When a state reaches a round-numbered birthday, we usually try to evaluate the balance of its achievements and failures and, at the same time, ask questions.

The Full Half of the Glass

There is no doubt that the state of Israel, with its over 7.2 million citizens, has attained great achievements. It is rare to find a state that has succeeded in making a renewed nation out of people who through the centuries had been dispersed in different parts of the world. It successfully absorbed waves of immigrants who came to start a new life, and many arrived after experiencing trauma.

The emerging society succeeded in developing a democratic system in a region where authoritarian regimes are the rule. It developed a tradition of freedom of information and media openness, with daily newspapers and other publications, TV channels and radio stations all carrying debates about Israel and the world. The Israeli public has access to international channels of communication, including Arab ones, to absorb information and knowledge. During the last decades this society witnessed the accelerated development of a civil society that consists of hundreds of NGOs that raise many different issues and serve as a place for involvement and participation. These trends indicate a positive ongoing process of different excluded societal sectors entering the political and social arenas and expanding the scope of issues that society debates.

Many of the founding fathers, influenced by socialist ideas, established a state that took responsibility for the weak, the sick, the elderly and the needy. Israel enacted a wide range of social legislations and set up extensive social programs for all Israeli citizens to provide them with a broad range of benefits and assistance. In 1995, the National Health Insurance Law guaranteed a standardized basket of medical services, including hospitalization, for all residents of Israel. Israel's extensive medical network and high doctor-patient ratio are reflected in the low infant mortality rate (4 per 1,000 live births) and high life expectancy (82.2 years for women, 78.5 for men). This reflects a high medical standard in Israel and high-level training for the medical professions, including a very advanced research level.

Similar achievements should be noted in education, despite recent setbacks. School attendance is mandatory from ages five to 16 and free through age 18, though less than half succeed in obtaining matriculation, the passport to higher education. Higher education, with over 270,000 students, is well regarded and plays a pivotal role in the development of the country. The universities are well known and advanced and, together with other R&D institutions, serve as vehicles for scientific achievements and technological development. They research a wide scope of research questions that few decades ago were unthinkable. The percentage of Israelis engaged in scientific and technological inquiry and the amount spent on R&D in relation to its gross domestic product (GDP) are among the highest in the world.

After having enjoyed one of the fastest GDP growth rates among world economies, Israel is now continuing the economic recovery that began in 2003. Israel's GDP has been rising at about 5% a year; earnings per capita reached about $21,000 (in 1980 it was about $5,500 per capita); unemployment has been steadily decreasing to 6.6.% in 2007; inflation is under control; and foreign debt has been eliminated, with Israel becoming a creditor in recent years and very attractive to international investors.

International-level progress was made in medical electronics, agro-technology, telecommunications, fine chemicals, computer hardware and software, food processing and solar energy. Hi-tech industries, which accounted for only 37% of industrial production in 1965, grew to 70% in 2006 ($29 billion plus another $5.9 billion in hi-tech services), and almost 80% of hi-tech products are exported.

It is also necessary to look at the cultural achievements. Israeli society has succeeded in developing out of a dying language a culture that can pride itself on many positive measures: writers whose works are translated into many languages; films that win awards in major festivals; plays that are performed on the prestigious stages of the world; some 2,500 books that are published annually and that can be found in the many bookshops of every town and city.

All these achievements are taking place under conditions of continuous threats and dangers. Israel is coping with a conflict that began prior to its birth. Through the years of its existence, Israel has fought at least six major wars, suffered from ongoing hostile and violent activities, especially terrorism. To be successful in facing its enemies, Israel has invested enormous efforts in satisfying its security needs and has a strong and well-equipped army; at the same time, Israel is becoming a regional power that has great influence over the events in the region.

The Empty Half of the Glass

Having given recognition to these impressive achievements, I have chosen to focus on the empty half of the glass. When you talk with many Israelis, irrespective of their personal political orientation, it is possible to observe despair and feelings of helplessness and even hopelessness in their assessment of the situation - though they focus on different problems because they differ in their values, ideology, goals and concerns.

I would like to focus first on two colossal failures of Israeli society and then to elaborate on more specific major deficiencies.
The first failure is that since the establishment of the state, many hundred thousands of its citizens - estimated to be about 800,000 - have emigrated, mainly to the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia and even Russia. This number is staggering and indicates that the state did not succeed in creating satisfactory conditions for its citizens.

The second failure relates to the continuation of the occupation of the territories conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. This occupation underlies many of the problems that Israel is facing and has many negative implications for life in Israel. The continuation of the occupation touches, first of all, on the security problems and on the moral soul of the state. The fact that the occupied territories were settled by Jews represents an added folly. This act not only contravenes international law but also constitutes one of the biggest barriers to solving the Israeli-Arab conflict. In addition, it is estimated that Israel has spent at least NIS100 billion to build the infrastructure for the settlements and roads and to maintain the settlers' security, which violates both the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israeli law. This will either bring an end to the state that the founding fathers dreamt of, or Israel will have to spend a similar amount of money in compensation payment to those settlers who will have to leave their homes, with feelings of alienation, frustration and anger. In addition to these major failures, there are a number of other serious problems that can be added to the empty half of the glass.

