One of the frustrations Israelis feel about the recently released Winograd Commission report is that it was too general in its stinging criticism of the Israeli government and army in their conduct of the 2006 war with Hezbollah. By blaming everyone — from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his cabinet to the commanders of the Israel Defense Forces — in a sense, it allowed everyone to remain blameless. Or more practically, it allowed each of the key figures to explain away his own actions and cast responsibility on someone else.
On a deeper level, the report and the public’s response to it, speaks to a widescale, major problem in Israeli society today: the failure of leadership to act responsibly.
This was the underlying theme of the Herzliya Conference on national security I attended last month, where surveys and experts offered piles of evidence to show that Israelis deserve far better than the quality of government they are getting, and are increasingly cynical about how society operates.
“We have a resilient, strong society whose institutions are not as strong as the people deserve,” asserted Gabriel Ben-Dov, who heads the school of political science at the University of Haifa in his report on national resilience.
And Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Re’ut Institute, said that “the No. 1 problem” in preventing Israel from becoming one of the 15 leading countries in the world regarding quality of life is “the government,” which cannot keep pace with the private sector and whose bureaucracy discourages others from dealing with it.
Lack of faith in the conduct of the government is pervasive, from widespread corruption charges at the highest level to the steep decline in education in a country that once prided itself on being so advanced for its size and population. Indeed, Israel’s very survival depends on cultivating its one natural resource: human talent and ingenuity.
But for a variety of reasons, including budget restraints, oversized classes and insufficient teacher salaries and incentives, Israel has dropped precipitously from the top education rankings among the nations of the world. And this year’s teachers’ strike, allowed to go on for months, was an outrage. It forced students to lose almost a semester of classes, underlying the lack of leadership in dealing with a national crisis.
Not surprisingly, in a new project unveiled at the Herzliya Conference, an expert group of economists and a panel of several of Israel’s emerging young leaders each identified education as the country’s most pressing social need.
Asked how they would allocate a hypothetical extra 6 billion shekels in the government budget, the young people unanimously chose to spend it all in just two categories: with the bulk in education, and the rest on projects related to making the government more accountable. (The economists listed 10 priority areas for social needs, including the environment, security, welfare and health.)
“We also added two categories that weren’t on the list — culture and identity,” noted youth panel member Ahava Zarembski, the 30-year-old founder and president of the Yesod-Masad Initiative, which offers strategic support on Jewish Peoplehood issues to policy makers.
An American who made aliyah seven years ago, she said the youth panel found that both Jewish and Israeli identity are issues that need to be explored in terms of strengthening Jewish education for Israelis (whose public schools provide only an hour a week of Jewish instruction). A byproduct would be closing the gap between Israeli and American Jews, she said.
The report on the prioritizing of Israel’s social needs, written by conference chair Uzi Arad and Rebecca Leicht, a young New Yorker who spent several months on the project, endorses programs that would recruit high-quality teachers, increase salaries, create challenge grants for schools to invest as they see fit, and invest in programs that would stress government accountability, like law enforcement in tax evasion.
The voices of active younger Jews here and in Israel are not only idealistic in their demands but pragmatic as well, combining a broader vision with ideas about how to better leverage dollars to make them more efficient, maximizing their impact. Zarembski noted that young Israelis are “leading the way” in the work of various not-for-profit groups, from NGOs (non-government organizations), to new philanthropic ventures, to successes like Ma’aglei Tzedek, which promotes standards of social justice and ethics as well as kashrut in Israeli society.
If there is a silver lining in all the examples of failed leadership among Israel’s establishment it is that a new generation of younger people are fed up and insisting there is a better way, taking the lead toward building a more creative Zionism for the 21st century. Their future, and in some way ours, depends on their success.