Over the last few days the blogosphere has been atwitter with digital discussions and virtual debates about Israel, olim and the apparent failure of the former to show its gratitude to the latter. Exhaustively researched and earnest arguments have been posited, in which the very survival of the Jewish State is dependent upon stemming the brain drain of well-intentioned, well-educated and well-heeled immigrants from the West.
I am a mildly educated “returning resident” who spent the majority of his life in the United States yet never quite shook the spell that Israel cast over me. I am admittedly a cultural schizophrenic — mostly American, proudly Israeli, happily both.
Had I been born at any point between the torching of the Second Temple by Titus in 70 CE and the formal establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 CE I never would have had the privilege to even attempt a life in the third Jewish commonwealth. I was drawn to Israel not out of any desire to flee the land of my birth but rather to reclaim my birthright.
As such, I interpret Zionism as a philosophy to embrace, a movement to join, a revolution to joyously be swept up in.
Now, I suspect that the vast majority of immigrants from Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other bastions of Western enlightenment come to Israel with every intention of creating a deep, meaningful life here. Yet, the fatal flaw of many sincere yet misguided Westerners is their belief in a Zionism without bills.
There’s nothing new in the observation that Israelis are heavily taxed, underpaid and can’t even claim to live in a warm, giving, Western European-style welfare state as compensation. Every taxi driver knows this; every school teacher lives this. There are a host of other societal ills that continue to afflict our nation: concentration of industry, lack of regional trade partners and exorbitant outlays towards defense – to name just three.
Israel is undeniably a country of contrasts: a start-up nation with a struggling middle class; the most politically open and pluralistic society in the region that ranks after Oman in the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom. Israel can do better.
And yet it’s in Jerusalem, not Boston, Massachusetts, USA, that my wife or any other woman can stroll through most parts of the city long after the sun has set. Boston’s violent crime rate continues to outpace the national (US) average and remains a serious cause for concern.
And yet it’s in Israel, not Los Angeles, where you’ll have a better chance, statistically speaking, of landing gainful employment. The Los Angeles County unemployment rate as of March, 2012 was close to 12%.
Challenges and shortcomings, trials and disappointments aren’t unique to the Israeli experience. If one’s goal is to find a Shangri La in Ramat Aviv, a Valhalla in Rechavia or a Garden of Eden anywhere else, he or she is destined to wander the Earth, from galut to Zion and back again, in a perpetual state of mental stress and emotional turmoil.
Living in Jerusalem, where there are more NGOs per square foot than Aroma coffee shops, one is inundated by the pleas and calls to action of organizations whose very survival is based on pumping up the volume and hyping the hysteria. If all is well, or at least not hopeless, affluent donors, many of whom live outside of Israel, may lose interest in the good fight.
No one can deny the important roles that NPOs and NGOs play. Whether it’s providing poverty relief, advancing education, defending the rights of minorities or encouraging social entrepreneurship, such organizations are crucial to the goal of making a good society great.
Yet, for a non-profit to remain viable, without making a product or producing wealth, it must engage in a practice called rent-seeking. Besides focusing on the grim, many NGOs and NPOs must seek out government subsidies that can serve as an alternative to revenue. Rent-seeking is not a new phenomenon, the term having been originated by Adam Smith.
While non-profits are a vital source of employment in Jerusalem, one should take their overheated calls for “citizen retention” with a healthy dose of perspective.
Furthermore, the very idea that Israel must lure “top-rate human capital” away from competing Western cities is strange. Senior executives from eBay, Cisco Systems, Google and Intel have sung the praises of Israelis’ unmatched ability to manage and lead the rapidly evolving innovation-based economy.
The uniquely Israeli formula for success — technical innovation, heavy investment in R&D, diffused corporate hierarchy and a healthy dose of chutzpah — have propelled Israel’s economy forward and enabled it to ride out the storm wrought by the 2008 world financial crisis.
At its core, the question of whether to stay in Israel merely scrapes the surface of a much more profound exploration of what makes life worth living. There is no single, correct answer. If one’s goal is to get through life unscathed and unchallenged, then Israel may not be the ideal place to achieve this state of perpetual comfort.
On the other hand, if one perceives the very real challenges of carving out a tiny toehold in this feisty and frequently maddening country, not as a cause to despair but an opportunity to reach your fullest potential and contribute your abilities and passion to a worthwhile enterprise, then Israel just may be a good fit.
In short, Israel is not America. The United States is a beautiful, beaming “City on a Hill.” No country can compete with the brilliant fires of liberty and prosperity that this constitutional republic radiates. Yet, for all its glorious light, America gives off no heat. Israel, with its Hebrew language, Jewish holidays, informal religiosity and easy camaraderie, warms the cockles of my heart and pacifies my restless spirit.
Zionism’s bill is heavy, no doubt. Yet, unlike the monthly arnona, there’s a most definite return on investment: a strong, viable home for the Ingathering of the Exiles.