At 63, Israel makes great progress despite unknowns

Most Israelis viewed the last five months of tectonic shift in the Middle East with hope, but also caution.

Officially, Israel kept comment to a minimum, wishing the Arab people well, but understanding that a liberal democratic outcome was not the only possible outcome in the countries undergoing internal regime change. Israel’s perception was seen as uncharacteristic given its democratic nature, and not in keeping with the general enthusiasm with which the emergence of people power was met in the U.S. and Europe.

But the Western response has since grown nuanced and moved closer to the Israeli view. There is greater awareness, both here and in Europe, that political developments in the Middle East today carry not only tremendous hope, but also momentous challenge.

Peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians became even more complicated in the last year given the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to engage in negotiations with Israel and now with the Hamas-Fatah unity pact. Israel’s ambition remains the achievement of a full peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority that will determine borders and all other substantive issues, but we will not be able to reach peace with a Palestinian governance that does not accept our existence.

The broader implications of the Hamas-Fatah agreement have yet to play out, and it is our deep hope that the Palestinian leadership will remain our partner in the achievement of peace between our peoples in the framework of two states.

In the Bay Area, attempts to challenge Israel’s legitimacy did not gain traction. The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign was almost completely blunted, and in every instance in which a wider public entered the discussion, attempts to marginalize or one-sidedly condemn Israel were dismissed out of hand. We may face challenges in the future that may require our resources and time, but ultimately the public is fair and will continue to reject extremist arguments, whether on billboards or before student governments.

Not only has the BDS agenda largely failed, but Israel’s economy is growing. In 2011 it will be the first country in the world to institute a national electric car grid — Israelis will be able to purchase electric vehicles commercially and drive them from Metulla to Eilat, stopping no more than they would to fill up with gas.

And nowhere is the impact of Israeli tech innovation felt more keenly than in Silicon Valley, where Palo Alto’s University Avenue seems to blend seamlessly into Herzliya Pituach.

In the Bay Area, Jewish schools are expanding, and some even face oversubscription. Israel is being taught through innovative curricula, and there is a renewed emphasis on teaching Hebrew. Israeli cultural productions came to the Bay Area on an almost weekly basis. On a mission of the rabbinic leadership to Israel last January, I found a skilled spiritual leadership committed to Israel and devoted to deepening the ties of their communities with the Jewish state.

Yet there is one glaring statistic that troubles my sleep, and should bother every member of the Jewish community.

This year, same as last year and the year before it, we continued to reject more applicants to Birthright than were actually sent to Israel. Of the young people in the Bay Area who applied to go on a Birthright trip, 58 percent were rejected and told that there were no financial resources for them to participate this year.

We know from years of empirical study that 80 percent of those waitlisted do not reapply, and we know that those who participate become animated and re-engaged about their Jewish identity.

The problem is not a lack of buses in Israel, or lack of Israel government funding — Israel almost doubled Birthright funding this year. The waiting lists exist because local Jewish financial contributions are lacking.

This is a huge failure of the imagination on the part of our community. The great majority of these Birthright applicants are young Jews from unaffiliated families. They have little or no connection to our synagogues, schools or federations, but they hear that Jewish people are offering them a visit to their homeland. They knock on our door — and we turn them away.

In doing this, we act shortsightedly as a community and mortgage our future. I very much hope that 2011 will be the year that the Bay Area becomes the first major metropolitan region in North America to abolish its waiting list and send every Birthright applicant to Israel.

Akiva Tor
is the consul general of Israel to the Pacific Northwest.