While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state, his policies encourage a mass exodus of Jewish Israelis from the country. Today, the notion of a Jewish refuge in the land of Israel is greatly at risk. Much has been made of what former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once called a "demographic time bomb," with the Palestinian birthrate soon to have the number of Palestinians exceed that of Israelis between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Yet Palestinian demographics aside, more Israelis are living abroad than ever, and many Israeli residents are eager to join them.
The lack of visionary leadership in Israel today has served to entrench the notion that the future of the state is at risk, that the conflict will only continue and intensify, and that opportunities for a prosperous, secure livelihood are better to be sought elsewhere. Netanyahu's Israel is one that is increasingly beholden to extremist religious and intolerant voices, exacerbating the outlook for the future. As a result, Israel is looking more like its avowed enemy, Iran, than its ally with whom it claims to have shared values, the United States. In effect, life in Netanyahu's 'Jewish state' amounts to a new kind of Jewish ghetto, which many Israelis are increasingly opting to escape.
To be sure, calling Israel a "ghetto" may appear to be drastic hyperbole, and of course, in some ways it is. Today, however, Israel is in control of its own fate, it has the tools and resources to defend itself and the means to establish a nation-state with a bright future shaped by the vision of creative and bold leaders, empowered by a diverse, vibrant democracy. This is the vision of Israel that captured the imagination not only of world Jewry, but also of Israel's friends and allies across the world. The problem is that this vision that characterized Israel when it was created in 1948 is rapidly disappearing. Israel today is more isolated than ever before in the international arena, with friends and allies dwindling amidst a growth of delegitimizing efforts and rising anti-Semitism globally. The idea of creative and bold leadership that enhances diversity even within the Jewish community in Israel today has become, sadly, laughable. Rather than uphold democratic values in shaping a bright future for all its citizens, Israeli leaders are more apt to promote ideologically charged legislation like the recently passed anti-boycott law and pending legislation to investigate the funding of left-wing NGOs. Meanwhile, despite the repeated criticism of the Prime Minster by over a dozen ex-chiefs of the Shin Bet and Mossad, Netanyahu failed to advance a compelling peace initiative. He and his coalition partners remain obstinate, and alarmingly clueless.
As a result, many Israelis feel trapped. They are caged in a small, increasingly isolated country, surrounded by enemies and led by leadership more interested in advancing warped ideologies than a secure and prosperous future for its citizenry. The economic conditions today may be bright, but the future looks uncertain and even bleak. It should be no surprise that many Israelis want out. The statistics are plentiful, and worrying. Some already estimate the number of Israelis living abroad is nearly 1 million. A study by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in 2008 indicated more than 30 percent of Israel had applied for a second passport or intended to do so, but some have put the number as high as 60 percent. A 2007 study by Tel Hai academic college showed that nearly half of teens 14-18 want to live elsewhere, with 68 percent citing Israel's condition as "not good." Seventy-eight percent of Israelis recently indicated that they would like Israel to become part of European Union, with 11 percent saying with EU citizenship, they would move immediately. Already, over 100,000 Israelis have German citizenship, with as many as 7,000 being given new passports each year. Yet even more troubling is that current statistics confirm the same trend and what is worse is that who is in fact leaving. Recently, researchers Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin wrote in Foreign Policy that "The Israeli emigrants are deemed to be disproportionately secular, liberal, and cosmopolitan." Nearly half of Israeli emigrants have a university degree, twice as many as that of average Israeli residents. Meanwhile, the Haredi population in Israel, highly dependent on government assistance, has more than tripled in size in just twenty years.
This is a recipe for an economic disaster and democratic atrophy, and secular Israelis in particular know it. Combine these ingredients with the ongoing conflict, and the Netanyahu government's propensity to ratchet up tensions with Israel's neighbors rather than diffuse them and it becomes quite understandable why moderate and educated Israelis cannot bear to continue raising their children in such a state. Whereas the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) used to serve as a national symbol of solidarity, defending the Jewish homeland from terrorists and enemy states seeking Israel's destruction, today it is increasingly viewed with apprehension as an occupying force. At the present, less educated and secular Israelis are enlisting and nearly half of military age Israelis no longer serve in the military.
