Israeli discourse emphasizes the negative aspects of our national life — antisemitism and de-legitimation abroad, kulturkampf and assaults on democracy at home. Terrorism pounds at our doors and social gaps cast their shadow on our humanity. Religion duels with the state while we argue about our borders across social fissures reminiscent of a tribal society.
Despite these problems, and without minimizing their importance, the overall picture of the Jewish nation-state, as it celebrates its 68th birthday, is one of tremendous success. Israel is a place where blessings abound, a dream-come-true for every Jew throughout history.
If I could choose where and when to be reborn as a Jew, I would pass up all the grandiose possibilities offered by Jewish history — starting with the Exodus and conquest of the Land of Israel, through the First and Second Temple periods, and on to the peregrinations of exile, from Babylonia to Ashkenaz — and choose to be born precisely here and now, as a citizen of the State of Israel. Why?
When I was a boy, back in the 1960s, I fixed up a hiding place behind a bench in my Tel Aviv neighborhood, in preparation for the day the Arabs made good on their threat to “throw the Jews into the sea.” Today, after more than four decades without a major conventional war, and the collapse of the most dangerous armed forces in the region, Israel is a far more secure home for its citizens. Little “Srulik”, the cartoon character that symbolizes Israel, has developed bulging muscles. He has no real rivals in the air, at sea, or on land.
Our miracle economy continues to flourish. Relative to population, Israel has the most start-ups of any country. Our per capita investment in research and development is the highest in the world. And in absolute terms, only the United States and China have more companies listed on the NASDAQ. Israel has the youngest population of any OECD member. It ranks third in the world for the educational level of its citizens. And the participation of women in the Israeli workforce exceeds that of any other developed country.
In the past, we lamented the shortage of water and cried over our lack of natural resources. No more: rain is wonderful, and the Sea of Galilee is romantic, but we now know how to desalinate all the water we need and are the world leader in wastewater recycling. We have conquered the desert — forever. And within a very few years, we shall enjoy energy independence, too, after we recover from the regulatory crisis surrounding natural gas extraction.
Who would have believed a generation ago that poor, arid Israel would be exporting water and energy? That it would be one of the eight countries to have launched satellites into orbit (all the others are many times Israel’s size)? That, since the start of the current century, it would produce the largest number of Nobel laureates per capita?
Even though the different Israeli social groups continue their arm-wrestling, a positive trend is emerging. The adamant secularism of the school of founding father David Ben-Gurion is giving way to a softer traditionalism that draws naturally on its Jewish roots. Jewish texts are once again becoming the proud possession of the national collective. Religious Zionism, its sights set on national leadership, is relying less on messianic zeal and hardline rabbis. The ultra-Orthodox are emerging from their shell to become a society of scholars and workers, a sharp departure from the prevailing ethos of recent generations. And most Israeli Arabs are prepared for a deal that grants them full civic equality in return for accepting a definition of the state as “Jewish and democratic.”
The state is grappling with its identity just as human adolescents do. It seems, however, that the main complications of our formative years are behind us. Before our eyes, a new Israeli equilibrium is being emerging — a sign of national maturity.
Notwithstanding all the challenges faced by its citizens, Israel ranked eleventh in the world in the UN World Happiness Report for 2016. There is no question in my mind that if it were possible to measure such things, Israel would rank first on the “all-time Jewish happiness index.”
Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.