But one Israeli economist is warning that beneath Israel`s back-patting lurks a hidden peril â€” fueled by demographic trends and political choices â€” that could eventually mean an end to the country.
Armed with a Power Point presentation he`s been showing to lawmakers, newspaper publishers and anyone else who will listen, Dan Ben-David, executive director of Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, says the problem is simple: Not enough Israelis are pulling their own weight.
According to Ben-David, nearly one in five Israeli men between the ages of 35 and 54 â€” a group that he believes has "no excuse" for not working â€” are not part of the labor force. That`s about 60% higher than the average among nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, an international forum fostering market-based economies that Israel joined Monday.
Officially, Israel`s unemployment rate is about 8%. But that doesn`t include Israeli citizens who are not trying to find work, either because they feel disenfranchised, such as many Arab Israelis, or because they`ve chosen a life of state-subsidized religious study, such as many ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Nearly 27% of Arab men and 65% of ultra-Orthodox Jews don`t work, government figures show. The non-employment rate for ultra-Orthodox men has tripled since 1970, Ben-David said. ...
What worries Ben-David most is that the nonproductive part of Israel`s population, which survives largely on welfare, is also the fastest growing.
Today Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox together make up less than 30% of the population, but they account for nearly half of school-age children. ...
"Eventually it`s going to break the bank," the economist said. "We`re on trajectories that are not sustainable." ...
Reasons differ for the non-employment of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Over the last 30 years, the percentage of working ultra-Orthodox men has decreased because of government programs that subsidize their religious study, experts say.
Such programs are now facing a backlash from Israel`s secular and non-Orthodox citizens. A radio talk-show host recently described ultra-Orthodox Jews as "parasites." Tel Aviv`s mayor said the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community was "endangering" the economic strength of the "silent majority."
But defenders of the ultra-Orthodox credit them with preserving Israel`s Jewish identity, saying that without the high birth rates of ultra-Orthodox families, Israel could see an Arab majority in future generations. ...
"If I were Jewish, it would have been much easier to find work," said Salwa Idreis, 30, an Arab Israeli from Jerusalem who, despite earning a law degree, has been unable to find a job for five years.
"People don`t trust us because we are Palestinian," said the mother of four. Even Arab-owned law firms won`t give her a job because they think Jewish attorneys will draw more customers, she said.