TEL AVIV BUBBLE
As Israel Prospers, Some Fear Its Defenses May Grow Soft
Zionism Meets Feng Shui
June 26, 2007; Page A1
MOSHAV BNEI ZION, Israel -- For 60 years, this farming cooperative near Tel Aviv has been a bulwark of Zionism. Its original 97 families cultivated grapefruit and oranges for export, and molded their teenagers for elite combat jobs in the Israel Defense Forces.
Today, the moshav's old chicken coop houses an industrial-design firm and a company that makes steering-wheel sensors to alert dozing drivers. In a corner office, a real-estate broker moonlights as a feng shui consultant. Several farm lots have been sold off for multimillion-dollar homes, inhabited by suburban families whose kids have only tenuous links to the youth groups that kindled Zionist spirit here for decades.
The makeover shows how Israel has flourished beyond the wildest dreams of the ardent socialists who founded the Jewish state. Powered by high-tech exports, the Israeli economy grew 6.3% in the first quarter this year, with a 28% jump in personal consumption of durable goods, such as cars and refrigerators. Sales of Porsches doubled in 2006 from 2004, and last year Lexus opened shop in the Jewish state.
Yet prosperity has not brought security. As Israelis begin another summer fraught with regional instability, some are pondering a troubling question: Is the idea of an advanced consumer society, with its attendant individualism, compatible with the solidarity and focus required to defend a small state bordered by hostile neighbors? And could the growing gap between poor and wealthy Israelis undermine its national drive to protect itself?
Such concerns have grown particularly stark in recent months, as Israel has grappled with a crisis of confidence. Last summer's military stalemate with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas's recent conquest of the Gaza Strip over rival Palestinians have reinforced Israeli worries that it takes more than a high-tech army to address the terror and missile threats it faces from enemies on its borders. Later this summer, the independent Winograd Commission, appointed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, will release its review of last summer's war. The commission's harsh preliminary report suggests it will recommend an overhaul of Israel's national-security system, and possibly the resignation of Mr. Olmert himself.
One lesson from last summer's war: Even the world's best precision-guided weapons, fired from the most advanced military aircraft, can't quell a committed guerrilla force on the ground without support from trained and tested combat troops. Now the question is whether Israelis, like citizens in many developed countries, are losing the stomach for that sort of slog.
"If Israel is a shopping mall in a jungle of extremism," says columnist Ari Shavit of the Ha'aretz newspaper, "the challenge is keeping the mall going from within, while protecting it from without."
At the center of the commitment quandary is Tel Aviv, Israel's go-go commercial hub and its most westernized city. After last summer's war, the Israeli army's chief of human resources, Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, sparked a public furor when he decried that just three out of Israel's 119 war dead came from Tel Aviv, a city of 380,000 inhabitants and Israel's second-largest after Jerusalem. By contrast, the West Bank settlement of Eli -- population 2,500 -- lost three soldiers as well.
Tel Aviv's count would be expected to be higher, because military service is obligatory for men and women in Israel. Gen. Stern attributed the disparity to Tel Aviv teenagers' high rate of evading service and low enlistment rate, compared with the national average, in combat units. He also castigated Israeli society at large for going soft. "In this war, I had a feeling that the value of human life was above sticking to the mission," Gen. Stern told the paper Yediot Ahronot.
Moshav Bnei Zion, just 16 miles north of Tel Aviv, is a showcase for the changes roiling Israeli society. In the past decade, several of Israel's richest tycoons have bought large farm lots here from the original moshavniks and built Beverly Hills-style mansions. Their arrival has pushed the "Tel Aviv bubble," as Israelis call the Western aura that envelops the financial capital, into the nation's heartland, spreading the tension in Israeli society between sacrifice and self-aggrandizement.
Founded in 1947, Moshav Bnei Zion was structured on the semicollective model forged by the first moshavim in the 1920s. In a moshav, residents farm their own plots as well as community land, and share the profits. They own their homes and manage their own financial and family affairs. This contrasts with the better-known kibbutzim, where members have traditionally resided in community-owned housing and drawn on communal resources for everything from meals to vacations to child rearing.
Moshavim and kibbutzim were both instrumental in fulfilling the early Zionists' goal of transforming waves of Jewish refugees into farmers, factory workers and soldiers. Largely secular, the founding Zionists envisioned a place where Jews, through strength and self-reliance, could make a break from centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe. Such a Jewish state, the thinking went, would serve as an egalitarian model for the rest of the world.
