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Israel, the whole story

Posted: July 27, 2011 - 9:04pm

For most of the world, the word “Israel” instantly conjures visions of violence, bloodshed and political confrontation between Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Israelis. Decades of violent territorial disputes, terrorist attacks, and countless wars have helped sketch a caricature of a country consumed with a conflict that makes headlines around the globe. The picture is not so much inaccurate as it is incomplete. Inside Israel, much more goes on than fretting over when the next war will start or where the next terrorist will strike.

Evidence of some of the other more mundane, but still pressing, issues preoccupying Israelis suddenly sprouted on several cities after a Facebook post calling for protests over the exorbitant cost of renting an apartment.

To be sure, the danger of violence is never far from people’s minds. Difficult challenges such as the dispute with Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear program weigh heavily. But Israelis have many other matters on their mind.

In some respects, Israel is a country like all others. Anyone expecting only bunkers, bombs and soldiers, would find it surprising to see its crowded beaches, bustling street markets, and busy restaurants. To anyone expecting only a nation obsessed with conflict, Israel’s celebrated film-makers, academic researchers, and the technology wizards would come as a shock to their preconceptions.

While the world watches every brick used in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, many Israelis are more preoccupied with the housing situation west of the Green Line, where most of the population lives. In recent days, Tel Aviv’s leafy Rothschild Boulevard has become the stage for a growing protest over housing prices. A sprawling tent city has come to life in the wide green space between the two lanes of traffic, evoking images of the protests sweeping the Arab world.

Israel’s economy is booming. Unemployment has dropped to less than 6 percent, a near record, while incomes have climbed steadily, partly on the strength of technology exports. But growth has also created economic differences, adding to political strains.

These are complicated times in a complicated country. Israel is a country of contrasts, of ideas so radically different that one wonders how they can co-exist in such a small place.

The country grew in just a few decades as Jews streamed in from around the world. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees expelled from Arab countries arrived in Israel bringing with them their unique traditions and worldview. About a million more Jews came from the former Soviet Union, absorbed into Israel alongside the Jews thrown out of countries like Yemen, Iraq and Libya, and many more arriving from places as different as Afghanistan and Argentina, Poland and Paraguay. They have somehow managed to live together and build a raucous democracy. But it has not been easy.

Of Israel’s 7.5 million citizens, about 20 percent are Arabs and about 25 percent are Orthodox Jews. Most Israelis are not very religious. Many are very liberal; many are extremely conservative. That friction makes international headlines when it affects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it more quietly affects every aspect of daily life.

Israel, in most respects, is the most liberal, progressive country in the Middle East. Unlike the United States, for example, partners of gay government employees receive full benefits and pensions. The state recognizes gay marriages performed in other countries, and Gay Pride parades have become almost routine in modern Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, however, anti-gay sentiment has created a strange-bedfellows alliance of Muslims, Christians and Orthodox Jews, who have joined forces against gay groups.

In recent months, liberal Israelis have started fighting back against some new initiatives of rightist forces in government. The strains between differing political views have become evident as Israel faces an international campaign to boycott the country. Mixed inside the anti-Israel campaign are two groups, those who would like to see Israel disappear altogether, and those who want it to make greater compromises. One ideology is odious, dangerous, and rejected by practically all Israelis; the other is legitimate, valid and enjoys the support of large numbers of Israelis, even if they reject their tactics.

Rightist parties have pushed misguided legislation to defend against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. A recent effort, to investigate groups supporting BDS, was properly defeated in the Knesset. An earlier, equally misguided bill banning support for boycotts was approved.

This most unique of countries blends the politics of every other nation — the need for affordable housing, good healthcare and education — with the pressures of its vulnerable strategic position, and the added stress of a population blend unlike any other on earth. It’s a picture so complicated that no simple caricature could possibly do it justice.

• Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.

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