“Tel Aviv has a great energy,” says Amir Fattal. “It’s such a young, vibrant city,” he adds. “It’s open 24/7 and there are always people out on the street. It feels so lively when you’re there. And there is the amazing weather all of the time, and the beach is within walking distance — it’s such a great life.” Then, however, comes the qualification: “If it weren’t for the political situation, the place would be heaven.”
From admiring references to Israel as the model of a high-tech start-up nation to accusations that it is well on the way to becoming an apartheid state, Israel can divide people like few other countries. Just about everyone has an opinion on this nation, now celebrating the 70th year of its existence. The truth is that — throughout its short history — finding balanced views has been notoriously difficult.
A Jewish homeland
In the years after its creation, in 1948, Israel was a poor country with a weak economy. However, like Germany and South Korea in the 20th century, from the 1950s, Israel went through something of its own “economic miracle”. Thanks to high growth rates and, more recently, to an enthusiastic acceptance of cutting-edge technology, Israel has cemented its position in the Middle East. The country’s history has been turbulent. Jews had been settling in increasing numbers in Palestine since the early 20th century. Zionism — a movement to establish an independent state for the Jewish people — did not succeed until after the Holocaust, the Nazis’ attempt to destroy European Jewry. In May 1948, Israel’s population was just 806,000; it jumped to a million in 1949, two million in 1958 and three million in 1970. Today, Israel’s population is estimated at around 8.3million and the country is home to more than 40 per cent of the world’s Jews.
War with neighbours
The kind of murderous anti-semitism typical in Europe for centuries hardly played a role in the Middle East up until the 20th century. But on its creation in 1948, Israel was immediately plunged into a regional war against neighbouring Arab countries, who saw it as an unjust “Western” imposition on the existing Arab Palestinian population and their land. After centuries of living together, Arab countries began expelling Jews (and encouraging them to leave). A combination of Israeli forced expulsions and fear led to the mass exile of up to 750,000 Palestinians in what became known as the al-nakba, “the catastrophe”.
In May 1950, the UN set up 53 refugee camps to help the dis placed Arabs. Today, the UN says more than 1.5 million refugees live in 58 recognized Palestinian refugee camps in the region; there are now a total of five million Palestinian refugees.
The establishment of the state of Israel persuaded hundreds of thousands of Jewish migrants to head there. But Zionists were surprised that so few successful, educated Jews from North America and Western Europe moved to Israel.
Though US immigration was only 0.5 per cent of the total up to the early 1950s, Jews in the US provided much-needed economic and political support. German reparations for Nazi persecution of Jews also provided a major boost to the Israeli economy, explains economist Paul Rivlin, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies: “Israel was able to acquire, basically without cost, the equipment to build factories to employ the new immigrants and make the range of basic commodities that the Israeli market needed.” Rivlin, who is also a visiting professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says that the reparations may even have saved the economy from collapse.
Impressive economic growth
In the early 1950s, Israel’s economy grew by around 13 per cent each year, and then decreased to just under ten per cent annually
into the 1960s. Between 1973 and 1984, however, annual growth dropped to one per cent. Thanks to a strategic focus on high-tech sectors, Israel experienced rapid economic growth again in the 2000s, with GDP per capita increasing by six per cent. Indeed, the only country that beats South Korea’s current gross domestic spending on R&D investment is Israel, which is now a world leader in electronics, pharmaceuticals and software.
Osnat Lautman Mansoor (see interview above) has done extensive research on Israeli business practices and identifies some sociocultural reasons for the success of the economy. “In my new book, I write about how Israelis became so ambitious. It’s all about history, about building the Jewish [homeland],” Mansoor explains. “We don’t have enough people in Israel, so we need to think global, we need to think big. In Germany, you can do business with France, Belgium — all of Europe.”
From a different perspective, Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s Start-up Nation describes how such a small country has produced so many start-ups. The authors write that a culture of risk-taking and cooperation between the state and the military have significantly contributed to producing one of the most
Beautiful beach, perfect weather: Tel Aviv is a magnet for visitors and residents