Steeped in Zionist ideology, Israel's farming collectives produced many of the country's statesmen and military leaders, from the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to Six-Day War hero Moshe Dayan and the highly decorated Ehud Barak, Israel's current defense minister. While kibbutzim have never accounted for more than 7% of Israel's population, as many as half the pilots in the Israeli air force have hailed from the communal farms.
In recent years, the socialist ideals of the founding Zionists have given way to one of the most successful entrepreneurial economies on earth. In place of solidarity, some Israelis argue, there is a growing gap between haves and have-nots. Rates of poverty are high among the country's 20% Arab population, but are also growing among Israeli Jews. Though the average Israeli salary has risen steadily, to more than $22,000 a year currently, one in four families live below the official poverty line. The poverty rate among children is 35%.
Rich and poor live side by side at Moshav Bnei Zion. One of the first tycoons to move here was Shari Arison, who controls Israel's largest bank and is the daughter of the late Ted Arison, founder of Carnival Corp. cruise lines. She paid $1.3 million for her 2.5-acre lot in 1997. In 2005, Noam Lanir, an online-gambling impresario, bought the same-size lot next door for $3.5 million.
Prices for modest homes in the moshav are also soaring. Several 3,000-square-foot houses built a decade ago for children of the founding families have recently sold for more than $1 million each. In the adjoining community of Harutzim, built in the 1950s to house North African immigrants, stucco "Sachnut specials" -- tiny bungalows named for the Jewish Agency that threw them up -- look like servants' quarters next to the new, bougainvillea-draped villas on the same quiet lanes.
The moshav's 300-student school, Hovev, serves the children of the North Africans, farming families and wealthy newcomers. Talia Naim, a 22-year-old kindergarten teacher who grew up here, has noticed a dramatic change in just the past five years. She and her friends came of age in the cocoon of their Zionist youth movement, Farmers' Unity. They spent their teen years on hikes, at campfires and songfests, and doing community projects.
Today, the teacher says, the suburbanites who have moved into the area stick more to their private worlds. Many of her 17-year-old sister's peers come and go as they please, with their own cars and motorcycles. Instead of attending Farmers' Unity summer camp, the affluent kids travel abroad. "They're spoiled," Ms. Naim says.
Real-estate agent Yoav Hadari is torn by the transformation he has helped propel. He and his family pulled up stakes in Tel Aviv seven years ago for a home with a garden on the moshav. As the first-generation immigrants have died off in neighboring Harutzim, Mr. Hadari has done a brisk business selling their bungalows to commuters who've ripped down the old structures and built large houses on the lots. He fields frequent inquiries from real-estate speculators in the U.S. and Europe. He also gets calls from ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad, whose black-clad sects are considering nearby farmland for new communities, he says.
Despite his success, the 41-year-old broker, who has a side business advising clients in the Chinese design principles of feng shui, says he's fed up with what he calls Israel's "post-Zionist culture." A land and people that once stood for something have become nearly indistinguishable from other Western consumer societies, he argues. His 11-year-old daughter belongs to the Farmers' Unity movement on the moshav, "but it's all about exploring nature. It has nothing to do with Zionism any more," he says.
He's thinking about pulling up stakes again for a new suburb in a more tranquil place. An avid surfer, Mr. Hadari wants to move to Australia, where his sister-in-law's family fled a few years ago from a rash of Palestinian terror attacks. "It's not worth the struggle," he says.
Many Israelis have also grown weary from decades of unremitting conflict. Ron Gazit, whose family owns a caf? next to the moshav, grew up attending a Zionist youth movement and served in Lebanon a decade ago as an elite paratrooper. He loves life in Israel, he says, but he recently secured European passports for his family, a hot trend among Israelis of European origin. He is considering emigrating with his wife and baby girl.
"When my father and grandfather fought in wars, they each believed their children would one day live in peace. But now I have more experience," says Mr. Gazit, 33. "Every 10 years there's a clash, and every 10 years it's more extreme."
Col. Tziki Sela, the Israel Defense Forces' head of manpower, says the country's young remain firmly committed to fulfilling their conscription obligations. More reservists than needed volunteered to serve in last summer's war, including many Israelis who flew back from homes overseas, he says. And despite the conflict's mixed results, the number of applicants for combat units from this year's enlistment class jumped 4% over last year, defying the army's expectation of a drop, says Col. Sela.
