Does Tel-Aviv make Israel "soft"?
Peter Waldman has an interesting page 1 article in the Wall Street Journal, TEL AVIV BUBBLE: As Israel Prospers, Some Fear Its Defenses May Grow Soft. Among other things, Waldman points out that
Israel has flourished beyond the wildest dreams of the ardent socialists who founded the Jewish state. Powered by high-tech exports, the Israeli economy grew 6.3% in the first quarter this year, with a 28% jump in personal consumption of durable goods, such as cars and refrigerators. Sales of Porsches doubled in 2006 from 2004, and last year Lexus opened shop in the Jewish state.
Waldman's piece includes more info and statistics and he focuses in particular on Great Tel-Aviv as a symbol of this Israeli economic and technological progress. The problems starts when he tries to suggest that these dramatic socio-economic changes are responsible for the weakening of the Israeli resolve to deal with its security challenges.
Yet prosperity has not brought security. As Israelis begin another summer fraught with regional instability, some are pondering a troubling question: Is the idea of an advanced consumer society, with its attendant individualism, compatible with the solidarity and focus required to defend a small state bordered by hostile neighbors? And could the growing gap between poor and wealthy Israelis undermine its national drive to protect itself?
Such concerns have grown particularly stark in recent months, as Israel has grappled with a crisis of confidence. Last summer's military stalemate with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas's recent conquest of the Gaza Strip over rival Palestinians have reinforced Israeli worries that it takes more than a high-tech army to address the terror and missile threats it faces from enemies on its borders. Later this summer, the independent Winograd Commission, appointed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, will release its review of last summer's war. The commission's harsh preliminary report suggests it will recommend an overhaul of Israel's national-security system, and possibly the resignation of Mr. Olmert himself.
One lesson from last summer's war: Even the world's best precision-guided weapons, fired from the most advanced military aircraft, can't quell a committed guerrilla force on the ground without support from trained and tested combat troops. Now the question is whether Israelis, like citizens in many developed countries, are losing the stomach for that sort of slog.
"If Israel is a shopping mall in a jungle of extremism," says columnist Ari Shavit of the Ha'aretz newspaper, "the challenge is keeping the mall going from within, while protecting it from without."
At the center of the commitment quandary is Tel Aviv, Israel's go-go commercial hub and its most westernized city. After last summer's war, the Israeli army's chief of human resources, Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, sparked a public furor when he decried that just three out of Israel's 119 war dead came from Tel Aviv, a city of 380,000 inhabitants and Israel's second-largest after Jerusalem. By contrast, the West Bank settlement of Eli -- population 2,500 -- lost three soldiers as well.
Sorry but I don't buy this thesis that Waldman seems to promote, that as Israel is becoming more Westernized and "Americanized" and embraces the values of economic and political freedom, including individualism and consumerism, and becomes more open, connected to the global economy and, yes, "cool," it is taking the road towards decadence and decline. That Israel is bidding farewell to its socialized economy and to old collectivist Zionist cliches is actually good news. It makes Israel economically stronger and attractive and a place where people want to live and prosper. As I pointed out in my Israel's Clash of Civilizations — Part II: Tel Aviv, the "spirit of Tel-Aviv" is creating more pressure for "normalization," including a drive to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
Many American Jews suffer a cultural shock when they first visit Tel Aviv, the hustling and bustling Mediterranean "city that never sleeps." Having grown up watching reruns of the movie "Exodus," they often still imagine Israelis as yarmulke-wearing cowboys, valiantly defending their land against attacks from vicious tribes of Arab terrorists. Arriving in Tel Aviv, these Americans find something entirely different.
They encounter secular, middle-class Israelis practicing their new religion of consumerism and planning their next trip to New York or Paris as their Reebok-shoed children dance to the latest rap music.
Instead of engaging in more heroic pursuits, Tel Aviv residents while away their evening hours in traditional Mediterranean pastimes: eating, drinking, gossiping, flirting and engaging in passionate and noisy political debates.
Israel was supposed to be different — an original masterpiece — not a distant echo of ideas and trends produced in New York and London.
Yet, that is what Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, has turned out to be. The city has become a symbol of a Western-oriented, modern Israel.
The spirit of Tel Aviv is alive and well. The city is first and foremost yearning for "normalcy." It wants Israel to become modern, to cut the messianic roots of Zionism and create a "normal" nation-state, Israel. That nation-state would still have strong cultural and religious ties to Judaism and the Jewish world. It would be Jewish in the same way that Poland and Ireland are Catholic, but not in the same way that Pakistan and Iran are Muslim.