Or that there are rules, but that those rules are intended to provide a general framework, but they are not meant to apply automatically to me or to any particular instance or person, unless a specific case can be made out to show that they do.
And perhaps it is because Jews have been negotiating with G-d since Abraham’s plea on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, that they know every side of an argument and how to make it.
Any statements made to describe Israel today and to explain how Israel came to be as it is, are bound to be the subject of debate.
Israel is a multi-faceted country but it is surely fair to say that it is a country out of which one cannot pluck the religious aspect. This is true for those Jews who are not observant, and one suspects, even for those who claim to wish to be rid of the whole edifice of Judaism. One of the supports for the position of non-observant Jews is a poll that was carried out by a leading neswspaper in Israel some eight years ago. The results of that poll showed that people who were not observant in their daily lives wanted a religious dimension for the seminal events of life – birth, marriage, death, and the most holy of days – Yom Kippur.
Religious observanceEconomic realities and social justice
But perhaps aspects of social and economic life can be looked at and their origins pried from history, and many have been disturbed by some of the statistics concerning poverty in Israel. One wonders how and why this situation arose.
A look at some of the statistics will tell us something about Israel today.
The Gini Index measures how skewed a country is in terms of who ‘has’ and who ‘has-not’ in terms of income. A figure of 0 means the country enjoys total equality of earnings and a figure of 100 means a country suffers from total inequality of earnings – neither of which can be found in the real world.
The limits of the real-world figures are between 20 and 70. A figure of 70 would reflect a substantial number of ‘haves’ and a substantial number of ‘have-nots’ and a big gap in the standard of living between the two groups.
The Scandinavian countries have Gini figures of around 25. The South American countries have figures in the 55 to 60 range, and the majority of the countries of Africa have figures in the 60 to 70 range. The U.S. has a Gini figure of 41. The U.K. has a figure of 36, which figure is typical for Western Europe. The Gini figure for Israel is 39.2.
So on the face of those figures, Israel is not doing too badly, particularly bearing in mind how young a country it is.
A very small number of ‘haves’ and a large number of ‘have-nots’ would however still produce quite a low Gini figure, so of itself, the Gini figure can mask a country of a few wealthy people and a mass of much poorer people.
And that is precisely the allegation that is made about the trend in Israeli society from its socialist syndicalist utopian origins to the country it is today. Instead of that utopia it is said by some to be controlled lock, stock and barrel by a very, very few. A few who control assets of such dimensions that the merchant navy did not approach the shores of Northern Israel during the 2006 Lebanon conflict because that navy is owned by one small group, who did not want to expose their assets to damage.
The gap between the rich and the poor in Israel has increased by nearly a quarter in the last twenty years and Israel now has the second-worst level of inequality â€• in terms of income, property, capital, education and spending â€• in the Western world. The wealthiest 10% of Israelis own nearly three quarters of the country’s private capital, and earn more than 12 times as much as the poorest 10%.
The State is sixty years old, and has to meet huge demands from the increase in its population. It has to maintain a war-readiness and has had to do so throughout its history. But this does not serve to explain in terms that satisfy, the inequality from which Israeli society suffers.
According to The Ministry of Social Affairs, about one in five of Israelâ€™s population lives under the poverty line â€• defined as a $900 monthly income for a family of four, with food and cost of living in Israel comparable to costs in the U.S.A.
Further, one in three of Israel’s children live in poverty, an increase of 20 percent in the last five years. And one in eight children suffer from malnutrition.
The background – the origins of the modern State of Israel
Jewish nationalism and the will to realise a Jewish homeland, arose in the late 1800s. It arose among Jews in Europe at a time that similar feelings of national self-determination arose in the populations of countries in Europe and further abroad.
When the vision of Zionism was created in the late 1800s, it was not inspired by the Biblical prophets, nor by a religious vision – at least no beyond the attachment of Jews to the particular land that was theirs before the expulsion in 70CE. The strongest proponents of Zionism (a term that was iteself created in the late 1800s) had a secular vision, and as it matured and emerged into the 20th century that vision developed more than one strand.
The Zionist dream was of a homeland for the Jews. The socialist dream was of a country founded on a network of cooperating communities, and nationhood was not its principal aim; for in accordance with socialist principles, that State would fall away and wither with the coming of active socialism. The Revisionist Zionist dream that emerged in the 1920s was of a State, defended as a State.
In terms of numbers, and the role it played in the identity and values of the people, the greatest dream was the socialist dream. That dream was to found a society that did not simply support social justice and social harmony but which was just through to its core.
That identity would be forged by the pride of men and women making the new homeland through their own physical efforts. They did not want to be middlemen. They did not want to win in the game of acquiring wealth at the expense of others or of living life off the backs of others.
They were motivated by a desire to distance themselves from the ‘old’ Jewish identity. To them, that old identity existed in Eastern Europe, and was ghetto-ized, suspicious, inward-looking, looking back into history, and removed from the land.
The new identity would be forged in working the land, and it would be inclusive, socialist, and forward-looking.
As history played out in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jews who wanted to immigrate would make ties with a local political party or with an organization with ties to a political party in their various counties of origin. In the nature of political parties, they would have an agenda, and aspirations in regard to the society they sought to found. The immigrant tied himself to the agenda and ideals of the party and his immigration would be supported financially by the party. His first stop on arriving at Haifa, would usually be local party headquarters.
