Judging Israel is no simple task, but this does not keep the simpletons from complaining. We read that Israel is failing to take the steps necessary to protect its people, and failing to explain what it is doing; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz (who should not have been appointed) and their generals failed in Lebanon II; Israel is giving too much to the Palestinians of the West Bank; and is being too strict with the maintenance of barriers; Israel's lack of response to the missiles against Sderot reveals a moral bankruptcy; Israel's quarantine against Gaza, and its frequent incursions to capture or kill represent unacceptable violations of international law.
It is not easy being an Israeli policymaker, soldier, commentator, or citizen. The pressures are intense, and the constraints awesome. What other country faces chronic efforts to kill its civilians, and lives in the spotlight of international organizations that find it convenient to hold Israel (and usually only Israel) to the highest standards, and might welcome the destruction of Israel?
The country also suffers from its own history and political culture. It is the Promised Land of the Chosen People. Biblical prophets set the standard of intense morality. Nothing by way of realism or compromise in the face of constraints is good enough for prophetic demands in behalf of JUSTICE. Different prophets have their own standards of justice, and it is impossible to please one without offending others.
The prophetic insistence on perfection is found not only in the Bible. It appears on the op-ed pages of the country's newspapers, and from commentators heard daily on radio and television.
The prophetic mind set is not the sole possession of right or left.
Prophets from the right demand that Israel maintain control over the whole of the Land of Israel, and proclaim that the sky is falling on account of imperfect concerns for the Jewish people. Often this is the style of Diaspora-oriented fear mongers, or Israeli religious nationalists, who have not thought themselves beyond the shtetl or the Holocaust, or selected passages from the Torah.
The prophetic mind set from the left would hold Israel to the highest standards of openness and fairness to its minorities and neighbors, overlooking the real threats from people who want to kill Jews and destroy the country. Another kind of left-wing rant comes from people who want the best of public services. They demand for Israel what they imagine to be on offer in the richest countries of North America or Western Europe, without taking account of economic constraints. The World Bank ranks Israel among the wealthiest countries of the world, but close to the bottom of that league. It cannot afford to pay for all the goodies promoted by social activists. Moreover, its budget is constrained by the highest proportionate outlays on national defense of any Western country. Prophets seldom ask why.
We hear that higher education is in crisis and getting worse. Yet each of the country's universities appears on a recent list of the 500 best in the world; and one-half of the country's universities appear on a list of the 150 best.
Critics complain that the national health system does not provide all of the latest and most expensive drugs and medical procedures. Patients near death are convinced that they will be saved if health authorities would only be more generous.
Occasionally we hear that medical innovations may be life-extending, but that they are not life saving. If we pay close attention, we may hear that the stuff on demand does not work as desired all the time, or even most of the time.
The facts are that Israelis have shorter waits for physicians or operations than people of Britain or Canada, and its health system renders pitiful what is available to most Americans.
We hear that the inequalities of income are the worst among Western democracies, that the country's drivers are the most dangerous in the world, and that the country's workers are the most likely to be on strike.
None of these claims stands up to a comparison of national statistics.
When an Israeli says that the country is the worst, it is time to think about the prophetic mindset. The speaker who screams imperfection is not likely to be concerned with facts. That the prophet of the moment is a university professor or a ranking politician does not make the nonsense any more true.
On numerous indicators that figure in demands for perfection and claims of misery, the country actually scores somewhere in the middle of the rankings drawn from comparable countries, i.e., those that are western, democratic, and middle- to upper-income.
It is not wise for citizens to criticize their governments from a perspective of micro-management. Democracy is fine, up to a limit. Details are important in shaping day to day decisions and they change from the time of the last election. It may be tempting to throw out the incumbents because they are not governing according to the highest standards, but realities make for difficult decisions. Policymakers cannot know for sure what will happen as a result of one tactic or another. There is likely to be dispute at the summit of any democracy's government. And few democracies face the intensity of demands and constraints focused on Israel.
Israel is, arguably, the most successful of all the countries that came on the scene after World War II, whether measured by the maintenance of democracy, economic development, or the quality of social services. It is not Paradise. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah would be disappointed.