Friday, December 30, 2011

Israel at the End of 2011: Better than Ever

No, this blog is still dormant, as explained here. However, I still post every now and then, so the Google overlords won't delete the entire blog for having gone entirely silent. The end of 2011 is a good moment to reflect on Israel's condition, which, if you believe much of the media, is catastrophic. Growing numbers of folks dislike us, we're told, our isolation is growing ever more dire, our democracy is crumbling, we're forcing women into second-class status, America's Jews are turning away in growing disgust, and so on and on and on...

Well, no.

Back in my blogging days I used to propose three criteria for measuring the long-term robustness of Israel. So let's start with them:

Economics: While the European economy enters recession if not worse, and the American economy is in a protracted funk, the Israeli economy continutes to boom. Here, check it out at the Economist website, which tells that GDP is growing higher in Israel than in any European country, the US, and lots of other places too. Unemployment, you might be interested to hear, at 5.6%, is not only lower than in most countries, it's at its lowest in Israel for decades and by some estiamtes, the lowest ever. If things stay this way until the next elections there will be no need to speculate on how crazy the Israeli voters have become to re-elect that supposedly universally hated government: any government running for re-election with an economy like this would stand a fine chance of re-election.

The BDS campaign to destroy Israel is not obviously working, apparently.

Culture: is Jewish culture thriving, stagnating or declining in Israel? This is a rhetorical question. There's no measure I can think of by which to claim there's any stagnation or decline. It has been thousands of years since the Jews have had such a broad-based cultural creativity, which isn't surprising if you remind yourself that for the first time in millennia there are millions of Jews living in their language in their own society (and their own land).

How does cultural creativity fit into disappearing freedom of thought, you ask? It doesn't. The disappearing freedom and democracy exist only in the minds of a certain section of Israeli society and the multitudes of ignorant foreign reporters and politicians who avidly agree with them whenever they criticise Israel. Apart from them, it's not happening. There's a racuous debate about all sorts of things, of course, but in other countries that would be called democracy, not facism.

Demography: here the question is simple: are there more Jews in Israel today than a year ago. Of course there are. In an aside, there are growing indications that the demographic pendulum has peaked and is swinging back in favor of the Jews over Palestinians, whose birthrate is either declining or tumbling, depending on the data-sets one uses. (Here, for example).

Terrorism is mostly dormant, by Israeli standards. 2011 was one of the most peaceful years Israel has had since 1947. (The Palestinians had a rather peaceful year, too, since there's some correlation between the two).

The internal clash with the Haredi sections of society seems to be moving in two contradictory directions. The crazies are growing ever more crazy; but there's a long-term trend in which ever-growing numbers of Haredi are slowly acquiring modern education and entering the labor market; some thousands of young Haredi men are even finding their way into special programs in the IDF. I can't say which trend will ultimately be more important, but I feel confident in hoping for the better outcome.

The Arab revolutions seem likely to create ever more outlandish-looking societies. I don't see how normal Westerners (as distinct from the chattering classes) will look at them in 5, 10, or 15 years, and then look at us, and not prefer us.

You'll hear endless punditry about how bad off Israel's Arab citizens are. Well. The reality I see is that growing numbers of them are integrating into mainstream society. I have Israeli Arabs working under me, as well as alongside me, and they are just regular folks and treated as such. I see Arabs - Israeli citizens or East-Jerusalem permanent residents - everywhere: in markets, at the university, in professional groups, in hospitals, at universitities, and so on. Also in the hallways of the government ministries and even in classified installations.

Whinch brings me to my final point. I stopped blogging when I joined the civil service, and went behind a wall of security clearance and the need to shut up about it. Indeed, I won't report on what cannot be reported. But I will say that what I find there is very heartening. Alongside the usual, and universal, red-tape and mediocracy, there are large numbers of highly talented Israelis purposefully going about their jobs of making this a better country, stronger, more successful, better able to withstand whatever gets thrown at it.

Yes, there are lots of folks out there who dislike us, but that's always been so. These days we don't have to give them too much attention. Seen historically, 2011 was probably one of the best years in millennia of Jewish history.

Law isn't Objective Science

The Mishna is instructing how to determine if various physical defects make an animal permanently impure and ineligible to be sacrificed while still being permitted for non-sacred consumption. At one point Rabbi Akiva suggests a method of checking a particular defect, in which a lamb seems to have only one testicle. The Gemara then brings a story of a case in which his method was used, yet after slaughtering the lamb it turned out the second testicle was there all along, only not visible. Rabbi Akiva permitted the animal to be eaten, while Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri forbade the animal to be eaten (as a fistrborn it should have been given to a cohen). This led to a sharp excahnge between the two rabbis:
Rabbi Akiva to Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri: how long are you going to waste the money of [the people of] Israel?
Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri to Rabbi Akiva: how long are you going to feed forbidden carcasses to Israel?
 the original Hebrew is more pithy:
עד מתי אתה מכלה ממונם של ישראל?
עד מתי אתה מאכיל את ישראל נבילות?

Both scholars start from the same set of facts: the lamb seemed to have a defect, Akiva's proposed method of checking was used and proved the defect was permanent, and the animal was slaughtered based on that tested proposition. Then, they both agree, an external fact, unknowable at the moment of slaughter, was revealed. They differ on the ultimate outcome. Is doing your best enough? Is there an objective commandment which supercedes informed intentions? Do social considerations trump (unknowable) facts? Is there a legal truth which overrides all social measures and intentions?

This deliberation is exactly as fresh today as it was two thousand years ago when Akiva and Yochanan had their altercation; each side brings a set of values which precedes their interpretation of the law and informs it. It's the reason there can be no permanent, immutable and universal legal system: every legal system has to reflect the values of the society which legislated it and applies it and adapts it as the underlying values change.

B'chorot 40a.

If you've never visited this blog before, well, now it's too late; I've stopped blogging as described here.