IDF statistics show that by 2015, 30 percent of recruits will be Haredi; despite the fact that nearly 15 percent of military age Haredi men receive a waiver for IDF service, a testament to the substantial growth of the religious community in Israel. Research last year by the military journal Ma'arachot showed that in 1990, the percentage of combat officers who were religious was just 2.5 percent. Twenty years later, nearly one-third of IDF combat officers are religious. Historically, in Israel the one institution that brought the citizenry together as a cohesive 'unit,' most admired and above the fray of politics, was the military. Sadly, today it is perceived by the outside world and growing number of Israelis, albeit not accurately, as a tool of suppression, potentially undermining the moral fabric of the Israeli society.
Many Israelis witnessing these trends rightfully foresee the following: An Israel facing considerable economic challenges caused by brain drain, an exponential rise in religious families receiving government assistance, and by continued increasing military expenditures to protect the settlers while maintaining a state of military readiness. Politically, the picture is equally bleak: Israel's future looks more right wing, less democratic, and more isolated within the international arena.
So what is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing about this? Although this dangerous trend began by his predecessors, he is making the situation considerably worse. On the one hand, he demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, while on the other he is adding fuel to the fire that is the exodus of the secular, educated Israelis from the country, by advancing the politics of the hardened ideological and religious right. As a result, he is actually undermining Israel's Jewish future, not safeguarding it. In effect, his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is nothing but a ploy to make up for his own bankrupt policies that are jeopardizing the country's future as a safe and secure heaven for all Jewish people. Indeed, the Jewish national identity of the state cannot be maintained by a Palestinian recognition but only through sustainable Jewish majority. Rather than establishing a vision for Israel's future that combats the disturbing trends outlined above, Netanyahu is exacerbating them. As a result, as his fellow citizens despair of perpetual conflict and look for any possible way to escape it, Netanyahu is using Israel's legitimate national security concerns to advance an ideological land grab in the West Bank which undermines rather than enhances Israel national security prospects.
Thus, Netanyahu's policies are reinforcing the notion of the modern State of Israel as a ghetto. Israel is no longer about serving as the only secure refuge for the Jewish people. After all, today, as noted above, Israelis are ironically clamoring to return to Germany and other free countries. Of course the notion of a refuge was a leading argument for the need for a Jewish state, one that would be a "light unto the nations," and promote a vibrant democracy providing for all its citizens. Yet today that notion of a Jewish state is unfortunately not one of inclusion, but of exclusion. More than half of Jewish Israelis polled by the Israel Democracy Institute last year stated that the government should be encouraging Israeli Arabs to emigrate, with even more saying that Arab communities should receive fewer resources than Jewish ones. No longer is the Jewish state about a safe, secure and prosperous future for the Jewish people living in a diverse democracy. Gone is the notion of Israel as a nation with a pioneering, democratic spirit.
However, Israel should not -- and is not -- resigned to this fate. A new leadership can still change the country's direction. The current government has already discredited itself as an inclusive democracy. Netanyahu is unlikely to change course and initiate efforts to usher in an Israeli future based on a vibrant, educated democracy utilizing the economic opportunities that would arise from genuine, lasting peace treaties with its neighbors. However, instead of opening the gates of the new ghetto that Israel has become, Netanyahu and his government are closing those gates. Under this misguided leadership Israel is becoming a garrison state locking itself into religious and ideological extremism, international isolation and a future of perpetual conflict.
Israel could harness the spirit of the evolving region to create a vision for what President Shimon Peres used to call a "new Middle East." Such policies would offer the kind of future for which Israeli emigrants are searching where they can expand their horizon and seek unlimited opportunities throughout the region while anchored in Israel instead of leaving it behind.
A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on July 21st, 2011 and is available online.
Follow Alon Ben-Meir on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AlonBenMeir