Israel: Vibrant and Resilient, or Mediocre and Decaying?

My respondents see the Israeli glass as more than half full; I see it as more than half empty. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

A worker lays out posters of Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog during the 2015 Israeli election campaign.

A worker lays out posters of Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog during the 2015 Israeli election campaign.

Last Word
June 29 2015
About the author

Edward Grossman’s journalism and fiction have been published in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian.

My thanks to Neil Rogachevsky, Evelyn Gordon, and Haviv Rettig Gur for their comments on my essay, “Can Israel Unite?” Each in her or his way recommends that, like Israelis generally, I should be happy and not worry myself over the country’s seeming atomization.

Rogachevsky concedes a measure of Balkanization, yet thinks Israel less divided now than it used to be. Gur hails a tribalism expressed in self-sacrifice, solidarity, imperviousness to decay, and “a meritocratic military and public service.” To his mind, this renders irrelevant my concerns about a unity government, or lack thereof, in the face of an oncoming Iranian nuclear weapon. In evidence, he cites polls during last summer’s Gaza war, a war directed by an ordinary, non-unity government, that showed public backing in the 90th percentile. Gordon concurs: “First we win the war, only afterward do we tear ourselves apart.”

It would be nice if this were so. But in fact the mini-war against Hamas in 2014 didn’t end for seven weeks, and by week four ministers were emerging from cabinet meetings to trash the strategy and tactics of the prime minister, the defense minister, and the Israel Defense Forces. By week five, the government’s approval rating had come back down to earth, and by week six you had demonstrations in Tel Aviv. It’s grown to be par for the course. The same happened during the fighting against Hizballah in 2006, initiated by another ordinary government—near-unity at the beginning but then, as matters bogged down and went awry, strife.

Similarly, it would be nice if we could honestly say that we’re a meritocracy resistant to decay. In my essay I touched on the unremitting scandals high and low, especially high: as the saying goes, “The fish rots from the head.” Just in the weeks since publication, we’ve been treated to a superintendent of police found guilty of corruption, a Likud member of Knesset apparently given to snorting crack cocaine and running orgies, and an Iraqi-born retired general, ex-Labor MK, and ex-defense minister indicted for money laundering.

As for excellence, there’s some. The men who designed the Iron Dome system, the Nobelists at the Technion, the men and women of Silicon Wadi, the owner/chef of a felafel joint I know in Rehovot across the street from the Weizmann Institute—all are world-class. But from journalism to the arts to the rabbinate, from professional sports to basic education to higher education in the humanities, the default mode is mediocrity. Even the IDF isn’t immune. Evelyn Gordon notwithstanding, it hasn’t totally won a war in a generation.


Zionism’s two supreme virtues are or at least used to be its optimism and its compulsion to look things in the face. In their hearts, Rogachevsky, Gordon, and Gur must know that the Jewish state nowadays is comparable to a freight train. A locomotive represented by the wonderfully gifted and dedicated pulls a string of cars full of energetically squabbling individuals and groups looking out mainly for number one. Can a society this weakened by decay, mediocrity, and egocentricity rise to the occasion? What’s in store when the inevitable next war breaks out, possibly lasting months and featuring thousands of rockets of all types and varieties overwhelming Iron Dome? My respondents aren’t worried. I am.

So I repeat: a wider government, a unity government, and the sooner the better. It can’t hurt. Even without it, of course, it’s possible I’ll be shown to be wrong. It’s possible that when the war comes, and when and if it’s won and we’ve all behaved like the Israelis of old, I’ll find myself delighted to admit my worries were uncalled for. After all, I’m as fallible as the next Jew. I was the one heard saying an eon ago, at the premiere of a Broadway musical starring Zero Mostel, “Sholem Aleichem? This isn’t Sholem Aleichem. It’s schmaltz. It’ll close in a week.” Let’s hope I’m as mistaken about us Israelis at this point in our ever-interesting history as I was about Fiddler on the Roof.

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