Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

AWOL in Israeli Society: The Good News

Israelis love to complain (a Jewish trait) – about what the country doesn’t have, or what it has “too much” of. But sometimes it pays to step back and actually give two cheers to things that the country no longer has i.e., “AWOL blessings.”

AWOL #1 – Inflation: Given the economic straits that many countries find themselves in, it’s worth recalling where Israel was at exactly forty years ago: rampant hyper-inflation that reached 400 percent annually (that’s not a typo: “four hundred”!). Israelis back then would go to the local grocery store (makolet) to buy bread and milk every morning, knowing that “tomorrow” the price will increase again (sometimes, even that very afternoon). Today? Israel’s annual inflation for 2022 was 5.4% – one of the lowest among all OECD countries!

AWOL #2 – Lines: In England, one docilely “queues up” to receive service for stores, banks, or other public institutions. In the U.S., a bit less tolerant of “standing in line,” most citizens still wait patiently for their turn. In Israel – from the country’s establishment until about a decade ago – the “line” was a mere “suggestion.” Arguably the most common expression in the entire land was “mi akharon?” Whether waiting at the bank, the doctor’s clinic, or any government office, there was no “line” per se. Rather, everyone milled around and when someone new showed up they would ask that question: “who’s the last one here?” That person would raise her/his hand, and the newbie became the next to answer when another person soon arrived.

However, every so often someone would show up, ask the question, get an answer, and leave the premises to do some shopping or other task for several minutes (always estimating how long it would take for their turn to arrive). As one can imagine, that led to many a fight when the person would reappear “out of the blue” to claim their spot “on (the non-existent) line,” because – pointing to someone, “ha’yiti akhrekha”: “don’t you remember that my turn was after yours?”

Today in Israel, one would be hard put to think of any line that a person has to stand on. Virtually all government services are provided through the internet; online shopping (even for groceries e.g., Shufersal Online) has become widespread; mobile phone apps are ubiquitous – for train and bus transport (you can’t even buy a paper ticket anymore!) all the way to almost all personal medical services and information. The worst line still left? Getting through Ben-Gurion Airport to leave the country, but while still in Israel it’s no longer “line-up” but rather “line-down”.

AWOL #3 – Smoking: In 1980, 45% of adult Israeli men smoked cigarettes; women: 31%. Indeed, back then you would be hard pressed to find any public space without such smoke wafting in the air. Today, the overall average hovers around 20% and all public venues – including buses/trains, offices, even stadiums – are smoke clear. For a country under constant pressure, internally and externally, that’s quite an accomplishment!

AWOL #4 – Seeds & Bottles: Going to the movies in Israel used to be quite an “experience.” Not so much for the cinema on screen but rather for the goings-on in the audience. Perhaps due to the hard wooden seats (until the late 1980s), Israelis enjoyed their movie experience back then not with popcorn but rather with sunflower seeds cracked opened in the mouth, then the shells being spit out into the rows ahead of them! (Some theaters had a mezzanine; those seated below had to contend with a real shower of shells.) Umbrellas (or at least a hat) were recommended accompaniment. And if that wasn’t strange enough, the concrete aisles got into the action as well with emptied, glass, soda pop bottles being noisily rolled down to the front of the theater!! Israelis didn’t seem to mind such “audience participation” – indeed, in a country that then had only one TV station (and even that only after 1968), going to the movies was the only way to see serious cinema – but the seed-spitting/bottle-rolling environment was certainly unnerving for tourists and recent immigrants used to a much more sedate cinema experience.

None of that has remained. Quite to the contrary: most Israeli cinema halls today are luxury personified: plush seats with lots of legroom (far more than on planes), huge screens, and the finest sound available. The only (new) disturbing thing: moviegoers who can’t do without looking at their smartphone screen every few minutes…


If Israel has come a long way these past decades, what can we hope for in the coming ones? Here’s my list of future AWOLs: no more massive traffic jams; the Dead Sea no longer dying; raucous Knesset debates a thing of the past; housing prices ceasing their skyrocketing increases; and the biggest future “gone missing” of all: no more external threats to Israel’s security and existence.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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