In 1994's Pulp Fiction John Travolta's character Vincent Vega just back from Amsterdam tells Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield about the little differences between Europe and the United States. Having just returned early this week from a weeklong trip to Israel with a group of post-9/11 combat veterans sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, I know the feeling. Take away the Hebrew signage in spots and one would think they were in Miami or in the American southwest, depending on the location. Several such differences – little and not so little – come to mind.
One of the differences was about the group with which I traveled. What might be remarkable in the United States about the group, many of whom had undergraduate and professional degrees from the Ivies and public Ivies, was that we were all combat veterans of Iraq* or Afghanistan (or both in the case of some members), but this would be much less remarkable in Israel. In Israel 70 percent of men serve in the military and 50 percent of women. We have an all-volunteer force in the United States because we can, they have a conscripted force because they must. (In one of the funnier moments of the trip a retired Israeli Colonel told us that he was also a veteran of Iraq and that he had "served there for 45 seconds in 1981;" he had taken part in the raid on the Osirak rector.)
While the country has four universities in the top 150 worldwide, military service and the connections made within seem to be key drivers for innovation and entrepreneurship. Meeting with veterans of several units over dinner one night in a Moroccan restaurant in Jerusalem we learned some insights into the "start-up nation." This innovative spirit has brought many of the leading international technology companies such as Google and Microsoft to the "Silicon Wadi" section of northern Tel Aviv.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that of scale. In Israel nothing is far away. Translating the map to reality can be difficult – this is likely especially true for many Americans who conceive of the area from Biblical imaginings because, for instance, the mighty River Jordan isn't all that mighty in physical terms. The country is the size of New Jersey with a population of 8 million people (a Jewish population of 6 million and 2 million Arabs and other groups). Added to that the so-called "Hedera-Gedera rectangle" (the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank between the cities of Hedera in the north and Gedera in the south) holds roughly 50 percent of the population and 50 percent of the economic output of the country, but is only 9 miles across at its narrowest point.
This space issue looms large in the prospects for peace in the country. Add to this the mistrust between the Jewish and Arab sides over history and historical narratives and one can understand the difficulties in reaching a final status peace agreement. The Second Intifada has had a prolonged impact on the Israeli psyche, particularly on the left. While the many in Israeli society seem to favor a two-state solution adjusted off of the pre-1967 war borders, there are increasing calls from some on the right for a one-state solution of a Jewish state – mirroring calls from some segments of the Arab side for a one-state solution. The changing demographics of the Jewish population, particularly the growth of the ultra-orthodox population from roughly 0.5 percent of the population to roughly 10 percent, and growing, today may further complicate matters.
None of this is easy. One cannot visit Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial, as my group did, and not be affected by it or understand concerns for Jewish identity and being. One also cannot visit Ramallah, as we did also, and not understand the frustrations of the Palestinians. While hope may not be able to overcome all of the history in the region, perhaps a day can come where both sides can peacefully coexist. It would be a shame to see the vibrancy of the land and its peoples done in over enmities. Perhaps it was due to the amazing group that I traveled with, both the Americans and our Israeli guides, but I didn't leave with a sense of pessimism.
Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.