Monday, July 04, 2005

What is Life Really Like in Israel?

After a long break due to the house project (see below...) here finally some new stuff.

Although I have tried here and there to relate to the daily life in Israel, this time I want to explicitly give you my take on what is life like these days in The Holy Land.

I could sum it up in one word: Tough. But the again, there is hardly a place on earth where people don't think their life is tough. Even my parents in wealthy Germany with (still) secure and comfortable pensions are moaning every day under the tax weight, the Euro and everything getting worse all the time. So tough is a very relative statement, I admit.

But life is tough here, no doubt. Nobody will deny that our security situation is somewhat more tense than, say, in the Black Forest. But, apart from a small part of the Israeli population that is directly exposed to the almost daily attacks by Palestinian militants and terrorists, most people here got adopted quite well to the threat and take it like Germans take the bad weather. It is annoying, sometimes even depressing, not much you can do about it, but probably there are better days ahead.

So, as surprising as it may be to the outside world, terror has not managed to make a significant dent in the quality of life - again, this is true for the lucky majority that has not lost anyone close in a terror attack. Maybe this is comparable to the risks of traffic. Many more people die here on the roads than in terror attacks, but if you, your family or friends have not been involved in a serious accident, you don't really relate to the dangers on the road in an emotional, upsetting way. Your know the danger is there, but chances are good it won't hit you personally.

Daily life is more a reflection of the struggles to earn a decent living than anything else. In a way, the economic situation of most people is absurdly bad. The average family gross income is barely $ 2,000 / month, and family means just that: Both parents have to be working to bring home that kind of salary, which is quite modest for a country with a flourishing HiTech industry and world-class academic institutions. In the HiTech sector itself things are a little bit better. A good engineer with 5 years experience can earn some $ 4,500 - but wait, before you pack your bags to move here, consider the tax load and the buying power. Take home at that level is less than 40% (income tax, health insurance, social security, pension funds,...) and literally every item on your shopping list except for tomatoes, cucumbers and oranges is more expensive than abroad. A half way decent middle class car goes for $ 20,000, and a 120 m^2 flat 10-20 km from Tel Aviv in a reasonable neighborhood is around $200-250,000. The bottom line: Even a modern HiTech warrior working 12 hours a day in order to develop the next big thing for a Venture Capital funded start-up can not alone guarantee the family a reasonably comfortable life in suburbia.

So while the vast majority of the Israelis is struggling to live the middle class dream, or even just to get by, the government spends like there is no tomorrow. Public sector spending is 54% of GDP, a whopping 15% higher than in Europe, for example. And the same time, public services are dismal for the most part. Sure, some of the money goes into a quite formidable and therefore expensive military, but the bigger problems are die-hard leftovers of the socialist past, like all-mighty unions and low performance standards, rampant corruption up to the highest levels and the blunt abuse of the democratic system by all kind of special interest groups. To know the right person ("protectia") is still more important than to be qualified or otherwise entitled, and not only the Arab municipalities have totally bloated administrations staffed with friends and relatives of the mayor. And I am not telling you any secrets, all of this is known, it happens every day out in the open, and never has a high ranking public servant been punished in a meaningful way for abuse of power and corruption. In China a criminal like the ex-mayor of Yehud (a bankrupt municipality near Tel Aviv) would have been executed, here the guy is not even in jail.

And then there is the fragmentation of the Israeli society into religious and secular, right wing and left wing, Askenazi and Sephardi Jews, native Israelis and immigrants, Jews and non-Jews. So if there are no other things to worry about, Israelis start to fight between themselves. This level of tension is culpable everywhere in daily life. Israelis are famous for being aggressive, unfriendly and egocentric in their public behavior. This changes dramatically once you have befriended somebody, but until that moment you are in for a rough ride by most European or American standards.

But this change of attitude is where the fun part starts. Relationships with friends, neighbors, colleagues and whomever else you can call at least an acquaintance are very, very friendly and warm. They don't stop at the superficial "How are you? (But don't bother to answer, I don't really care!)" level. Families are very close and the Friday night dinner at mom's is so commonly observed a ritual that traffic just before the Sabbath can be worse than morning rush hour.

More about the god sides of life in Israel another time.

For now just one image: "Spring in the Negev" - this is how the desert looks like right after the winter rain and before the summer heat turns everything into a brown, stony, ahh - well, desert.

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