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Debate: From the viewpoint of 1949, Israel at 70 has proved to be a better state than could have been expected


I’m including a brief prologue and, as you will see later, an Epilogue, to my actual presentation. You can skip both if you wish and dive directly into the talk itself.

From both the historical and biological POV humans have a tremendous problem with prolonged, large-scale cooperation. From the former perspective, history can be seen as the story of a constant turnover of empires and large nations due to the combined impacts of external challenges and internal disintegration or revolts. Historians attempt to describe and analyse the many circumstances that may account for the fluctuating fortunes and dispersals of peoples and nations.

The biological perspective does not contradict the traditional historical approach but adds additional dimensions to the story. Briefly, there is a powerful emerging paradigm within biology that humanity is a uniquely cultural species. That is, more than any other it accumulates knowhow and belief systems by a special predisposition for learning and transmitting information between and horizontally within generations.

This cumulative tendency entailed a unique capacity for cooperation with fellow humans unmatched anywhere in the mammalian kingdom, and not even by ant communities. This is based on certain fundamental emotional predispositions – a sense of fairness, a strong impulse to punish deviants and defectors from collective norms and a capacity for empathy and self-sacrifice heavily skewed towards to those within one’s own group.

These tribal impulses are in constant tension with pre-existing genetic instincts towards self-interest and the personal accumulation of power and resources. This mix of limited but powerful cooperative instincts and self-interest in an increasingly intelligent species resulted in hunter-gatherer bands (HGBs) of around 50 to 150 individuals.

HGBs were the stable social form of our ancestors for millions of years and it was in this context that a considerable portion of our genetic architecture was created.

Within such HGBs cooperation was maintained by constant interpersonal surveillance and gossip. Defectors, especially perceived self-aggrandisers or cheats or traitors, were severely dealt with by shaming, shunning or even expulsion and murder. It was rough and ready and doubtless serious injustices occurred, but it worked. Those groups which best reaped the massive positive benefits of trust-based cooperative behaviour with coercive punishment of defectors, prospered and survived the massive challenges they faced.

Fast forward to the agricultural revolution and the development of much larger collectives. The face to face surveillance system broke down and with it the monitoring of power-hungry and greedy individuals was weakened. The surpluses created by agriculture opened the door to the development of hierarchies and tyrannies  of various sizes from city-states to empires .

The basis for cooperation within these collectives was largely coercion, no longer mutual agreement. They were run for the benefit of elites and existed as long as external threats and internal coercive controls were adequate. Soon as these broke down for various reasons, large collectives split into factions which more-or-less mimicked the ancient HGB structure but often around a powerful big man and his cronies.

Attempts at combining hierarchy and coercion with greater popular participation were early hybrid partially democratic forms – eg. during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. But to jump across a prolonged and complex history we dive directly into Western democracy sometimes violently emerging a couple of centuries ago, first in Europe and then in the USA.

Like all political forms these were subjected to powerful evolutionary forces, especially in the wake of WW2 and the massive human rights abuses associated with that conflict. Democracy is an umbrella term for a system of governance, characterised by popular participation supported by social norms plus legal and other institutional safeguards and backed by the coercive power of the state to maintain the minimal controls to ensure stability of the democratic system.

When this functions well massive synergistic forces are released by the creative activities of individuals and sub-national groups under the umbrella of the safety, security and public goods provided by an elected government.

This requires an immensely intricate and delicate balance between positive and negative freedoms, the excessive ambitions of individuals, the self-interest of sub-national ethnic or ideological-religious groups and external challenges.

My argument is that considering the circumstances of its formation Israel has done immensely well in prospering in a hostile and chaotic region while generally maintaining the ethical norms and practices of a democracy.

But current success cannot be extrapolated into the future and constant efforts are required to ensure continued success which depends, inter alia, on a broad-based buy-in from the population. Long may the democratic process continue.

The Talk

I feel a little like I’ve been asked to talk to the proposition that the earth is not as flat as could have been expected in the year 1000 BC – in 8 minutes. 

But this is serious so I’m going to start by saying “Oh Israel, how art thou more successful than Amazon, Apple and Google combined. Let me count the ways”. Well not all the ways. Only the tip of the iceberg.