It's the longer-term trends that worry many Israelis. The number of draftees requesting psychological discharge is also on the rise -- up 7% from a decade ago, Col. Sela says. Most of these people are perfectly healthy shirkers, the colonel believes, who are exploiting a lax evaluation process for personal gain. "There's a lot of pressure on youngsters to get out and earn money," Col. Sela says.
To crack down, the military is developing tighter psychological screening procedures and a new category of dishonorable discharge to stigmatize fakers, the colonel says. Also under development is a plan that would, for the first time, create incentives for Israelis to prolong service in the more-dangerous army units. Code-named "star certificate," the award would entitle selected veterans to discounts on consumer goods, vacations and other services, Col. Sela says.
The heart of the Tel Aviv bubble is Allenby Street, where the dance clubs don't rev up until after 2 a.m. In the predawn heat on a recent morning, music and young bodies rippled onto the sidewalks, as a clutch of half-a-dozen revelers wandered between bars.
They resent Tel Aviv's image as mammon, the youngsters say. "What's wrong with wanting a normal life?" asks Rotem Levy, 23. "It's global. People everywhere think more about themselves nowadays."
Though members of this group say they served in the army, they all have friends who received psychological deferments for dubious reasons. One of their buddies, they say, told the army he hears ghosts; another said he's a bed-wetter. A third described an inch-tall companion who converses with him from a perch on his shoulder.
"People don't want to waste three years in the army when they could be starting their careers," says Adi Cohen, 23.
Religious Israelis, whose commitment to the land is rooted in scripture, are filling the gap. "We teach kids it is beautiful to serve your country and care for your neighbor," says Eitan Mor-Yosef, head of Bnei-Akiva, a national youth movement that pairs Zionism with orthodox religious training. "If people move away from traditional Judaism and the Torah, they lose their idealism."
With government funds, Bnei-Akiva has opened more than 80 religious high schools in the past 15 years, Mr. Mor-Yosef says, and tripled its youth-group membership, to 75,000 children. It also operates religious schools for soldiers. The group is strongest in nonaffluent areas: The group's membership has soared in Jerusalem and in poorer areas of central and southern Israel, he says, while chapters have dwindled in Tel Aviv and in some wealthy suburbs nearby.
Observant Jews now account for a growing proportion of military personnel, Mr. Mor-Yosef says. Though about 20% of Israeli Jews are observant, the religious make up roughly 40% of the army, he says, up from less than 15% two decades ago. The army says it doesn't track such figures, and a spokesman says he believes Mr. Mor-Yosef's percentage is high.
Traditional left-wing Zionist groups believe the solution lies not in religious training, but in wiping out the wealth gap -- by restoring the welfare state. Over the past decade, economic changes have eroded the socialist infrastructure of the founding Zionists, from numerous moshavim and kibbutzim to national labor and health-care systems. State subsidies for families, based on size, have also been slashed.
As a result, Israel has broken its compact with the people, says Chagit Shvarzman, 25, an organizer with the General Federation of Students and Young Workers, one of the oldest and largest Zionist youth groups. During last summer's war, she says, thousands of Israelis in the north went hungry in bomb shelters. No one came to help, she says, because the government had privatized relief duties to companies that fled when the missiles fell. The Israeli government is reviewing procedures so that never happens again.
"A lot of reservists saw how the state treated those people," Ms. Shvarzman says. "The next war, they won't understand why they should go."
Her youth group is attempting to revive the spirit of Zionism through new kibbutzim organized not as farms but as educational collectives. At one experiment, at the Ayalon Institute in the central city of Rehovot, 23 young people live communally and many work as tour guides at an old bullet factory located 25 feet beneath the kibbutz bakery. At its peak in the 1940s, the clandestine plant produced 40,000 bullets a day for Jewish fighters battling for independence.
One of the guides, Yuval Katzir, says Israelis are reaching a "crucial time." They must restore Zionism's quest to build a moral society, or face worsening internal alienation, he says. Israel can't be just another high-tech suburb along the global consumer highway, he argues.
"Israel isn't France," says Mr. Katzir, 26. "If it's not just and good, it won't last."
--Nancy Shekter-Porat in Tel Aviv contributed to this article.
Write to Peter Waldman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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