Act II for the Jewish State — 19 December 2023

Jaffa with Tel Aviv, Israel in the background

After 75 years, Israel as an enterprise is not succeeding as it should. Jews should cut their losses in the Middle East and reboot the Jewish State elsewhere, focusing on building excellence instead of simply trying to survive.

Thomas Friedman’s New York Times December 2nd column shakes me up. 400,000 Israelis pay 92% of the taxes and make the country of nine million people work. 90% of that amount or 360,000 were mobilized to fight the current war. 43% of first graders are either Arab Israelis or ultra-Orthodox Jews that are likely to remain poor their whole lives. Of those 400,000, most of them are secular meaning they are not religiously observant Jews. Most of them will visit Jerusalem a handful of times their entire lives. For them Israel could be anywhere, and Israelis are known for being world travelers anxious to get away. The number of Jews that immigrate into Israel each year from wealthy countries is miniscule at about five thousand.

There are lots of good reasons for Israel’s most productive citizens to emigrate; what is their grand future in a country surrounded outside and within by people who want to destroy it, religious freeloaders and territorial messianic fanatics who either do not contribute to the country and/or siphon off large chunks of taxes to fund things the majority don’t want, and power-hungry leaders who care more about appeasing blocs of voters than making the country work. We saw the results of this on October 7 when the country paid the price for its arrogance, division and distraction. The long-term trends for this country are not positive in any way, be they demographic, business investment, political and security.

In wartime all the division is put to the side, but the fissures within Israel and the broader Jewish community are real – Israel is alien to 90% of the American Jewish community but yet American Jews are hostage to the hatred produced because Israel exists and to its policies to which American Jews have no input. Delegations of senior-level American Jewish leaders are treated with disrespect by Israeli government officials. The Israeli government has welched for years on agreements to let the non-Orthodox (90% of the American Jewish community) worship in its way at the Western Wall because coalition agreements with the ultra-orthodox were more important than unity with Diaspora Jewry. American Jews under 40 do not have nearly the same emotional attachment to Israel as their elders and some are even siding with pro-Palestinian organizations on college campuses. Biden is likely to be the last Democratic president sympathetic to Israel. An isolationist GOP will eventually tire of Israel. All of the other major world powers other than India and some European countries were not supportive of Israel after they were kicked hard on October 7th. All over the world progressive Jews have found themselves abandoned by those they thought were comrades, and they are shaken by the experience. This is a time where Jews and Israel have been finding out who their friends are NOT rather than who they are.

Israel is 75 this year and you’d think that by now people could celebrate a holiday weekend at home without worrying about 3,000 blood-thirsty invaders crossing the border and being totally out to lunch to prevent it despite billions of dollars spent on defense technology, the military and intelligence. My family couldn’t even go there for its 75th Independence Day to have a proper celebration because it was mired in its own shit show. Every time they want to celebrate something, there is always a reason why they won’t. Tourism doesn’t stay stable for more than a few years at a time. We Jews believe our propaganda as to how successful this country is, but truth be told, compare it to Singapore with 5.5 million people. Singapore was nothing 50 years ago and today its GDP exceeds Israel’s and in no way compares. In my opinion, Israel has underperformed as an enterprise, and we Jews who think we’re smarter than everyone else ought to be smarter than we are in terms of thinking about our Zionist dream.

Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a secularist who originally wanted to put his state in Uganda. The idea didn’t take off 100 years ago, but the world today is a different place and it’s not 1945 either. If I were Herzl today, I’d suggest that Jews take out a 99 year lease with renewal options (Hong Kong should have done that) on a territory either in Central or South America or in the Caribbean, pay out rent and maybe a royalty on its profits to the sovereign nation that is there and invite the 400,000 people that count to move to a better place. Every intelligent and entrepreneurial person knows that cutting your losses and optimizing your energy are virtues.

Most Jews outside Israel will never visit Israel. Of those that do, many are repeat religiously observant visitors seeing family or enjoying a bubble of kosher restaurants and hotels that don’t exist in their countries and seeing a small but influential clique of fellow travelers on Jewish religious holidays. The food is what people come back talking about after their trips. If you took that away, few people would ever visit. Once you’ve seen the country, there is not much to do there in terms of sightseeing or shopping. I’ve been there over 20 times but most of my trips in the past 25 years have been for only a few days at a time; I come for a reason, do my thing and get out. But in Panama, there are over 50 kosher restaurants and religious Jews love to visit and live there. Travel there is much more convenient. As for those holidays, Israel becomes a zoo at triple the normal price with traffic jams and old city closures with no timetable due to security situations, and Israelis tend to leave the country on their holidays —  we avoid the place like the plague on Jewish holidays.

Sitting in relatively peaceful Latin America with Latinos who are infinitely more cheerful and less antisemitic than Arabs, you wouldn’t have Iranian proxies all over your borders and terrorizing the population constantly from within, Iran threatening nuclear annihilation, the need for a large army and you could get rid of the 50% of the population that threatens to be a perpetual drag on the rest: the ultraorthodox, messianic territorialists, and the Israeli Arabs who feel they are second class citizens anyway. Let those that remain in Israel figure out how to deal with each other and the Palestinians and those that do not want to work for a living or serve in the army. Let it be their problem. I’m sure that if Diaspora Jews want to visit the Western Wall as tourists during their lifetimes, the locals will be happy to receive them and rip them off, which anyone who steps into a taxi upon arriving in Israel finds out.  In Singapore my teenage kids as tourists can go out on their own; in Israel, youth groups have to tour with armed guards with people on the streets in military uniforms all around, and I’d rather not have my kid spend a gap year somewhere he once called during an early-childhood visit “that freaky place of death.”

