What will Israel Be Like in 50 Years?

In just fifty-five years, Israel has built a thriving democracy; an economy whose per capita GNP exceeds the combined total of its four neighbors-Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt; eight universities that contribute to advancing the world's frontiers of knowledge; a life expectancy that places it among the healthiest nations; a prolific culture utilizing an ancient language rendered contemporary; and an agricultural sector that has shown the world how to tame an arid land. However, despite these achievements, major challenges abound.

The first and most obvious of these challenges is the "Peace process". If the issue is not resolved, then Israel does not have a bright future. If Israel gives up the territories, I see it staying much the same, with natural growth of the ultra religious population. If not, then it will either end up a bi-national state or apartheid-style Jewish state, neither of which are attractive or desirable options. The only viable alternative, in my opinion, is separation, which inexorably will lead toward Palestinian self-determination.

Striking a balance between Palestinian national aspirations and Israeli security concerns is the key to finding a realistic solution, and the survival of both states; Israel and Palestine. Separation can be achieved through peaceful negotiations or by unilateral action. The Oslo Accords intended to obtain the former whereas the wall being built at present aims at the latter. Personally, I hope that despite the wall, both sides will eventually return to the negotiating table.

Within Israel, the major long-term challenge, I suspect, will be to ensure that the ties that bind Israelis remain far stronger than those forces threatening to pull the country apart. The most ominous of these forces-and the most difficult to solve-is the religious/secular divide. I strongly believe in insuring the distinctive Jewish character of the state. At the same time, history has amply demonstrated the dangers of excessive entanglement of religion and state. Indeed, bad as such entanglement is for the state, it is even more corrosive for religion and religious leaders. Seeking God and votes do not mix.

Therefore I hope for (but can't predict) an eventual separation of religion from the State. Moreover, to make matters still more complicated, Israel is a Jewish state with a non-Jewish (mainly Arab Muslim) minority numbering close to 20 percent of its citizens. Added to this are the recent estimates that some 60% of the newcomers to Israel are non-Jews, at least according to Halacha, and 38% of the newcomers lacked even a Jewish father. Typically, a new immigrant, himself only a quarter Jewish, can bring his non-Jewish wife, his grown children, and the non-Jewish spouses of his offspring to Israel.

Under these circumstances, there is considerable concern about the effect the presence of so many people with such tenuous ties to Judaism and to Jewish culture will have on Israeli society. This is especially so, because the numbers are large, and in contrast to previous waves of immigrants, there is a new tendency for the immigrants, particularly Russian-speakers, to retain their culture and not to integrate. Another issue to consider is the large number of non-Jews who not only choose to disregard their Jewish heritage but have actually chosen to practice Christianity in Israel.

As a result of the arrival of Russian-speaking immigrants, Russian Orthodox Churches in Jaffa, Jerusalem and a number of other cities are full of worshipers. Moreover, many messianic Christian groups have found fertile ground for their missionary work. With the arrival of Russian immigrants, the struggle over the sale of pork has also been exacerbated. The situation of many new immigrants who are not Halachically Jewish has been made especially precarious because civil status in Israel is governed by religious law and is unaffected by the Law of Return.

Consequently, some olim find themselves entitled to citizenship but unable to marry in Israel. They also encounter difficulties finding a place in Jewish burial grounds. In order to ease this problem, some rabbis have suggested that the military rabbinate convert non-Jewish immigrant soldiers serving in the IDF. I suspect that in 50 years time the definition of "who is a Jew" in Israel will be very different from what it is today, and conversion will be made easier for any Israeli resident for the simple reason that if it isn't, Israel will not be a "Jewish" state in any sense of the word (pure demographics).

The definition of "Jewish" in 2050 will probably have evolved to include half and even quarter Jews as well as non orthodox conversions. Certainly, the whole issue of immigration (and the presence of more than a quarter million non-Jewish guest workers) will not disappear any time soon. The economic divide also cannot be ignored. A not insignificant segment of Israel is prospering. But hundreds of thousands of residents of development towns and neglected urban neighborhoods have been left behind, creating a wide income gap, not to speak of a disparity in both opportunities and services.

In fact, Israel is now reported to have the widest gap between rich and poor of any Western democracy, and the number of Israelis falling below the poverty line is growing. In conclusion, despite certain pressing and worrisome issues, I do not think that Israel's future (or Israel in 2050) is so bleak. In the past Israel has shown a determination to survive and prosper. We have witnessed the "impossible", most notably in the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Anwar Sadat had not only been anti-Israel but also pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic. Yet in 1977 he made his historic trip to Jerusalem and the rest, as they say, is history.

I think that in 2050, Israelis' expectations will be less tied to the ideologies that brought their forefathers to the Land of Israel and more to what "normal" people want in "normal" places; that is to say, personal success, health and happiness for themselves and their families, a chance to succeed in what they choose to do with their lives. They will be less interested in communal goals and more in individual ones, at least private and personal ones for themselves and their families. Their goals will be less ideologically Zionist or even Jewish and will become more conventional; that is to say, "like all other Western democratic nations. "