Opinion: 5 Things People Get Wrong About Life in Israel

When it comes to news about Israel, the picture the media portrays is usually the same: a Middle Eastern country permanently mired in conflict with its neighbors.

While the Israeli-Arab conflict remains unresolved, there is more to Israel than just politics. At the same time, some popular perceptions about Israel remain untrue. Here are a few of them.

1. Israel Is An Exclusively Jewish Country

Here’s an interesting fact for you: Israel is less Jewish (74%) than Ireland is Catholic (78%). Likewise, Israel is less Jewish than India is Hindu (79.8%). In the league table of countries with a dominant religious majority, Israel wouldn’t even be in the top three.

Despite that, Israel is, of course, intricately bound up with the story of the Jewish people. Judaism remains the majority religion and the majority of Israel’s citizens are clearly Jewish. But not the entirety of the country.

It surprises some to learn that Israel isn’t totally Jewish and more than 1 in 5 of the country’s residents practices some other religious faith.

Israeli Arabs make up slightly more than 20% of the population. It’s fair to call Israel “mostly” Jewish. But it’s not “exclusively” so.

2. Israel Is Barren Desert

The Negev Desert in the South of Israel. Source: Wikimedia

Those who don’t know about Israel’s growing high tech scene tend to think of Israel as a poor and socialist backwater.

Neither of those descriptions are really good fits anymore.

For one, Israel is no longer poor. By GDP, the country has seen exponential growth since its foundation in 1948. Politically, the country’s alignment is currently right-wing and capitalist, although the country retains vestiges of socialism in some important regards including in its healthcare system (every citizen must be signed up to one of the country’s four health maintenance organizations.)

While Israel indeed has expanses of desert, the “center” of the country (Hebrew: merkaz; a non-literal term for the greater Tel Aviv area) is highly built up and developed. In geographical terms, Israel is relatively dense at about 400 inhabitants per square kilometer.

There are mountains in the North and plains of salt by the Dead Sea. Its topography, if nothing else, is surprisingly diverse.

3. Israel Is A High Tech Nirvana

One of the things I find frustrating about debates around Israel is the extent to which opinions are unreasonably polarized.

On the one hand, Israel attracts plenty of international scorn and criticism (although politics are beyond the remit of this piece). For its critics, Israel can seemingly do nothing right.

On the other hand, those defending Israel — through engaging in hasbara — tend to take the view that the torrent of hatred deserves an equal and opposite reaction. For this group, Israel can do no wrong. At all.

The truth, unfortunately, gets lost somewhere in the middle, in the many shades of gray that color reality but which frustrate attempts to uncover absolute truths for those that seek them.

For instance: while Israel indeed has a thriving high-tech (IT) scene, its postal system remains woefully dysfunctional, contactless payments arrived here well after they did in Europe, and the state of infrastructure in the country often leaves a lot to be desired.

While many of Israel’s tech exports are impressive, living in Israel, I am not constantly overwhelmed by the feeling that I am living at the epicenter of the technology universe. For that to happen, I would have to have received the books I ordered from the UK more than 4 months ago.

4. Israel Is Big

Israel receives disproportionate attraction in the international news.

As a result of this, one could be forgiven for assuming that Israel constituted a vast tract of land in the Middle East.

The reality is very different. Israel is tiny.

If Israel were located off the coast of Ireland, this is what it would look like on a map. To scale. From: TheTrueSize.com

How small exactly?

The country is only a little over 22,000 square kilometers in size. At its widest point, the country is only a little over 115 kilometers in width.

5. Israel Is Different

In a sense, the thing I enjoy most about living in Israel is the fact that while in some respects (its Jewish character) the country is totally unique, in others, it’s almost like every other country on the planet.

Israel has:

  • The Dead Sea
  • Synagogues

It also has

  • Dentists’ offices
  • Crime

People mostly get around in cars or on foot rather than on the back of camels. Although — like in most of the West — traffic jams are a nuisance.

Relative to diaspora Jewish society (which can often seem absurdly monolithic), as a country with mostly Jewish residents, Israel has everything including:

  • Jewish bankers and lawyers
  • Jewish garbagemen and plumbers

The issue I take with hasbara (you may have deduced: I am not a fan) is that, in many respects, it feeds into the notion of exceptionalism that is at the core of people’s discomfort with Israel.

The narrative doesn’t allow for the idea that Israel can be average in some respects. Or terrible in others. And world-beatingly great in a few. Rather, it must be “the very best” at everything it turns its hand to.

While Israel achieves great things and the country (arguably) does some terrible things, the truth, again, usually gets lost somewhere in the gray.

In summary:

Israel is a tiny Middle Eastern country. Its population is mostly but not totally Jewish. It exports some good technology. But its postal system is kind of a disaster. In most respects, it’s just a normal place to live.

Article ID: 85

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