Three people with an intimate knowledge of Israel recently gathered at the Katz JCC to offer their perspectives on what Israel will look like 10 years from now. Howard Joffe, a media relations expert and past president of the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce, spoke about the economic challenges Israel is facing. Rabbi Barry Schwartz, senior rabbi at Cong. M'kor Shalom, spoke about Israel's internal issues, including the Orthodox-secular divide. Asaf Romirowsky, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum and assistant professor at Penn State University, discussed the foreign policy and security issues confronting Israel. "Israel: 2020 Through the Looking Glass" was co-sponsored by the Katz JCC and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).
Schwartz, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces who began his career as a Reform rabbi in Haifa, identified three major internal challenges facing Israel—the Orthodox- Secular divide, the growing disparity between rich and poor in Israel; and the challenge of integrating Israel's Arab minority.
Outlining specific steps he felt Israel should take, Schwartz said that Israel should draft a constitution with defined rights and responsibilities; separate synagogue and state to allow equality for all religious movements; reform Israel's electoral process, including the direct election of the prime minister; universalize national service so that every group in Israel must serve in the military or an alternative form of national service; and equalize education and social services for all minority groups in Israel. "I certainly believe Israel has the strength to accomplish this in the next decade," said Schwartz.
Romirowsky noted that Israel's internal challenges are directly related to national security issues. "The Palestinian issue is not only a domestic issue, but also a national security issue," he said.
"Since Yasir Arafat is no longer the leader of the Palestinians, there has been a huge debate on who we are dealing with," said Romirowsky. He said that the Palestinians in Gaza are led by Hamas, a terrorist group, while the Palestinians on the West Bank are led by Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Not only must Israel grapple with the Palestinian issue, but there is also Syria and its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Iranian nuclear threat.
Israel is not truly recognized by the Arab world, according to Romirowsky. "The Arab world at large views Israel's existence as a temporary military fact."
"The Israeli economy is very strong," said Joffe. He noted that Israel's economic performance over the past decade has been impressive. Israel, said Joffe, is responsible for many innovations in the high-tech and medical fields. Joffe did note, however, that many economic challenges exist—unemployment and underemployment, education, and infrastructure issues, including water, ports, and the power grid.
Much of "Israel: 2020" consisted of a spirited discussion among the panelists and with members of the audience. The issue of Israel's Arab minority garnered a lot of attention.
Romirowsky said that the integration of Israel's Arab minority is a "plausible ideal," but that many hurdles remain. There are security issues involved in allowing over a million Arab citizens of Israel to serve in the army. In addition, Israeli Arabs who cooperate with the Israeli government are viewed as collaborators by Palestinians living in the territories.
Schwartz countered that the genius of Israel is that it can be both Jewish and democratic. All citizens of Israel should have equal opportunity, said Schwartz.
The issue of religion and state also attracted a lot of attention from the audience. Schwartz said that the office of the Chief Rabbi should be abolished, and Israelis should be able to have any rabbi they want perform a marriage ceremony. "What would happen is what happens in the rest of the world—we would agree to disagree."
The panelists acknowledged that many of the issues discussed would take a long time to resolve. "Some of these issues have been with us for 3,500 years, let alone the past 61 years," Joffe said referring to the age of the modern state of Israel.