Israel then and now

I just returned from another amazing trip to Israel, this time on Israel Uncovered, The David Project’s mission to Israel with student leaders from across the country. It’s probably my 30th or so visit since I first came to Israel in the mid-1980s when I studied for a year at Hebrew University. It’s truly astonishing how different Israel is today. Here are just a few of my observations on how the country has changed:

Customer service

Israel of 1985 – On my way to Israel in the fall of 1985 at the tender age of 18, I remember being repeatedly screamed at by high strung El Al flight attendants, who acted like they were doing me a favor for letting me fly on their airline. In my first few weeks in Israel, I recall waiting for a bank teller, who, without a trace of remorse, was speaking endlessly to his mother on the phone.

Israel of 2014 – Flight attendants no longer yell. I haven’t been back to a bank since, but I’m hoping customer service has improved. While Israel has a ways to go on this score, it has clearly come a long way.


Israel of 1985 – The first thing I remember hearing about Israel’s economy was that doctors only made $1,000 a month. That was probably an exaggeration, but the median income was low by Western standards, and so was economic disparity.

Israel of 2014 – I met a friend at Jerusalem’s “high-tech park” in the Beck Science Center, a monument to Israel’s innovation economy. What a place. What an incredible national accomplishment. But Israel’s high tech economic transformation has created more social disparity than ever before. The middle class and poor feel poorer (even if in actual terms they are richer) in relation to the upwardly mobile classes, straining the social fabric.


Israel of 1985 – A five star Israeli hotel was equivalent to a three star American hotel. Israel was a great tourist destination, but a bush league purveyor of tourism.

Israel of 2014 – Now five stars means five stars. With increased capacity, Israel is on the road to becoming the tourist destination for which it was destined.


Israel of 1985 – Even the supposedly good restaurants were mediocre wannabes. Israel did have good shwarma then though.

Israel of 2014 – The Israeli food scene has practically outpaced the high tech sector. There are numerous superb restaurants that fuse East and West. Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market, always a colorful and fragrant amalgamation of Israel’s varied food cultures, now additionally boasts some of the swankest restaurants in the country.


Israel of 1985 – There was still a naïve Zionism reverberating throughout Israeli society. While I may not have liked the treatment I received from the El Al flight attendants, I loved the playing of and clapping to Hevenu Shalom Alechem on the descent to Ben Gurion airport, and felt the urge to kiss the ground when I landed.

Israel of 2014 – Sadly, El Al no longer plays the song, but I still hear it in my head at the first glimpse of land from the airplane window. Israelis are less conspicuous, but still proud in their Zionism.


Israel of 1985 – When I first came to Israel, everyone was wearing the basic Nimrod sandals. I couldn’t wait to get my feet in a pair. They were a representation in the form of footware of the pioneer spirit that drained the swamps and packed humus sandwiches on weekend hikes in the Galilee.

Israel of 2014 – Israelis wear the same shoes we do and more often travel abroad for vacation.

Sense of Self

Israel of 1985 – The Israel of the 1980s was still captivated by its founding, self-righteous myths. Not a single Palestinian was pushed out in 1948.

Israel of 2014 – Today’s Israel has undergone and continues to undergo an honest reckoning with its own history. Stripped of its founding myths, will the Jewish State be able to sustain a more mature Zionism even if the Arab world seethes in denial and resentment?

When all is said and done, is Israel a better country today than it was in 1985? Notwithstanding the oft-repeated apprehensions, I think so.

About the Author
David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the representative voice of the Jewish community relations movement. Follow him on Twitter.