We all know for example that Israel bestrides the ME region like a miniature colossus while much of the Arab-Muslim world has fallen into a sinkhole of violence, tyranny  and misery. I guess that’s better for Israel than predicted.

You also know that Israel is the most frequently non-mentioned country in the  world when it come to innovation in digital technology and cultural achievement, in health care, water conservation, agriculture or a high birth rate plus economic prosperity – an unusual combination globally.

Israel is the tiny 10 kg gorilla in the room that no-one can mention apparently if they want to keep their job or escape being no-platformed at some campus or other or losing their liberal friends.

It is a global innovation hub in so many fields that I cannot begin to list them here. Most of the great global companies seek Israel as a partner.

So  did you know that Israel has won 8 Nobel prizes in the first 17 years of the 21st century? It would have been 9 if not for the premature death of Amos Twersky.

Or that it is third in the world for Turing and Godel medals – sort of Nobel prizes in the field of computer science. You did of course know that Israel has the shortest in-hospital stays of any OECD country while still remaining right near the very top of the longevity combined with high quality of life list.

Or that it has the most effective disaster and emergency medical care capabilities that is never mentioned by Western mainstream media.

We should not forget that Israel had about 1 mil Jews in 1949 and since then it has taken in millions more speaking multiple different languages. And that these included the poor, the halt, the lame, the oppressed, the badly educated.

I suppose I should mention that Israel has converted its people’s army into one of the most respected and emulated military forces in the world?  And has leveraged this defence obligation into a nidus for technological and tactical  innovation, for social cohesion, for building personal independence and developing leadership skills and yes, for promoting the equality of women?

Politically, despite its own massive ethnic diversity, immigration load and cultural-religious faultlines Israel has managed to sustain an ethical democracy in a region beset by corruption, terror and tyranny.

And quite remarkably despite all the kvetching, political infighting, global hostility and regional turmoil, Israel ranks 11th on the World Happiness index.

It’s democratic negotiation of its fraught and complex internal, global and regional environment is a masterclass in adaptive flexibility and national resilience. 

It is hardly possible to find a field in which Israel has not made its mark but I think a special mention should be made of the fact that it is the most stigmatised and misrepresented country in the world. No other country comes even close. Whole UN divisions and millions of dollars are devoted to the task.

Given all this information, the recent news that Israel may have the oldest ‘Kosher’ brewery in the world in a cave near Haifa should come as no surprise. No wonder that Jews have a love-hate relationship with alcohol.

I’ll end with a more serious suggestion for Ronnie for his next debate – Israel as a case-study for the survival of democracy and economic prosperity in the 21st century.

Thanks for listening


In my view the great dangers to any democracy arise from ‘state capture’ by powerful individuals or forces within the democratic society or weakening of social cohesiveness by excessive factionalism and division within the society.

Here are a tentative list of 10 factors which I suggest have contributed to Israeli success to date. Each one of them is worth a book of commentary and many are two-edged swords, but I’ll just plonk the list down before you to stimulate debate. I’m sure there are others and some of these are mixed blessings but all this is a topic/s for another time.

10 factors contributing to Israeli success?

  1. Cultural and psychological adaptations for a history of minority group survival in hostile unpredictable environments based partly on an unusually abstract and complex theology and democratic argumentation.
  2. A powerful Zionist founding vision of Jewish renewal reinforced by the existential consequences of failure.
  3. The widely dispersed nature of Jewry providing a foundation of global support to Israel plus the necessary diversity and networks for a creative and innovative society.
  4. The binding effect of a shared ethnic narrative of community, struggle, marginalisation and oppression.
  5. The prolonged struggle to establish Israel plus on-going local and global hostility which reinforces solidarity and the disciplines of tenacity, compromise and delayed gratification.
  6. The Kibbutz movement which balanced individuality with the demands of the collective at a formative stage in Israel’s history.
  7. A resource-poor and hostile environment which compelled innovation and tenacity.
  8. The limited physical size of Israel.
  9. Financial aid from Jews, allies and reparations.
  10. The tension between ethnic and global values which enabled the emergence of a vigorous democratic hybrid.

Try reading “Israel: Island of Success” by Noga Keinan and Adam Reuter (a good copy editor urgently required for any second edition).

Mike Berger, 7 Sept 2018