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Op-eds

Looking at Israel on South Africa’s Freedom Day

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Israel has been brimming over with happiness in celebrating 70 years of existence. Thousands have flocked to staged, lavish events and political leaders have given rousing, populist speeches.
by BENJAMIN POGRUND | Apr 26, 2018

Of course, there is every reason for joy, starting with the mere fact of survival. From the very day of its founding, Israel has had to endure civil war, invasion by foreign armies, plane hijackings, suicide bombers and the terrorist murders of men, women and children.

While overcoming all of this, it has created a new home – a haven – for millions of Jews from around the world. It has become a powerhouse of success, whether in agriculture, the arts, medicine, engineering or hi-tech. It is the Start-up Nation phenomenon because, as David Rosenberg of Ha’aretz newspaper says: “Israelis have the rare ability to look outside the box and develop new products and services, which these days means digitising everything from automobiles to insurance.” The economy is doing well and GDP growth is about 3.5%.

The words of self-congratulation have poured out. Jews in the Diaspora, whose devotion and help have played their part, have joined in the plaudits.

A 70th birthday can also be a time for self-examination. That’s when the worry starts. The day after Independence Day, The Jerusalem Post reported that since the 1970s, “Israel has fallen behind the rest of the West when it comes to investment in education, healthcare, infrastructure and transportation per capita”.

“At the same time,” added the report, “Israel faces two primary socioeconomic challenges: declining labour productivity – which makes it harder to raise living standards – and the many ultra-Orthodox and Arab pupils, comprising nearly 40% of all students, who are receiving a third-world education.”The report quoted Dan Ben-David, a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University, as saying that the number of senior research faculty academics in universities per capita has plummeted from 140 professors per 100 000 people (the same as the US in the 1970s) to about 50 per 100 000. Israeli students are next to last in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in tests in maths, science and reading.

Israel has the largest educational gaps in the developed world between students in wealthier areas and those in poorer and minority sectors: “Shining hi-tech is drawing off the cream of the students, while the majority of Israelis are increasingly struggling to keep up.”

The number of hospital beds has dropped from 3.3 per 1 000 people to less than 1.9 today. With hospital occupancy rates at more than 94%, overcrowding has fuelled hospital-acquired infections, more than doubling in the last 20 years. The mortality rate is the highest in the OECD. Israel has six nurses per capita, compared with 11 abroad.

The newspaper said that when Ben-David sits down with government officials, “many of them leave with their jaws dropping. But change is slow, with ministers citing bureaucratic and political obstacles as a reason for inaction.”

The Jerusalem Post report did not say so, but the declines match the start of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the astonishing victories of the 1967 Six-Day war. There was no mention of the occupation and its consequences in Independence Day official speeches. Yet the occupation and the Gaza blockade have fundamentally altered the nature of Israel, its people and every aspect of the economy.

It is well documented. Over the past nearly 51 years, billions of dollars have been poured into the West Bank, officially called Judea and Samaria. From zero in 1967, there are now more than 400 000 Jews. Tricks and crookery have been used to seize land from Palestinians. Apart from the known official budgets, vast amounts have been illegally siphoned off from ministries to build houses, crèches, mikvehs, roads and fences, and to pay for 24-hour security.

It has been done at the expense of education, health care, social welfare and infrastructure within Israel.

The occupation has also eaten into the soul of Israel. Young soldiers are themselves brutalised as they brutalise the millions of Palestinians who suffer under the tyranny and bureaucratic cruelties of military rule.

Can Israel control another people and also claim to be a democracy? That question is accentuated because there is currently a right wing trend to change traditional democratic practices.

Ending the occupation will not in itself bring peace. The complexities and dangers are immense. But it must be the first crucial step towards peace with Palestinians. The alternative is never-ending hatred and rejection of each other by both sides and mutual killing without end.

The ugly deeds which inevitably come from suppressing Palestinian anger and resistance provide propaganda ammunition for Israel’s enemies, many already fixated by anti-Semitic hatred for the Jewish state. As though the occupation is not bad enough in itself, they also exaggerate and distort and draw a false analogy with apartheid. They cynically use the cause of humanitarianism to mislead people in the world.

Many in South Africa fall for this. That is deeply unfortunate because the people in both countries are the losers. South Africans have fought through the worst of racism and are working to eradicate its effects. They have much to teach Israelis and their experience could give them significant roles in bringing together Israelis and Palestinians. South Africans could learn from Israeli successes and could gain immeasurably from Israeli know-how, from water conservation to hi-tech.

Israel has proved itself to be a country of wonders. Now courage and vision are needed to sustain what has been achieved and to go into an even greater epoch. Might that begin with the 71st anniversary?

1 Comment

  1. 1 Rodney Mazinter 28 Apr

    Reading or listening to Benjamin Pogrund is always such a pleasure for me. A true humanitarian with strong liberal, democratic instincts. It is very hard to deny the veracity of his arguments and yet there is a niggling doubt at the back of my mind that elicits some unanswered questions. There is a nagging feeling of having been there, done that, all to no avail. Israel’s voters in election after election have reflected the high humanitarian principles of Judaism and elected governments that were liberal, if not left leaning: men and women who were prepared to go out on a limb for peace, to make hard sacrifices and expose the country to danger in order to bring the Arabs on board in search of an accommodation that, while not sacrificing each other’s beliefs, recognises and respects the rights of the other to live as they choose. And that is the sticking point: while Israel has always shown tolerance the Palestinians and their extremist friends have not. Just when the world thought that with a little give and take peace was at hand, the Palestinians drew back and launched their murderous intefadas. There is an overwhelming element of hatred on the Arab side that predates Netenyahu and the election of a more centre/right government, and its consequences that Pogrund so eloquently writes about. There are no signs of accommodation on the Palestinian side, just unremitting hatred and a desire to destroy the “powerhouse of success, whether in agriculture, the arts, medicine, engineering or hi-tech. … the Start-up Nation … [that has] the rare ability to look outside the box and develop new products and services.…” In the service of all, one might add, not just Israelis. Pogrund must tell us how to deal with the infamous “3 No’s” regarding the Arab recalcitrance with regard to negotiation, recognition and peace with Israel and has demonstrated via its various founding documents that it remains their aim the destruction of Israel and all Jews.

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