I’m religiously observant and for over 50 years my prayer book written hundreds of years ago tells me several times a day to pray for a return to Zion as if Israel never existed and we are still in the Diaspora. I always wondered why it wasn’t updated when we can pray in that ancient temple in Jerusalem if we wanted to but don’t because Israel may hold its political sovereignty but the natives won’t stand for it. Maybe like the Book of Mormon show lead character says at its end, Zion is more of a metaphor than an actual place. So I’m not going to stand on ceremony here and insist that the Jewish State has to be in a certain place.

This is not satire – I’m deadly serious. Israel has a lot to be proud of and it brings value to the world and humankind. When I go there, I am always impressed with what’s new. It is now 40 years since I first visited the country as a graduating high school senior and the place looks quite different although Tel Aviv to me is still ugly. Manhattan has also changed. But yet I feel that time is passing Israel and us Jews by, and we are all so caught up in it all that we don’t see the brick wall that is there. We are no closer to the Promised Land of being secure in our own country, and every day its citizens have to live in a pressure cooker as if it might be their last. When the airplane takes off from Tel Aviv, you always feel you are leaving bricks of worry behind. Almost everyone else in the world hates it where it is, and it just seems to me that we are all wasting our lives and diverting countless resources constantly trying to figure out how to allow this enterprise to survive without being free to let a Jewish State enterprise reach its full potential. It’s not a happy place and it will never be so under its current condition. Nobody has a solution to the Palestinian or Iranian problems or to reconcile Israel to its squabbling self – in Australia this summer I saw immigrant Israelis who said they didn’t fight for the past 75 years to produce the state that Israel is today. The Abraham Accords promising normalization of Israel are a mirage based purely on transactional arrangements between regional countries and America. There is almost zero public support for them within these countries, and the agreements could be undone in an instant. The current war will end in a way that satisfies nobody and the can will continue to be kicked down the road since Iran, which is ultimately directing the traffic, prefers to engage later when it will be nuclear-capable. The war to come will make this one look like a garden party. Israelis wanted to think they’d be past this by now, but their kids will still have to fight real wars. Would you want to sign up your family for this?

Stop fighting facts and future trends. Cut the drag and optimize what works. Go to a part of the world where their neighbors will welcome Jewish success and hope it rubs off on them. Just like states competed for Amazon’s second headquarters, countries would open doors to be next to the Jewish state because they understand that good neighbors help each other build better. Not like where it is in the Middle East where they are surrounded by a century of failed states with zero future with people who have no other desire than to use their territories to try and destroy the one place that relatively works. Who needs neighbors like this? Sometimes, it’s better not to try to join a club that doesn’t want you as a member. That’s not surrender; it’s trading up – it’s picking up your basketball and deciding to play on a better court with better players.

Besides, America seems to sit above a melting iceberg with trends that history shows are not good for Jews. We need to start thinking about a Plan B. A Jewish state is meant to be a place of refuge, and Israel today is more of a deathtrap and a place where immigrants either lower their standards to live an ideal or run away from a place with a bleak future; most of Israel’s immigrants this year came from Ukraine and Russia. The Jewish State needs to be more than that and in today’s world it can be. But Israel as it is will never be a refuge for virtually any First World Jews, no matter how bad things get in those countries. Even in the past, French Jews might go to Israel during some bad spats, but most of them returned to France within 2 years. Israel is a poor value proposition — its taxes are confiscatory and too much of it is being diverted to support freeloading sectors. Education has been deprioritized, and running a business there is not easy. It’s no wonder that entrepreneurial Jews are flocking to Dubai instead of Tel Aviv. But if we started all over and think Singapore or Dubai but in a better neighborhood, lots of American Jews would view it as an alternative to Florida and consider setting up shop there.  Foreign investors are already avoiding the country due to its unstable politics and now who is going to invest in infrastructure when every few years you have rockets raining down on your country? Israel was a much safer carefree place when I first went there in 1983. And even then a war in Lebanon was raging with hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets protesting. And then year after year with intifadas, wars with Lebanon — and all of these things coming out of nowhere without warning on a clear blue day that goes dark and the whole country suddenly goes kaput — I’ve seen it all happen and been here for some of it such as arriving in 2000 the day Sharon stomped all over the Temple Mount and then the country went crazy and I couldn’t wait to get out. I had just come from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan — an oasis in comparison. The movie just never gets good here. We say it’s good but it’s like the person who eats all his life in a kosher restaurant and has no idea what the rest of the world is eating. Does the average kosher steak really compare well?

It’s not politically or religiously correct to pour cold water on such a bright line of what generations of Jews have taken as gospel, but a reboot of the Jewish State could work a whole lot better. The politically aware class around the world would have to find some other type of roadkill to obsess their attention and the Jewish state could just be boring and focus on being excellent. Ah, to be like Australia where shark attacks lead the news. And the best part: If you take the Palestinian conflict out of the equation, we might not have to read any more Peter Beinart columns in the NY Times about this ever again.

Think about it.

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