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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

National Viability and Vitality: The Israeli Case (1)

The Talmud states that “since the Temple’s destruction, prophesy [prediction] is given only to the foolish” (Bava Batrah 12b). No one truly knows what the future will bring. Nevertheless, unlike the animal kingdom, humans have an intrinsic need to try and divine what the future holds for us – on the collective national level as much as the individual personal plane. This is especially true for a small and vulnerable country as Israel.

Luckily, although no one has invented a contemporary Oracle of Delphi, social scientists have accumulated an impressive array of tools to understand the sources of national strength and longevity. These are based on sweeping surveys of civilizations long past and recent – and then using sophisticated analytical methodologies to ferret out those variables that are correlated to what is called “national competitiveness”.

A recent RAND Corporation study is an excellent case in point (https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA499-1.html) – initiated by the U.S. Defense Department to understand what America needs to do domestically to ensure its continued power and vitality: economically, socially, and only then militarily. “Only then” is the key takeaway here. The researchers came to the very clear conclusion (not altogether surprising when one thinks about it) that without inner strength a country cannot long keep up its external power vis-à-vis the world or even sustain itself as a viable, national, going concern.

The researchers ended up with seven central factors or characteristics that together almost guarantee continued national competitiveness. The fewer that these factors are present, the less chance of growth – and if few or none are in evidence, that’s a recipe for decline. The seven:

1- National ambition and will;

2- Unified national identity;

3- Shared opportunity;

4- An active state apparatus/bureaucracy;

5- Effective institutions;

6- A learning and adapting society;

7- Social diversity and pluralism.

In the following weeks (every Friday), I plan to focus here each time on one (or two) of these factors from the perspective of Israeli society, to try and “forecast” the country’s continued, future competitiveness. As I am not a “fool” (by the Talmud’s standards) these are not to be taken as future predictions but rather as future-looking analytical projections based on contemporary trends.

A few introductory remarks are in order. First, as Aristotle (and Maimonides) pointed out, doing anything to extreme – even something positive – can be harmful. Thus, pushing some of these factors to their outermost expression could be counterproductive. For example, diversity is good; hyper-diversity (too many cultures, sectors etc.) is a recipe for chaos. Three spices in a soup can be delightful; thirty spices would be overwhelming. Is Israel “hyper-diverse”? An interesting question I’ll take up when I get to that factor.

Second, countries are not completely in control of their fate. A major national disaster (lengthy drought, hyper-volcanic explosion, deadly plague) can overwhelm even the best internal situation. In this regard, Israel seems to be relatively safe: other than an earthquake in the low- population, eastern part of the country (around the Sea of Galilee and Jordan Valley), there are no serious national disasters on the horizon. True, giant Mediterranean tsunamis have hit Israel’s coast in the past, but these are very rare (on average, once every several hundred years). Man-made disasters have a greater likelihood (e.g., Iranian nuclear attack), but these too seem to be remote, each for specific reasons.

Third, there’s a sort of synergy when several of the positive factors are at work – the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Israel today might well be in such a “sweet spot” with several positive factors reinforcing each other. But we can’t let optimism blind us to other factors among the seven that could well be moving in the “wrong” direction. In any case, here and there I’ll show such synergistic connections where relevant.

Finally, it goes without saying that Israel is not and never can be a world “superpower”, if only because its base is miniscule compared to population giants such as China, the U.S., and Russia. But Israel doesn’t have such aspirations (other than, perhaps, being a “Light Unto the Nations” – which it is certainly is today, at least technologically). The question for the Jewish People in general, and for those living in Israel, is what does the future hold for this small state? Stay tuned as I look at each of the factors in the Israeli context – now and moving toward the future.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) 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 three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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