The Dominance of Neo-Liberal Policies

When neo-liberalism was being questioned for its severe consequences in various parts of the world in the 1980s, Israeli society accelerated its attempt to institute this economic-social model. The outcome is well known. The state is reducing its role in the life of the citizens, and abandoning its social responsibility towards them, while favoring the business sector. The government is decreasing its expenditure on education, health care and welfare, and these systems are constantly deteriorating, raising the need for increased private spending, which does not provide an antidote to the destructive policies. And economic growth is not equally beneficial to all classes. Over the past 20 years, inequality in income has been rising, and social disparities have grown to the extent that Israel is now ranked second in the Western world (after the United States) in terms of the gap between rich and poor - at present 1% of the population account for 60% of the wealth in Israel. This widening gap between rich and poor has also coincided with a significant narrowing of the middle class in Israel and a dramatic increase in poverty, even among working families. In 2007, 24.7% of Israelis and 35.8% of children lived below the poverty line - in 1998 only 22.8% of children lived below this line.

Dysfunction of Liberal Democracy

Although the state of Israel has established a well-functioning structural democracy, it still suffers from many deficiencies, especially in implementing democracy's spirit and values - human and civil rights, respect for the law, equality, fair treatment of minorities and preserving basic freedoms. One of the major problems is the disregard for laws and ethics practiced by the public at large and even by the state institutions and leaders. A diagnosis of the situation presented by jurist Moshe Negbi describes the process undertaken by the Israeli political culture in recent years as "a slope leading from a government of laws to a banana republic." A specific example is the report by attorney Talia Sasson, appointed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to investigate the functioning of the state institutions with regard to building outposts in the West Bank. She concluded that public authorities, such as ministries, the Israeli army, the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization and the municipalities used their authority illegally to actively assist and/or did not prevent the establishment of the unlawful enterprise. A recent report shows that about one-third of the settlements were built illegally.

According to the reports of Israel's state comptroller, the governmental institutions are plagued by protectionism, by politicization of the public services and by the use of public resources to advance personal-political interests. Close connections have been observed between the government, capital and mass media, as well as the penetration of criminal groups into party centers, and an extensive economic and political power of several dozen very wealthy families. A recent study has determined that Israel ranks sixth among developed countries around the globe in the scope of its black market.

This failure is related to the deterioration of the Israeli leadership in the last decade. The leaders have been accused of corruption, lack of accountability and lack of vision, manipulation of the public and, as a result, they have been losing the trust of the Israelis. According to a recent survey, 86% of citizens state that the government is not dealing adequately with the country's problems, and 68% believe that the people running the country are motivated by personal interests rather than the public good.

Another deficiency is the growing political power and influence of anti-democratic groups. The centers of these groups within Jewish society are found mostly in the ultra-religious sector, which rejects democracy both as a value and as a mechanism for governing. This view is expanding, as about half of the public rejects the democratic system. The trend of undermining democracy is also reflected in steady and continuous attempts to undercut the legal system, especially the Supreme Court - even by the present minister of justice - by trying to limit its function and politicizing its control.

Moral Deterioration

The problem of deficiencies in the democratic system is related to the deterioration of the moral values and standards. Corruption has been on the rise dramatically. While in 2001 Israel was in 16th place among the world's nations in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, in 2007 it fell to 30th place. In the last decade, all the prime ministers, some of the ministers and over a dozen lawmakers have been accused of corruption in various affairs. In addition, trafficking of migrant workers has become an industry, with a staggering annual turnover officially estimated at no less than $300,000,000 annually. This includes illegal trafficking of women for the sex industry, as Israel has become one of the major trade centers in the world. Moreover, various practices by the employers and even the government regarding these migrant workers point to a consistent violation of human rights.

Institutionalized Discrimination against the Arab Minority

Problems of democratic dysfunction are also reflected in the way Israel treats its Arab citizens, who are an indigenous minority. Israel is probably the only state among developed countries that is currently practicing institutionalized and cultural discrimination against its minority, including legal discrimination. This discrimination has created, in essence, an ethnic democracy and not a liberal democracy - a reality in which structural preference is accorded to the dominant Jewish majority.

Formal discrimination against Arabs by Israeli law and practices exists not only in symbolic areas, and is inseparably linked to continuous discrimination in every aspect of life. As a result, there are continuously growing gaps between Arabs and Jews in socioeconomic and living conditions in all major areas of life: housing, health, education, land, welfare, employment and more.

The governmental Orr Commission Report, published in 2003, presented for the first time an official recognition of the depth of discrimination and institutional exclusion experienced by Israel's Arab citizens. The report stated that:

[T]he state and all of its governments have failed to cope […] with the difficult challenges posed by the existence of a large Arab minority within the Jewish state. The governmental handling of the Arab sector is mostly characterized by neglect and deprivation. The establishment has not demonstrated enough sensitivity to the needs of the Arab sector and has not done enough to assure equal allocation of state resources also to this sector. The state has not done enough, and has not tried enough, to grant equality to its Arab citizens and remove manifestations of discrimination and deprivation.

