Many of our readers have visited Israel at least once. Some of you have visited many times, and a few of you have been to Israel more often than an El Al pilot on the JFK to Tel Aviv route. A first visit to Israel is always a huge surprise. Some first-timers expect to see us riding camels and plowing a plot of arid land in the middle of the desert while our sheep graze in a nearby oasis. Others are just surprised at the sights: annual gay pride parades in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a nightlife scene that is on par with Berlin, London, and Barcelona, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews sharing a sidewalk, and a nation so in love with its cellular phone that there are actually more phones than people.
Whether you visit every year or once every decade, one thing is certain: you see a country evolving, a society changing constantly, and even a physical landscape that seems to never keep still. Israel is very much a work in progress. Our infrastructures are developing rapidly, our appearance changes, and our democracy is in constant flux. Even the Zionist ideal changes over time, and I doubt that our Founding Fathers and Mothers would recognize their visions in today's young Zionists-who are as fervent, but define their ideals in a different manner.
Take, for example, the idea of the kibbutzim-pioneering settlements of idealistic farmers who saw the connection to the earth as the central pillar of the Zionist movement. The Kibbutzim that maintained their agricultural character have almost all gone bankrupt, while those Kibbutzim that made the transition to high-tech, to software and to innovation, made so much profit that they lost their socialist character. Are the members of Kibbutz today any less Zionist? Not if you ask them. For them, reinforcing Israel's technological sector and giving us an innovative edge over our neighbors and in world markets is the new face of Zionism-without the mud.
Or take our music. In the first decades of independence, Israeli songwriters were mesmerized by the pioneer ideals and sang about the harvest, the ploughshare and the experiences of new immigrants in the land of milk and honey. Today Israel boasts a thriving industry of rap, hip-hop and other types of music that only a 14 year old can listen to without losing sanity. Music enthusiasts all over the world know and appreciate the new wave of young, talented Israeli musicians (or, as I like to call them, noise-makers). Our musical export as well as the cinematic and other artistic "products" we sell to the world are the face of a modern, vibrant, creative Israel-different from the country of my childhood but more accessible to the international community. This, too, is a form of modern Zionism.
Our political system is similarly changing. From a virtual hegemony of the left-wing parties in the first three decades, we moved to a system of two major parties and a number of smaller ones in the eighties and nineties. In the present system, there are dozens of small, niche parties fighting for a place in the Knesset, representing groups such as those in favor of legalizing marijuana or the group of men demanding more rights in the family. All those parties are defining the future of Zionism.
Our relations with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish communities abroad are evolving as well. From a one-sided relationship of material support for the fledgling country, it has become a two-way street, a bond of friendship that transcends many levels of involvement and engagement.
Israeli society is evolving constantly. As a nation not quite 65 years old, we are still young. And as a young society, we are experimenting and trying different things. We are constantly debating, discussing, bickering over everything from soccer to politics, from literature to taxes. We are defining our society as a modern Zionism, we are examining the limits of our democracy and finding our place in the world, all while dedicating countless efforts (and debate) to our geo-political situation and the threats that surround us. We take the political debate as seriously as a discussion over basketball teams, in a constant effort to become nothing more (nor less) than a normal country. If you have never visited Israel, you will be pleasantly surprised. And if you are a repeat visitor, come see us soon-you will see we changed again.
Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel office.