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The Economist on Israel at 60: She’s showing wrinkles

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Apparently, the Jewish media isn’t the only one interested in reflecting on Israel at 60. A 10-part series in the British weekly The Economist takes a look at Israel from multiple angles and comes to the inevitable conclusion – after six decades the Jewish state is a mass of conflict and contradiction, at one secure and prosperous, a modern state in a backward neighborhood, the product of years of triumph over adversity and yet with its most vexing existential challenges still to come.

Like all the stuff coming out for Israel’s 60th, this series doesn’t shy away from some frightening stuff. Take this passage from a piece examining the decline of Israel’s vaunted “people’s army”:

“More and more people are finding ways to evade tough duty, or duty altogether. Medical, psychological and religious exemptions are on the rise. Army sources estimate that around half of those who obtain a medical certificate to avoid or cut short their service are actually shirkers. The statistics for the 2006 Lebanon war show that religious Zionists and soldiers from kibbutzim, the crucibles of secular socialist Zionism, were over-represented among the dead. It has always been these, the most ideological, who were the readiest to die for their country. But with the ultra-Orthodox (who get religious exemptions) and Arab populations swelling, and qualms growing among the secular centre, the institution that has traditionally been Israel’s melting pot is slowly becoming less and less so.”

Or take this deconstruction of Israel’s supposed high-tech muscle:

“And beneath its gleaming high-tech skin, the body of Israel’s economy is slightly worn. True, the country has some successful industrial giants and does well in a few export niches such as generic drugs, weapons systems and agricultural and water-treatment technology. Water scarcity has already led Israel to build the world’s biggest desalination plant, and around ten more are planned. However, much of the country’s traditional industry (eg, machinery, chemicals, clothing and food), which accounts for more than half of its jobs, is lacklustre. Average industrial productivity is around half that in America. One reason: Israel leads the world in R&D spending as a proportion of GDP, but this is heavily concentrated in high-tech. In more traditional industries the rate is just a quarter of America’s.”

Or this account of Israel’s frustrating attempts to write a constitution:

“Arabs are boycotting the discussions because they reject the starting assumption of Israel as a Jewish state, but are not numerous enough to challenge it. Ultra-Orthodox Jews want more power for rabbinical courts. The “Russians”, as post-Soviet immigrants are known, want it to include the right to civil marriage, to cater for the 300,000-odd non-Jews among them, which would break the rabbis’ monopoly. Moreover, not everyone agrees that the time is ripe. “It’s no accident that we haven’t had a constitution for 60 years. It’s not that we forgot,” remarks Ami Ayalon, the ex-head of the Shin Bet, now a Labour minister without portfolio. “A constitution is an expression of agreements that don’t exist yet.”

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