Should Israel be more like America?

by Brian on March 31, 2019

in In the News,Politics

When I first arrived here in 1984, I wanted Israel to be more like America. It was a common aspiration among immigrants: Israel of the mid-1980s was a much rougher place than it is today, with infrastructure resembling that of a developing nation (remember six-month waits for a home phone line?) more than the world-class Startup Nation it has become.

Not that I didn’t respect what Israel had to offer – I chose to move here, after all. But I hoped that, with time, and maybe with the influence of a few more Anglos, Israel would catch up to American standards of personal service, competitive prices, polite public discourse and environmental awareness. 

Now, the opposite seems to be the case. I’m worried that Israel is becoming too much like America.

While it’s true that service has improved and many (though certainly not all) prices have come down, the kind of thinly veiled racism and divisive hate-filled speech that have become endemic in American politics are now the major talking points of the current Israeli election. The same kind of polarization and finger-pointing rife between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. is being played out between Right and Left in Israel. The epithet “fake news” has migrated across the Atlantic far too smoothly. 

Moreover, the leaders of both countries are under investigation while politicians and operators here and there have already been charged, convicted, served time or are on their way to prison. Israel has not even been able to escape the scourge of phone hacking and rumors of compromising videos, both of which are now part of our political discourse, as well.

Anglo-Israelis used to blame Israel’s shaky coalition system for our electoral woes. Wouldn’t it be better, we mused, if we had a more stable, two-party system with an independently elected president? 

Now, the American system hardly seems like one to emulate. 

Israel’s diverse population doesn’t clump into relatively (and I use that term cautiously) homogenous geographies like those that elect the U.S. House of Representatives. The binary structure of Republicans vs. Democrats also ensures that if you support the losing candidate, your vote essentially goes to waste. That’s mitigated somewhat when you have a multitude of smaller parties, as in Israel.

Smaller parties also work to check the ascent of populists, says Harvard University political scientist Yascha Mounk, author of “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.” While coalition building does tend to give outsized power to the fringes, it can positively serve to prevent a single powerful leader from turning into an outright authoritarian. 

How so? Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would have had an easier time passing the so-called “French Law,” which grants immunity from prosecution to a sitting prime minister, if his Likud party held an unchallenged majority in the Knesset. But his coalition partners have (thus far) blocked such legislation.

It’s not just politics: There are other areas where my one-time dream of “becoming more like America” would disadvantage Israel.

Healthcare. A friend was suffering from chest pains while on a recent trip to New York. His doctor wanted to check him into the hospital. My friend agreed – but first he flew home to Israel. “No way would I ever want to get caught in the American medical system,” he explained. “The hidden bills could kill me.” 

Israel’s universal healthcare system may be underfunded and its hospitals overcrowded, but not once have I been turned down for an expensive cancer treatment as have some of the people in the U.S. that I’ve become friends with through various cancer groups on Facebook. To be sure, there can be long waits for specialists, and many Israeli physicians are unnecessarily curt, but socialized medicine works.

Public transportation. Earlier this month, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira published a damning report on Israel’s failure to implement an effective system of buses, trains and light rail, especially compared with OECD countries. I, on the other hand, think Israel’s public transportation is actually pretty terrific.

But my frame of reference is not Europe but the U.S. where, apart from the biggest cities, much of the country is not accessible by decent public transit…if at all. When I was growing up, the closest bus to my suburban California home was a 45-minute walk. Egged may serve some far-flung communities only once a day, but there’s nary a place in this country which is not reachable without a car.

The IDF. I happily missed the draft lottery in the U.S. – it was abolished when I was a teenager – but that doesn’t mean military service is an a prioribad thing. In addition to defending a country in a dangerous neighborhood, Israel’s mandatory army gives soldiers unparalleled responsibility at a young age, spurs social cohesion and pushes off the age at which students enter university. Israeli students come charged up for college with maturity and extra determination.

There is one area where I would like to see Israel take a page from the American playbook: legalization of cannabis. Yes, we have it for medical use, but it’s still too hard to get a license. The recent decriminalization of recreational pot is a good start. But with the surprising rise of Moshe Feiglin and his Zehut party’s pro-cannabis platform, even if Zehut doesn’t clear the threshold, it’s got the other candidates talking. 

Easier access to cannabis might just help mitigate some of the more hateful aspects that now dominate our political discourse.

I first compared the U.S. and Israeli systems at The Jerusalem Post.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: