Steve Kramer

Israel at sixty-seven years

Israel just celebrated its sixty-seventh birthday, according to the Hebrew calendar. What’s the prognosis for our nation and its people? By one announcement, Israelis are thriving. That report is the World Happiness Report, a measure of happiness published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Which countries are the world’s most happy? Among the top ten are all five Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden; two European countries, Switzerland, Netherlands; and three English-speaking countries, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. What these states have in common is that they have no natural enemies and are close to, if not surrounded by, peaceful nations. Nor do any of these countries have a large minority that purportedly is mistreated, i.e., Israel’s Muslim minority of 20%.

So which country is number 11 on the list? Israel, which is surrounded by natural enemies and is situated in one of the most tumultuous regions of the world. Another anomaly between Israel and the Top Ten is that none of those has a replacement fertility rate, that is, enough births to sustain the current population, let alone increase it. Israel has the highest fertility rate among Western nations, far greater than the runner-up, France. According to CIA figures, Israel’s estimated fertility rate is 2.62, compared to France’s, which is 2.08, just shy of 2.1, the generally accepted percentage for a stable population. (Next are USA: 2.01and Sweden: 1.88.)

Consequently, Israel’s typical secular (non-observant) Jewish family has three children, which corresponds to the average number of children per Israeli family. Children are everywhere here and many are spoiled, perhaps because doting parents expect that their kids will enter the army for a minimum of 2.5 (women) or 3 years (men) after finishing high school.

Parodoxically, Israel has one of the highest rates of poverty among developed nations. According to OECD (the organization of the most highly developed nations), Israel is among the countries with the highest income inequality, only surpassed by Chile, Mexico, the United States and Turkey. In addition, its percentage of families under the poverty line is above 20%, nearly double the OECD average.

How can the Israeli people be so “happy” under these circumstances? There are several reasons, in my opinion. Income inequality relates to standard of living. Most Israelis enjoy a high standard of living. But these families may be deeply in debt to their banks, similar to Americans who have high credit card debts. This is often caused by people’s insistence on living in, or close to, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel’s most expensive cities. The cost of housing in the center of Israel, is exorbitant. However, people aren’t forced to live there.

For example, it’s as if Americans cry about the cost of housing in Manhattan, but refuse to consider living 45 minutes away – what Israelis call the “periphery.” Meanwhile, the new government is committed to finding solutions to reduce the cost of land and the inordinate bureaucracy involved in development and has appointed the leading proponent of more affordable housing to spearhead that effort.

Perhaps even more than in the United States, Israelis see many “new” millionaires arising annually. In both countries, there is a way to advance from a lower economic segment to a higher one (and the reverse). With relatively open economies, citizens of both countries, for the most part, don’t want to replace capitalism with a system that limits one’s chance of getting “rich.” Other than in the Scandinavian countries, I believe that most people want to see a freer economy, not one which tries to spread the wealth by government fiat and extremely high taxes and benefits. Israelis, in particular, relish the chance to succeed with something new and innovative and aren’t discouraged by initial failures.

Regarding poverty, Israel has two population segments which generally choose not to work. They are Israeli Arab women and Jewish ultra-Orthodox men (Haredim). Not only that, both of these segments disdain higher education. Is it fair to include among the poverty stricken, families which chose not to emulate the general population, in which both parents work in order to support their families?

If the above mentioned segments choose to integrate themselves into the workplace, a large percentage of those in “poverty” would disappear, because Arabs and Haredim currently have the most children per family.

Comparing one of the highest predictors of poverty, single parent families (especially without a father), Israel is in far better shape than, for example, America. Roughly 31% of American families with children are lacking two parents, an almost insurmountable goal to succeeding in life. In Israel, only 6% of families are single parent.

According to former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger, Israel’s economy defies logic: “The long-term viability of Israel and its economy is also reflected by its economic indicators, which refute conventional ‘wisdom.’ For instance, Israel’s growth rate (3%) is similar to the U.S.’s and higher than the OECD average, Canada’s, Britain’s and Germany’s. Israel’s unemployment is below the OECD average. Israel’s declining debt-to-GDP ratio (67%) is lower than the U.S.’s, the Euro bloc’s, Japan’s, France’s, Canada’s, Britain’s and Germany’s.” (Israel Hayom newspaper)

In its sixty-seven years of independence, Israel has faced and overcome some of the most severe challenges imaginable. Still, there is the continuing struggle with the Arabs in Gaza and Judea and Samaria, supported by the West’s arch-enemy, Iran. Plus, Israel’s other Muslim neighbors are entangled in religious warfare, tearing themselves apart. These aren’t signals for going out on a limb to please the Western fixation for a Palestinian state.

In addition to military challenges, Israel’s political challenges are dire, due to the European penchant for anti-Zionism, the “new” anti-Semitism. NGOs (non-governmental agencies), often supported by Arab or European governments, promote the insidious BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction).This antipathy towards Israel has spread across Europe to the “progressives” in the US, including some American Jews, endangering relations between Israel and its greatest ally. Boding ill for the future, college campuses in North America are rife with violent protests against Israel and Jews. (See my recent article:

Yet, most Americans, its leaders and the public, recognize the value of the relationship with Israel, the most innovative and powerful nation in the world on a per capita basis. The non-Muslim East, especially India and China, has lately recognized the worth of partnering with Israel in technological, military and industrial areas, especially involving high tech, agriculture, and water. As support from Europe, with its growing Muslim population and effete leadership dwindles, Israel is gaining from its pivot (to use President Obama’s word) towards Asia.

Sixty-seven years after declaring its independence, Israel is thriving, albeit with many unresolved problems. That is why Israelis, including the 20% who are Arabs, are among the happiest citizens in the world. Israelis customarily say on a birthday, “May you live for 120 years!” In this case, with its 3,000 year history, we should say, “May Israel thrive forever!”

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.