Yom HaAtzmaut 2014: State of the Nation

Last week, Israel and the Jewish world celebrated the Jewish state’s 66th anniversary. It’s hard to imagine that such a short time ago Israel was established. At that time, only 650,000 Jews lived in the newly born country. Since that Friday afternoon, on May 14, 1948, when David Ben Gurion declared the new state, Israel has moved forward, making gigantic leaps as no other nation has. Since that day, Israel’s population has surged, in part, because relative to its population, it takes in more immigrants than any other nation on earth.

I’m sure our founders are very proud of the seeds they planted and of Israel’s accomplishments and contributions to the world. But since their day, the world has changed. The average Israeli is very different from the founding generation.

So who are we, average Israelis? Let’s take a look at Israel today, a “State of the Nation” by numbers:
Today, Israel numbers 8.18 million citizens, a growth of 1.8 percent since 2013. Of that, 75.2 percent are Jews and 20.6 percent are Arab Israelis (Muslims, Christians, and Druse). The remaining 4 percent of Israel’s population comprise non-Jews or Arabs who are Israeli citizens. There were 175,000 babies born in 2013. Based on statistics, Israel’s population is expected to reach 11.4 million by 2035.

“Sabras,” or native-born Israelis, make up 73 percent of the Jewish population in Israel. In 1948, just 35 percent were native born! In 2013 Israel welcomed approximately 16,600 new immigrants, most of them from the Former Soviet Union and North America.

Israel is considered by many to be an intensely political country. And they wouldn’t be wrong. The majority of Israelis (67 percent) are interested in Israeli politics; however, only 17 percent of Israelis participated in political or social activities last year, the majority of them from younger age groups. More than politics, our neighbors and the peace process, Israelis are interested in their day to day lives, social justice and well-being.

In terms of political affiliation, 51 percent of Israelis are right wing, 22 percent see themselves as center and 27 percent defined themselves as left wing. A greater percentage of young people define themselves as belonging to the right.
When Israelis look outside their borders, 52 percent feel that the Western world is against us. And 63 percent of those who hold this view are young people.

More than half of Israelis define themselves as completely secular, 26 percent as traditional and 21 percent as haredi (ultra-Orthodox) or religious.
You don’t have a picture of what the average Israeli is about yet? Here are a few more statistics:
Most Israelis live in Jerusalem, the largest city in the country. A great majority of us live in urban areas (91 percent). Only 6 percent live in kibbutzim and moshavim, the collective farms in which the socialist ideals of Israel’s founders were invested.

Most of us work, and most households require two incomes, meaning that both parents need to work. Unemployment rates are relatively low and stable in recent years, at about 6 percent.
Almost 70 percent of us love reading printed books (a small minority reads electronic books). More than 50 percent of Israelis have an academic degree and almost a third have an advanced degree. Sixty-eight percent of all Israelis own their own apartment or house and almost 40 percent travel abroad at least once a year on vacation.

Back to Yom Ha’atzamaut, the majority of Israelis, 82 percent, consider themselves Zionists; 90 percent see themselves as always living in Israel, willingly. But the approximately 65 percent are not satisfied with the way the Israeli government is handling internal affairs. And finally, 82 percent of Israelis are proud Israeli citizens.

Last week our JCC Israel Center hosted a group of 37 seniors age 65-90 from the JCC Metrowest in New Jersey. This very special group had the privilege of being in Israel to celebrate Israel’s 66th anniversary on Yom Ha’atzmaut with Israelis. One of the participants summed up the experience with, “After singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem with Israelis, in Israel, from now on singing Hatikvah will be so much more impactful, and I intend to learn all the lyrics!”

The founding generation planted the seeds for a new democratic society. Sixty six years later; those seeds grew into beautiful forests filled with all sorts of trees with many different fruits, flowers and branches. The wind blows the treetops about, and on stormy days, in confused directions. But all the trees stand tall, proud and strong. They stretch up, aspiring toward the sunlight, as do we all when we look forward to a bright future.

And, on a very different note, On Tuesday former Prime Minister and former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison and fined NIS 1 million for his role in a real estate corruption case considered the largest of its kind in Israel’s history.

This is the first time a prime minister was convicted of a felony and now, with his sentencing, the first time a former prime minister has ever been sentenced to jail time.
There are many ways to look at this, all through very sad eyes. However, apart from the disappointment and embarrassment, I see reasons to be proud of our justice system. The state of Israel proved to its citizens, and to the world that it is a real democracy, and that no one, not even a former mayor and a former prime minister is above the law. The Olmert trial proves the egalitarianism of the law in Israel.

Leah Garber, Vice President, JCC Israel Center
leah@jcca.org

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