September 3, 2014 Leave a comment
A while back I was asked to give a presentation on matters Israel at a Zionist Federation gathering of young activists. Nothing specific, just whatever I wanted to say. I figure that if I could only get one message out to folks today on any side of the debate, it would be this: Zionists should be very happy. I say this because the Zionist project has been successful and happens to be stronger than ever.
Let me explain, briefly.
Far too often, I have suffered in gatherings of Jews and others in the pro-Israel community where the mood has been like it probably was at the Alamo or the Winter Palace just before the Lenin stormed in. Many feel we are being slaughtered on the ideological battlefield by the pro-Palestinian camp. There is a perception that Israel’s very survival is tenuous. Plagued by economic worries, demographic challenges, and a supposedly increasing diplomatic isolation, they openly wonder whether Zionism’s time has passed. The enemy makes every effort to play on these fears.
Some pine for a time they believe to have been more heroic and optimistic for the Jews and the Zionist movement. I recently had one lady list all the usual woes to me before saying how she wished she could instead be fighting with the Irgun in 1948. I could not believe somebody would wish to trade the problems of today with the problems of 1948, when the Jewish state’s chances of surviving the year were put at 50:50 by members of Ben Gurion’s own Cabinet.
I recommend taking a step back to assess the economic, demographic, and diplomatic fears. I am confident that seeing the big picture here will ingrain some much-needed optimism. A few words on the general prospects for Zionism are also in order.
One of the best tests of Zionism’s success is simply to ask whether Israel is a good place to live. By all conventional measures, it is, and there is no need to re-hash all the factors that make it so. The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is close upon us, though, and this provides us with a good opportunity for reflection. The land of Israel was in a noticeably unpromising state at this time. In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, there was not a single motor car in the country. This was while Detroit was producing thousands a day. By the time the Balfour Declaration came about, there was not a single Jewish lawyer to be seen (imagine a country without Jewish lawyers!). Today, Israel ‘boasts’ the highest per capita number of lawyers in the world. Neither was the situation good for a long time after independence. Israel’s status as an economic basket case was so well known that Milton Friedman said it destroyed the reputation of Jews as bad soldiers but good economic managers. A popular joke went that the best way to end up with a million dollars in Israel was to go there with two million. Adherence to a kind of paternalist socialism, all the rage throughout the world at the time, kept the country like this for decades. In the 1990’s things began to change utterly under the direction of Benjamin Netanyahu, who fancied himself as Israel’s Ronald Reagan or Thatcher. And thanks to that agenda, Israel is in the OECD and boasts a per capita GDP of $32,567. That looks average by the standards of western Europe, but a damn sight better than Israel’s neighbours. There are no signs of this heading south, and every sign of it heading up.
This is a major existential issue but one many refuse to even talk about. Every Israeli knows and is haunted by the words of Arafat on the subject, when he said the womb of the Arab woman was his best weapon. But the big story here should really be that there is no story. The war of the wombs is going in Israel’s favour. The Jewish and Arab fertility gap, once considerable, has closed to 0.7 births per woman. The proportion of Jewish births in Israel today is significantly higher than it was in 1995: 69% vs. 75%. Most interestingly, the non-Haredi Jewish woman in Israel has a fertility rate of 2.6 – the highest in the western world – whereas a generation ago it stood at 2.1. The Arab birthrate has been falling slightly, with the Jewish one rising. By 2085, there will be more Israelis than Poles. But Poland’s median age will be 57, while Israel’s will be a far more healthy 32. Israel will have more young people than Italy or Spain, and will have more males of military age than Germany by the end of the century. There could be no greater win for the Zionist project. Indeed, Israel might be the only western country around without a death wish. Hebrew, a language formerly confined to the prayerbook and religious study, currently has more speakers than Danish, though Denmark has had quite a headstart on the modern state of Israel. There are in fact more speakers of Hebrew today than there were of English in the time of Shakespeare.