Extraordinarily Ordinary Israel

This eastern Mediterranean Jewish republic is the focal point of one of the most divisive conflicts of our time and is a source of strong emotions for many people. Although many may think of Israel as an exceptional country, I consider it as an ordinary country faced with extraordinary obstacles. Rather than focusing on the numerous obstacles facing it, I would like to focus on its normality, particularly on its ethnic and liberal democracy, economic structure, and cultural diversity.

Israel is not unlike many of the nation-states located in Europe. Although it is the only “Jewish State” in the world, in truth it functions much like any western European country. Like England, it flies its religious emblem on its flag; like Italy, its capital contains a global center of worship; and like France, its citizens are very likely to protest in the streets and express dissent. Each of these countries consists of an amalgamation of many different ethnicities, cultures, and religions; for example, the influx of North African and Turkish immigrants to Europe in the past half-century has added more diversity to European society. However, each of these states is proud to have its own core unique heritage, composed of elements of its own specific ethnicity, culture, and religion. Israel also functions under this “ethnic democracy” model, in which the state is proud to proclaim Judaism as its ethnic, religious, and cultural heritage—without limiting the religious freedom of minority populations. Israel’s heritage is unique among the nations, as any country’s heritage should be, yet the way it preserves its heritage is completely like a traditional European ethnic democracy does. And, as in European nations, this does not detract from Israel’s function as a liberal democracy.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence states that it “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.” Israel is modeled after progressive liberal democracies and, just like any Western European democracy, functions just as messily. In Britain’s multi-party system, many thought it was strange that the Conservatives would form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In Israel, the current coalition is made up of six parties, ranging from religious to secular, hawks to doves, and liberals to conservatives. Factoring in the additional “two Jews, three opinions” rule, it is amazing how anything gets done over there.

Yet, somehow Israelis were able to get their economy in shape. Although it was considered a developing country until the late ’70s, Israel, a country the size of New Jersey with a smaller population than Chicago’s metropolitan area, has become an economic powerhouse in the world market, and has recently joined the prestigious Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It ranks third worldwide (behind America and Canada) in the number of companies traded on Wall Street; second in the amount of venture capital funding received and amount of books published per capita; and first in the number of patents per capita, scientific journals per capita, and scientists per capita. Innovation and improvisation is prevalent in Israeli society (third-highest rate of entrepreneurship worldwide), allowing Israel to create some of the most advanced technology in the world. Aside from developing the first cell phone technology with Motorola, Israelis have also invented voicemail technology, AOL Instant Messenger, ingestible video cameras, and drip irrigation (which saved Israel from droughts). Israel managed to accomplish all this in 62 years, even though it was and still is boycotted by most Arab countries.

This economic innovation is only possible with a strong “melting-pot” of immigrants and a strong cultural ethos. Israel is the Jewish homeland, and has absorbed many millions of Jews from the Diaspora. There are Ethiopian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Chinese Jews, Russian Jews, French Jews, German Jews, Argentinean Jews, Mexican Jews, American Jews, and the list goes on. The cultural diversity, provided by experiences Jews have had all throughout the world, contributes to the ingenuity of the Israeli people. In addition, Israeli-Arab Muslims and Christians contribute fully to society and are equal members; many serve in the government, in the army, and in the private sector. This diversity creates a more open and tolerant society, a society that champions freedom of speech, press, religion, and enterprise.

Israel remains the only ethnic, liberal, capitalist, “melting-pot” democracy in the Middle East; the ongoing conflict shouldn’t cause the world to forget how extraordinarily ordinary Israel truly is.

Peter N. Hadar ’13 lives in Eliot House.

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