Israel has changed so much since I moved here almost a quarter-century ago, for the better and the worse.
When I moved here, television ads were for drinking milk and eating oranges, not “Love Me” services and Orange cell phones. You couldn’t get a regular telephone for years, even if the prime minister intervened on your behalf. Today, every 16-year-old has two cell phones and an iPad.
Back then, all cars were white, and air conditioning was an uncommon luxury. The country’s wadis were filled with sand, not silicone. It was illegal to hold foreign currency, even for most businesses. Anatoly Sharansky was a Prisoner of Zion and Shimon Peres was on the right wing of the Labor Party. English was the country’s second language, not Russian.
When I moved here, serving your country was a privilege; living here was its own reward. Draft dodgers were people who closed their front doors when the evening breeze started. Israelis who moved to America were “yordim” (embarrassing dropouts) — even if they went to play basketball or star in movies.
Passover and Sukkot vacations were for hiking the wadis, streams, mountains and flower fields of the Galilee. Not for shopping-till-you-drop in the air-conditioned malls of Ramat Aviv or for flights out to the casinos of Greece. We danced hora, not trance.
Back then, our lives were governed by the Ten Commandments, good judgment and common sense. "Grass" was mowed, "coke" was a soft drink, and "pot" was something your mother cooked in. Most youngsters had both a mother and a father — of two different sexes. The Bible Quiz was the highlight of Independence Day television. The big festival in the spring was the May Day labor union march, not the gay pride parade in Tel Aviv.
Non-kosher restaurants were rare. Shabbat was truly a day of reflective rest, downtime for every Israeli. The Bible was a best-seller, not “The Invention of the Jewish People” by a post-Zionist Tel Aviv University professor. The Western Wall was where Jews went to pray, not demonstrate.
A domestic or criminal murder committed by a Jew was so rare and shocking that it held the headlines for weeks.
When I moved here, Israelis struck me as a very nosy people; everyone was into everybody else’s business. Help and advice were offered freely, even when it was neither solicited nor desired. Today, privacy is the buzzword, and Israelis are primarily concerned about the grass in their own backyards.
Meretz meant the strength to work hard. Shas was the six orders of the Talmud. Lapid was a torch you held high with pride at state ceremonies. Dan Meridor was a hawk. Burg was the name of our most veteran, thoughtful and erudite leader. Oslo was a wonderful, far-away place where you could get away from Middle East politics.
A "patriot" was a proud citizen, not a missile. Even the intellectuals were unabashedly patriotic. "Zionism" was considered the country’s heroic and defining ideology, not a chauvinist and politically incorrect prejudice. "Settlement" wasn’t a dirty word.
The Law of Return brought Jews to Israel. The Supreme Court dealt with legal issues, and left it to you and me and the Knesset to decide what is "reasonable."
U.S. Jews used Israel’s difficulties to raise money, and actually transferred the funds raised to Israel to pay for social services. They didn’t play favorites by funding Israeli political parties or partisan agendas.
Egypt was the Arab country we had the least problems with. The Iranians weren’t bothering us either. Jerusalem was the eternal, undivided capital of Israel. A unifying symbol. It was the first choice of schools on annual school trips.
Back then, Israel was feared, not fearful. The Golan Heights, West Bank mountaintops and Jordan Valley were “indispensable” to Israel’s security, by consensus. Withdrawal was a financial term (something you did with money at the bank), and disengagement meant breaking someone’s lovesick heart. A saw was something used to build homes. Today, however, "withdrawal" and "disengagement" are the unfortunate rallying calls of mainstream political parties, and the "saw" has become a political tool to "relocate" or dislocate Israelis from their homes for partisan political purposes.
Mahmoud Abbas was the deputy head of a terrorist organization, determined to replace the State of Israel and make Jerusalem his capital. Today, well, he is still determined to make Jerusalem the Palestinian capital, and he is a lot closer.
But then again, we’re seven million strong in this country; a poignant riposte to Hitler’s Holocaust. The birthrate is high above the Western average, and Israel remains a family-oriented society. According to all polls, Israelis are overwhelmingly proud and happy to live here. Our youth want to serve their country in the best and most difficult military units, and their determination to fix the social-economic ills of the country is stirring.
Israel’s leadership ranks are no longer a white-Ashkenazi-Labor-socialist preserve, but more representative of the rich and diverse population. Even the media is more heterodox than ever before, thanks to Israel Hayom and other outlets. Moreover, traditionalism and values education are beginning a comeback. As a result, I argue that we are more united than ever before (and this includes broad consensus on the most difficult Palestinian, Iranian and domestic issues).
Our universities and yeshivas are first-class, with tens of thousands of students and “talmidim.” The economy is cutting-edge and strong (although the cost-of-living remains too high). Israeli high-tech and biotech are benefiting billions. Israeli hospitals are among the best in the world, treating thousands of Palestinian and other Arabs (alongside Israelis) every year and conducting ennobling humanitarian medical work around the world. Our artistic communities are bold and inspirational. Israel’s wines are becoming world-class. The good Lord has now granted us major natural gas deposits just off our coasts. And we had rain this past winter.
On balance, the country is moving in the right directions, and I am so glad and honored to be living here.