Israel: An Introduction
By Barry Rubin
Yale University Press, 336 pages
On the occasion of Israel’s 50th anniversary, the British historian Paul Johnson wrote in COMMENTARY that among the 100 newly independent nations born in the years after World War II, Israel was “the only one whose creation can fairly be called a miracle.” Two improbable events occurring in the first half of the 20th century combined to create an opening for the eventual establishment of the Jewish state, according to Johnson. The first was the Turkish Sultan’s decision at the onset of World War I to throw in his lot with the German Kaiser and the Habsburgs. Without the Ottoman Empire’s losing gamble, there would have been no Balfour Declaration, no British conquest of Palestine in 1918, and, therefore, no buildup of Palestine as the Jewish homeland. The second unlikely event was Joseph Stalin’s decision in 1947 to undermine British imperial influence in the Middle East by supporting the creation of Israel, thus reversing (albeit temporarily) a quarter-century of ideological anti-Zionism by the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement. Without the Soviets’ vigorous political support for the UN partition resolution and the massive flow of Czech arms to the fledgling Jewish State, Israel might have died in infancy.
Johnson’s splendid essay did not, however, fully capture the many ways that Israel continued to beat the odds and surprise the world with its practical accomplishments. A new book by Middle East historian Barry Rubin, Israel: An Introduction, begins to cover that much neglected ground. It manages in just 300 pages to provide a corrective to the endless series of recent books and articles depicting the Jewish state as a kind of hell on earth in need of infinite critical exposure.
Rubin is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He assembled this volume with assistance from his GLORIA colleagues, all scholarly experts on different aspects of Israeli history, economics, society, and culture. Rubin and his colleagues put aside the ideologically charged arguments about the Israel-Palestine conflict and instead present a fact-based portrait of a still new nation that deserves to be studied on its own merits. Of course any accounting of Israel’s societal achievements and shortcomings must consider the adverse conditions—including external threats to its existence requiring huge defense expenditures, the lack of natural resources, and the absorption of millions of destitute immigrants—that the Jewish state has had to face since its birth 63 years ago.
But under any conditions, the data tells of an objectively impressive story. Consider the chapter that describes Israel’s recent high-tech economic miracle. The country not only towers over all its neighbors in economic and social development, but also invites a more ambitious comparison: In 2010 the United Nation’s Human Development Index, which measures various nations’ health, education, and living standards, ranked Israel 15th out of 169 countries. In the World Economic Forum’s latest survey of economic competitiveness, Israel placed 24th out of 134 nations. Israel’s GDP per capita is higher than those of countries such as Korea, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic, though still below many Western European nations. But Israel is likely to move up in the rankings as a result of its recent achievements in scientific research. In the meantime, because of its advances in medical care, Israel now ranks 13th in the world, above both the U.S. and Great Britain, in life expectancy, at 81 years.
The percent of Israel’s GDP spent on research and development is the highest in the world, and Israel is fourth worldwide in the number of patents granted per capita. Israel also ranks first in the world in the number of scientists and engineers per 10,000 people and has launched more high-tech companies per year than any country in Europe. The giants of Israel’s science-based economy, innovative companies such as TEVA Pharmaceuticals and Elbit military-defense industries, rival IBM, Microsoft, and Apple in terms of technological breakthroughs and productivity.
Despite the recent acrimony in U.S.-Israel political relations, these economic achievements have contributed to Israel’s standing as one of America’s most indispensable allies. The Jewish state provides critical advantages in technology for the U.S. military, including missile technology and unmanned drones. U.S. technology guru George Gilder once quipped that a great deal of American technology ought to come with the label “ISRAEL INSIDE.”
Despite Israel’s achievements, the country’s critics in the Western media depict a disillusioned nation, bitterly divided over issues such as religious observance and the costly occupation of the West Bank. Those fissures do exist, and there is reason to be concerned about their widening. But the larger reality, as Rubin’s book shows, is that morale is remarkably high for a nation that remains under military siege and is now threatened with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Rubin and his colleagues debunk the increasingly popular crisis narrative as follows: “In annual polls, the number of people expressing satisfaction with their lives and hope in the future is phenomenally high. Almost 80 percent of Israelis say they would fight for their country, as opposed to 60 percent of Americans and 40 percent of Britons. The proportion of young people ready to volunteer for combat units defies all pessimistic predictions about selfishness and hedonism.” Additionally, the fertility rate is 2.9 for Israeli Jews—higher than in any European country or the United States. (Fertility for Israel’s Arabs is 33 percent higher than for the Jews, but that gap is rapidly narrowing as the Arab community moves forward in educational and economic opportunities.)
Rubin does not try to make the case that Israel is free of internal conflict or that its system of parliamentary democracy isn’t flawed. Nevertheless, as he and his colleagues remind us, all Israeli governments have been responsive to popular movements for change. In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, demobilized soldiers took to the streets to protest the government’s lack of preparedness for the massive assaults across the 1967 cease-fire lines by the Egyptian and Syrian armies. The result was the toppling of the ruling Labor Party for the first time in Israel’s history. In the 1990s, the “Four Mothers” protest group took to the streets and eventually forced Prime Minister Ehud Barack to pull all Israeli troops out of Lebanon (not a very wise decision, as it turned out.) Popular pressures and street demonstrations pushed the Netanyahu government to make huge, and very risky, concessions to Hamas in order to free one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Last summer the biggest public demonstrations in Israel’s history filled the public squares of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beersheba. The largely middle-class protesters demanded that the government do something immediately about the housing crisis and a precipitous rise in the cost of living for all Israelis. At the time, many commentators foolishly interpreted the protests as Israel’s version of the “Arab Spring.” The media largely ignored the fact that the protest movement was unique for being spawned not by economic failure—as in the Arab countries—but by Israel’s extraordinary economic success in the past decade. Israel came through the worldwide recession that began in late 2008 in better shape than almost any other Western industrialized nation, with a 5.6 percent increase in GDP last year, as well as a 5.4 percent unemployment rate that would be the envy of every country in Europe.
Unfortunately, such spectacular economic growth, built largely on added-value exports and the high-tech boom, has left many Israelis behind. This is most evident in Tel Aviv, bursting at the seams with new luxury buildings, gentrified neighborhoods, a thriving tourist industry, and a reputation as one of the world’s great “fun” cities, but where young people struggle to find affordable housing. Eventually the protesters went home and accepted the government’s assurances that measures would be taken to meet some of their legitimate demands. It was an example of the power of Israeli democracy in the streets.
In a book little more than an inch thick, it is inevitable that some aspects of Israeli society will get more attention than others and some important topics will not get the space they deserve. One can certainly argue about some of the book’s selections—less material on Israeli sports teams and food and more on the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would have been welcome—but this is just a small complaint about what is an otherwise essential resource for readers interested in learning the truth about the Zionist project in the 20th and 21st centuries. At a time when criticism of Israel has reached surreal proportions in Western media outlets and universities, Rubin’s book feels a bit like another improbable and fortunate event in the history of the Jewish state.