This month Israelis are celebrating 73 years of independence. As a politically left leaning citizen of Israel, I often find myself criticizing Israel’s government, policies and society. I do so not because I am a traitor or a self-hating Jew, but because I love this country and I believe that we can do so much better. While I continue to be frustrated by our polarized political system, racism towards Arab citizens of Israel, lack of social and economic justice and equality for women, LGBTQ, Ethiopians and other minority communities, the denial of Palestinian self-determination, and the control which wealth and business have over our society and especially over the future of our environment, on Israel’s Independence Day, I want to also acknowledge some of the things about my country of which I am really proud.
It is no coincidence that Israel may be the first country in the world to reach herd immunity due to its aggressive vaccination campaign. This achievement is not only a result of a Prime Minister who was determined to bring home a win for his embattled government and his own political career but also due to the phenomenal system of socialized medicine, founded by the socialist parties which led the country for its first 30 years. Israel’s universal medical coverage of all Israeli citizens regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnic background, or geographic location combined with the digitalized medical records made Israel the perfect testing ground for a widespread vaccination program. Israel not only paid a large amount of money for the vaccinations but enticed the vaccine providers with medical data on each person who received the vaccinations. I am proud that we have a socialized medical system that even in non-pandemic times provides good medical care to all of our citizens at a reasonable cost. I am not proud that we have done so little to help the Palestinians to get vaccinated. We should see this as our responsibility both from a moral point of view but also in terms of our own self-interest.
We just went through our fourth election in two years. Not being able to form a stable government to govern the country is nothing to be proud of but the fact that we have not had a stable government in two years and yet our democracy has not completely fallen apart is perhaps something of which to be proud. Other countries under similar circumstance might have already suffered a military coup or disintegration into warring enclaves. It is somewhat of a paradox that Israel’s democracy is both dysfunctional and resilient. What struck me most about the elections this time around was the effort being made to make sure that everyone could vote. While we watched in dismay as States across the US passed laws or attempted to pass laws intended to disenfranchise minority voters, in Israel an incredible effort was being made to make sure that people with COVID-19, people under quarantine, and bedridden citizens had access to voting. Special vehicles were arranged to bring people with COVID-19 to the polling stations. I am not saying that voter suppression has not happened in the past and may have taken place this round as well but the government is not systematically trying to deny people access to voting. The opposite is true. With a quaint low-tech non-computerized system of white slips of paper, envelopes and ballot boxes, Israel has managed to run relatively scandal-free, fraudless, free national elections 24 times (4 in the last two years), with a turnout of between 64% to 79% in the last 20 years.
Israelis believe in science. It is true that many Israelis also have a strong faith in a supreme being, and many follow religious traditions which sometimes go against scientific recommendations but few Israelis deny the validity of scientific facts. Even religious leaders often acknowledge the need to bend religious rules to take into consideration science and especially health recommendations based on science. No one in Israel, certainly no one in government, denies that climate change is a real thing. Some are more concerned than others about the impact of climate change on our natural resources and on our ecosystems. There are those who think that climate change is a global problem, not an Israeli problem or that kicking the can down the road to the next generation is a reasonable strategy. In general, however, Israelis care about nature. We love to hike; we love to see the spring wild flowers (which we have learned not to pick); and we love the parks, beaches, rivers and lakes (though we have not yet learned not to litter). So when scientists tell us these things are under threat, Israelis tend to listen and often take action.
Israelis are, relatively speaking, conformists. While some of us can be avant-garde, strike out on our own and be independent, for good or for bad, most Israelis tend to think and act according to social norms. There is no strong drive among most Israelis to be alone, to be different or to be independent from society. We are happy in the collective. This may be another result of Israel’s strong socialist past but even in a country which has fully bought into the neo-capitalist dream (or nightmare), we still like to do things in groups. We like to travel abroad in groups, and visit places other Israelis have gone or go. We like to eat in restaurants with our friends, and we like to order the same food everyone else eats. We like to purchase clothes that are popular, read books that everyone is reading, and watch TV shows that everyone is watching. I believe that despite the many political, ethnic and religious divisions in this country, we still see ourselves as part of one mutually interdependent community. I am sure that going through so many wars has added to the feeling of a common fate, and the result is a disciplined population which generally understands that when it is time to stand together and help each other, we do so. That certainly contributed to Israel’s early success in combating COVID-19 though as is often the case in Israel, the politicians squandered this success for their own short-term political interests.
Of course one cannot list Israel’s achievements as a country without mentioning our entrepreneurial spirit. For me, the core of “Start-Up Nation” is not the billion dollar exits or the ecosystem of government, business, research, and finance but the young people who grow up in this country believing they can accomplish anything. There is a certain groundedness that many young Israelis have, perhaps due to their army experience or due to growing up in a small young country which has had to meet many challenges with few resources. I see this groundedness in the young people who grow up on my kibbutz and in my own children. Of them I am most proud.
With all of this going for Israel, is it any wonder that I am both proud and think we can do so much better? If we can vaccinate all of our citizens can’t we vaccinate our Palestinian neighbors? If we understand that climate change is real, can’t we lead the world in combating climate change? If we understand how interdependent we are on each other, can’t we reject tribalism but maintain our traditions? If we love our democracy can’t we use it to build our society and not take it apart? Isn’t being proud and at the same time believing we can do so much better the very heart of the Israeli spirit? On Israel’s 73rd birthday, I am proudly waving our flag as I head out the door to our next protest.
Dr. David Lehrer