The kibbutz movement is a well-known face of the wider socialist movement.
The later immigrants who came in the 1930s and all the way through to the fateful date of October 1941 when Germany closed its doors to Jewish emigration, came to escape, but is not so obvious that they had clear ideals of what they expected or wanted Jewish society to be in British-Mandate Palestine.
So when the Second World War ended and the 1947 UN declaration to found the State of Israel was made, the model of the organization and values of the future society was already well established. It was a socialist enterprise. It did not embrace religious Judaism, and the religious groups had to fight for influence in the new society. An uneasy truce ensued.
When the State became a reality in 1948, it was already established along socialist principles that dug deep into the psyche of the population.
And so when Israel faced attacks from neighboring countries in 1948, it was a rude awakening for many who expected they would build a new society without the added problem of defending their very existence.
What the body of the Jewish population did not grasp or did not want to grasp was that there was an Arab population living in the land that was also feeling the awakening of nationalist feelings. Nothing less than self-government would do for them. At the same time, the surrounding countries had a vision of a greater pan-Arab region, and the sliver of land that comprised a newly formed Jewish country physically dividing and splitting the region east from west, stood in the way of that vision.
The State of Israel was attacked as soon as it was established. At the end of the conflict, the Arabs had fled or left or gone – to integrate into other societies or to refugee camps.
There are arguments about how many Arabs were within the borders of the new State of Israel at the start of the 1948 war, and how many fled (and why) when the 1948 war erupted; and how long those Arabs had been living where they were before they fled. And there are arguments about who those Arabs were and are. There are arguments about what makes a Palestinian, and whether they have any characteristics that distinguish them from other Arabs in the region at large.
Facts and numbers have been put forward and in turn they have been attacked and discredited. Each side is accused of having its agenda in promoting its calculation of the correct figures.
All of which paled into insignificance with the outcome of the 1967 war. At the end of that war, Israel had made territorial gains it never expected to make. Within that territory were somewhere between one and a half and two and a half million Palestinians, and suddenly Israel was an occupying power.
Israel, land of the Jews; land of the people who had been dispossessed of their land for two thousand years. Israel, land of the people who had been subjected to scorn, discrimination, segregation, and organized murder on an immense scale. What were they going to do about the Palestinians over whom they now had the power to respect or to scorn; to embrace or discriminate against; to form a society with or to keep apart; to work with or to fight?
And with the best of intentions, how could years of distrust between the two groups be quieted?
Israel was founded in the main by ‘Western’ Jews. Jews from the ‘East’ arrived when they were expelled from the Arab countries in which they lived, following the 1948 war and the 1956 Suez debacle. For twenty or thirty years they squeezed themselves into a society that did not seem to value their culture or their expertise, but which demanded of them allegiance to a socialist ideal that was as far removed from their cultural knowledge and experience as can be imagined.
The Labour parties won victory after victory in the first thirty years of the existence of the State. And then in 1977 the center-right party won the national elections based upon the support of the ‘Eastern’ Jews. Then began the dismantling of the socialist machine.
These two major events – the Palestinians within the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and the revolution in the nature of society from socialist to free market – have transformed Israel in the last thirty years.
Social change and the rise of capitalism
Time after time I have heard people complain of the disintegration of the best aspects of Israeli society. It is clear that the world at large is changing and has been changing since communism, as the major opposition to capitalism and nationalism, bit the dust.
Of course it was bound to happen – instead of ‘the workers’ suffering increasingly under capitalism, everyone has benefited from the general upward trend in standards of living. Against this reality, the threat to communism was too great and it fell apart from within.
There may be more widespread poverty in Israel now than under the regimes of thirty years ago, but the State as a whole is immeasurably richer, and the burgeoning middle class is evident everywhere. And money and the availability of the good things of life have a greater effect on the national psyche than perhaps anything else. Without the oppositional pull of increased religiosity in Israel today, there would be very little to distinguish the slide into a bourgeois lifestyle that typifies most if not all countries in the developed world.
And Israel is part of the developed world, or is described as such. Which in itself is simply amazing considering that the State came into being sixty years ago and has fought three hot wars in that time and been subject to security issues for almost all of its existence.
The list of inventions and developments that come out of Israel is without parallel. As someone once remarked to me, Israel is like the Tardis – Dr Who’s time machine. From the outside it is a very small country; and yet endless supermarkets in Europe and the U.S.A. sell fruit and vegetables produced in Israel.
Looking at the amount of new building construction in Israel, it is clear that there is an enormous amount of creative and practical energy at work. Looking at the buildings that were erected in the past decades, one can see with some humour and some sadness, the love of plazas and monoliths that echoed ‘soviet style’ aspirations. The building works today are of a different order. They are architecturally innovative and of high quality, even judged on the world’s stage.
So what has been lost and what gained in the past thirty years? Has Israeli society been hijacked and derailed? Has the hope and dream of a society that was to have been above all, supremely just, faded in the face of capitalism? With its historical and religious ties to the ideal of social justice, what does the spectre of an increase in poverty for some and some only mean? And the answer is that what it means is that it hurts. And something should be done, for the sake of all.