Spend enough time in Israel not immersed in history and sight-seeing or being awed by its spiritual and physical beauty, and you can easily understand why so many of its citizens spend so much of their time complaining. The Jewish state may be a regional superpower—a place where brilliant thinkers made the desert bloom and created a “startup nation” that rivals Silicon Valley with its venture capitalism, patents and high-tech development. Its cities may be bustling and its farms productive. Still, much in Israel either remains lacking or just doesn’t work.
Getting from place to place in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem can be a nightmare, as can any effort to go between the two cities, despite the creation of a rail system to ease congestion. Traffic seems to be always snarled within the big cities or even along the coastal corridor. There are too many cars and not enough roads to accommodate them and their owners.
And as a lengthy feature published in the Sunday New York Times—timed to pour cold water on the idea that the last 11 years under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been successful for the Jewish state—the problems aren’t limited to the commuting time many Israelis suffer. Israel needs more hospital rooms to deal with the needs of its growing population. Its educational system is also seen as failing much of the population, especially the poor, haredi Jews and the Arab minority, even if the country actually does spend more on schools than on its vaunted military establishment.
Poorer Israelis and those in the middle class don’t feel empowered by the fact that some high-tech entrepreneurs have gotten rich. As is the case in many other prosperous nations, many feel left behind.
What’s more, Israel’s political system seems incapable of dealing with these challenges. That’s true even when it is not locked in a political stalemate with the prospect of a possible fourth election later in 2020 to break the logjam. Entrenched interests block constitutional reform and make it difficult, if not impossible, to fund solutions to any of the infrastructure problems that the nation faces.
Throw in arguments between secular and religious Jews, as well as Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews—not to mention those between Jews and Arabs—and you can paint a portrait of a nation in both an economic and spiritual crisis. And that’s true even if, unlike The New York Times, your purpose is not to trash the country and depict Netanyahu as a charlatan.
But before you write the place off as a crowded, unpleasant failure of a country, a little historical perspective is needed.
Israel is only 71 years old. A century ago, Zionism was a dream dismissed by most Jews as a fantasy that would not come true. And even after the state was declared, smart people thought it could not survive.
Who among Zionism’s critics could have predicted that a poor yishuv of 600,000 Jewish souls could withstand the might of the rest of the Middle East and then, with the financial help of the Diaspora, provide homes for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Holocaust in Europe and a still larger total of Jews who were forced to flee their homes in the Arab and Islamic world?
Since then, Israel has faced existential challenges, as well as daunting economic, political and military problems.
For the last five decades, we’ve been told that Israel cannot thrive or survive in the long run without peace with the Palestinian Arabs, only to see it grow stronger and wealthier during that period even though an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight.
In the 1980s, it wasn’t clear how Israel—still a poor country where consumer goods like appliances or even jeans were in short supply—could navigate an economic crisis that had wrecked the value of its currency in an inflationary crisis.
Several years after that, it was uncertain how the Jewish state could afford to house more than a million new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and then integrate them into its society.
The Socialist ideals of the kibbutz had morphed into an economic model that was a disaster. State control of industries and services had created a situation in which growth was strangled by a bureaucratic culture in which it took years to get a phone installed.
But less than three decades later, a Third World backwater has become a First World powerhouse, with many of its enemies recognizing that the nation is simply too strong and too wealthy to be destroyed. Though the process of change was hampered by corruption and inefficiencies, the result has still been a dramatic makeover that is the envy of the world.
It’s once insoluble water problems have been ameliorated, if not solved, by high-tech solutions of desalination and recycling. And the discovery of natural-gas fields gave the lie to the old joke about Moses leading the Children of Israel to the only place in the region without natural resources.
The Israel of today is unrecognizable to those who last saw it decades ago. Jewish genius and hard work have already made miracles many times over the course of its history. Its success has, as the Times reported, bred new and serious problems hard to imagine being solved by the current crop of leaders.
And yet, these problems will eventually be solved, though undoubtedly imperfectly and with the maximum noise, fuss and political controversy that is evocative of Israel. The Jewish state recognizes that it escapes doom every day. In less than the average life expectancy of an American or Israeli, it has been transformed over and over again into a place that both delights and infuriates its inhabitants and its millions of visitors.
No matter who wins Israel’s election, today’s dilemmas will eventually be replaced by tomorrow’s difficulties. Those who lament that it is unlivable should remember that its current crop of First World problems are a lot better than the ones it used to face. And by now, we should all know that betting against Israel is always a losing proposition.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.