One of the things Americans come to notice upon socializing with Israelis is that there’s a cultural gap in the way we plan things. Whereas generally Americans plan trips and big events many months in advance and small things like dates and outings several days in advance, Israelis seem to plan everything at the very last minute.
Earlier this year my parents planned a trip to visit me in Israel and I wanted us to have dinner with the family of a close friend of mine from the army. I asked them if they could come to Jerusalem for dinner March 3 and, in a non-ironic pre-coronavirus jest, the father said, “March? Who knows if we’ll be alive by March?”
Though I laughed at the time and usually this cultural difference doesn’t amount to anything other than jokes or minor confusion between friends, in reality this mentality — which can be easily observed on the national level — has a serious and negative impact on Israeli society and specifically on government policy.
It’s not difficult to figure out how this culture of short-notice and often haphazard planning came to be.
Over the millennia and certainly since the establishment of our modern state, our nation has faced wars of extermination, never-ending waves of terrorism (and even a 21st century plague!). In a climate of constant fear, planning too far ahead is tempting fate. To plan for the future is to be faced with a critical question: How long can we survive here? With ISIS in the Sinai, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian forces in Syria, our continued presence here is far from a given.
So for Israelis to stay sane, they’ve trained themselves to look no further than the next day.
In some ways, this mentality has been a gift. Facing insurmountable odds, Israel wins wars, absorbs waves of immigrants, and tackles international virus crises better than almost anyone. But the fact remains that the lack of planning ahead, on an interpersonal level and especially on a governmental level, has created real problems for the state.
I noticed this for the first time in October when I visited London over Sukkot. It was my first time there and I was taken aback by the grandeur. Though the heyday of the British Empire is long gone, everything I saw — the noble buildings, intricate railways, sprawling parks, even the delicately designed street lamps — made clear that this city was once, and still is, a seat of greatness.
When I returned to Jerusalem, the city I love with all my being, I couldn’t help but see what it lacked. Though it is true that as the Talmud says, Jerusalem inherited nine out of the world’s 10 measures of beauty, centuries of foreign occupation and disregard for the city’s infrastructure are clearly evident. As I walk through diverse neighborhoods, trash, on the streets and in the parks, is the unifying factor. Where is the majesty that befits the City of David, our eternal capital?
In city administration, as in all sectors of life in Israel, longterm planning is sorely needed. Overpopulation, in large part due to the rapid growth of the Haredi sector, requires that enormous steps be taken in national transportation, health and education. Climate change, history’s greatest threat to God’s creation, requires action now. Democracy, vital to Israel’s existence, is being slowly chipped away by power-hungry ministers. And though the IDF can win wars better than anyone, the demographic threat of two nations living in one state continues to threaten the existence of our cherished commonwealth.
All of these problems must be met and they must be met now, with longterm planning that spans decades. Nothing less will do for the state of God.
Israeli politicians, as all politicians, relish crises. If left to their own devices, necessary steps to secure our future will not be taken. Only a mature citizenry, willing to sacrifice temporary personal gains for long-term collective well-being, can demand that our institutions and infrastructure are designed for long term success. On this, our 72 Independence Day, it’s clearer than every before that the people of Israel, reborn on its homeland, is here to stay. It’s time to plan accordingly.