This is accompanied by substantial support for the discriminatory practices among Jews in Israel and the normative discourse of Arab delegitimization. In 2007, for example, it was found that about 45% of the Jews in Israel denied the existence of Arab discrimination in Israel, and about 56% of them supported full equal rights between Jews and Arabs, citizens of the state, but only 22% supported political equality for the Arab minority and about 55% supported governmental encouragement of Arab emigration from the state.

The Ruthless Outcomes of Occupation

The most salient sign of the democratic and moral deterioration of Israeli Jewish society is the ongoing occupation. A deep-rooted system of dual sets of legal norms has developed in the West Bank: One for the Jewish settlers and one for the Palestinian population. These double standards have enabled the establishment of a system of segregation, discrimination and control on ethnic grounds in the occupied territories, with all the negative implications.

Many thousands of Palestinians, including civilians and children who were not engaged in any violent activity against Israel, have been killed or injured by Israeli forces. More than 600,000 Palestinians have been arrested, many thousands have spent years in prisons and administrative detention, many have been tortured and some expelled and their houses demolished. Many aspects of the Palestinians' collective and individual lives are controlled by the Israelis and this has had an immense negative effect on the development of their economic, societal and political infrastructure. According to a 2007 United Nations report, 57% of households in the territories live in poverty. This occupied population lives without basic human and civil rights, under continuous humiliation and discrimination that cannot be accounted for by threats to the security of Israel. About 100 checkpoints and several hundred roadblocks turn the lives of the Palestinians into a miserable experience. Many of the settlements and outposts were built on private Palestinian land confiscated under false pretexts, and parts of the separation wall are being built beyond the Green Line to take control of more Palestinian land.

Some claim that this behavior is a result of the threats that the Jews in Israel experience because of the Palestinians' purported goals and their violent behavior, or that it is a necessary by-product of occupation, and Israel does not differ from other occupying states through the ages, and is even more restrained. Even if they are partially valid, these arguments cannot justify the scope and extent of the violations of the Palestinians' human and civil rights.

Militarization of Israeli Society

Another major problem of Israeli society is the dominance of the military. Compared with other democratic states, the security forces in Israel, and especially the military, have determinative influence on policies, decision-making and the execution of actions, starting with the policies of peace and war and policies dealing with the allocation of resources and infrastructure. Because of this influence, military thinking has been adopted by the political echelon, as the military serves not only as a source of intelligence but also as national evaluator and chief source of strategic plans. The domination of public discourse by the Israel Defense Forces' aggressive worldview and its status as epistemic authority has brought about a degradation of moral values within Israeli society. The universal values of human rights and the sacredness of human life came to be associated only with the Jewish population.

This has a determining effect on the ability to carry out basic democratic processes, such as criticism of the military branch by the political branch, or inquiry into military operations or "mishaps" by those who are not in uniform. Comparative studies of the political and democratic echelons have shown that Israel ranks 36th and last on the measure of military involvement in political and social affairs.

Influence of Religion

Israel has not separated state and religion. This has had an immense effect on the personal lives of the citizens and violates basic human and civil rights. For example, matters of marriage and divorce as well as matters of conversion to Judaism are the monopolized responsibility of Orthodox Jewry. This monopoly creates tremendous problems for many of the citizens of Israel, especially those who came in the last wave of immigration from the former U.S.S.R.

The ultra-religious sector is growing. A majority of this sector - constituting over 11% of the potential conscripts - does not serve in the army, and a substantial portion of this sector - over half of the men - does not work, relying on external financial assistance.

Objectionism to Peace

In contrast to the widely accepted and shared belief among Jews that Israel never missed an opportunity for peace, evidence indicates that Israel has missed opportunities to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict and has frequently carried out intransigent policies. Examples range from Golda Meir's refusal to engage in negotiations with Egypt or to accept the Rogers Plan, the ignoring of proposals to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict put forth by various security institutions in 1967, the rejection by Itzhak Shamir of the London agreement with Jordan in 1987, the decision to declare and treat Arafat as a non-partner after the failure of Camp David in 2000, the ignoring of the Arab Peace Initiative (the Saudi Plan) initiated in 2002, to the rejections of Syrian attempts to resume negotiations. As the stronger side in the conflict, Israel has much more power to move the conflict towards its peaceful resolution, but this advantage is rarely translated into actions.


I believe that supporting Israel means seeing Israel with all its achievements and deficiencies - and then engaging in the ongoing debates and striving to create a better society, which is the best indication of love and care. This is the true nature of patriotism. The clash over the future of Israel is a crucial struggle.

1 The writer would like to thank Corinna Gayer, Uri Gopher, Nimrod Goren, Carmit Keter, Tamir Magal, Ofer Shinar and Shiri Tal for their help in collecting data for this article.