Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and member of Knesset Michael Oren discussed his vision for the Jewish state’s future at a recent event in Jerusalem launching his new book, 2048: The Rejuvenated State.

In The Stars?
Oren, a historian who fought in the Second Lebanon War, said, during his remarks at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, that the book began as a conversation between himself and Benjamin Netanyahu five or six years ago.

Young Jewish men holding Israeli flags dance at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. Photo courtesy of Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

“We used to schmooze at 3 a.m. in the morning during our Knesset debates. I told him once that we never have a chance to think about Israel’s future. We are so bogged down with our current crises that we never think of what kind of state we want to build for our children and grandchildren,” Oren said at the Begin Center.

“Now, the 50th anniversary [of Israel’s independence] does not feel like that long ago, so leaping forward 25 years is not beyond the canon. For young people, 25 years may be a long time, but not for older people,” he said.

Oren noted that when Israel was established, intense discussions were held regarding what kind of state it should become.

“Should it be a socialist state or a capitalist state? Pro-Western or pro-Eastern [Bloc]? As much as by the power of the sword, this country was created by the power of the word.

But somewhere along the way, Israel stopped holding these discussions, he said. A state commission was once established to delve into these issues, but its mandate was sabotaged by the collapse of the government, he added.

At that point, Oren told former Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky that these discussions were too important to abandon, so they were moved to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, but then COVID-19 hit.

It was during the pandemic that Oren decided to sit down and write the book.

“Afterward, we had Zoom talks on Israel-diaspora relations, Israel’s foreign policy, and some extraordinary things caused me to establish an NGO, Israel 2048,” he said

In the book, which is printed in English, Hebrew and Arabic in one volume, Oren delves into many issues that affect Israeli society today. For example, he criticizes the state for not recognizing Reform Judaism, which is the main Judaism practiced in the diaspora.

“The absurdity, indeed the obscenity, of the situation was underscored by the aftermath of the massacre of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct, 27, 2018,” he said. “While expressing solidarity with the victims, several Israeli ministers and the chief rabbinate refused to call Tree of Life a synagogue. The place where Jews were killed while praying as Jews had in the words of the Jewish nation-state merely a ‘profoundly Jewish flavor.’ ”

Oren accused Israel of being ungrateful for the fact that diaspora Jews account for some 6.5% of its GDP, which is roughly equivalent to its defense budget, and have “contributed massively to building Israel’s educational, medical, cultural and financial infrastructure.”

He said that by 2048, “Israeli and diaspora Jews must share a sense of common identity and destiny, an awareness of the fact that regardless of where we live, we belong to a single people.”

In the book, Oren describes haredim as an “existential threat” to the State of Israel because they “produced nothing materially but only drained the state, shared none of its liberal and democratic values and denied children even the most basic modern education.”

If these issues are not remedied, it will “cause Israel’s collapse,” he wrote.

Oren said the State of Israel must force all haredi schools to teach English, math, science and civics, but to achieve this via persuasion and not coercion.

“Proposed legislation for penalizing haredim and their schools for draft dodging will only backfire and result in large-scale unrest and incarceration. Instead, the state must make a historic effort to engage ultra-Orthodox leaders in a dialogue.”

Oren also described the polygamy practiced by the Bedouin in the Negev as a threat to Israel’s long-term security.

“The tradition is radically anti-feminist and frequently cruel, with many wives purchased like chattel, forced to conduct hard labor and bear seven children or more. With four wives, a Bedouin male need never work but only collect child subsidies from the government. For this reason, in 1977, the Knesset passed a bill outlawing polygamy, and then for the next 45 years it ignored it.”

According to Oren, “By failing to apply its laws, Israel has not only eroded a once overwhelming Jewish majority in the Negev but created an unbroken swath between Gaza and the Hebron Hills, essentially bisecting the Negev. Taking advantage of Israeli indifference, both Hamas and the PLO have constructed mosques and madrassas throughout the Bedouin communities and provided the teachers, many of them Israeli Arabs from the North who radicalized the Bedouin. It is scarcely surprising that Bedouin involvement in terror attacks such as that which killed four Israelis in Beersheva in March 2022 is rising.”

In response to this threat, Oren called upon Israeli society to make a “new deal” with Israeli Arabs, where the state will declare war on any form of discrimination, promote Arabic-language education in Jewish schools and Hebrew-language education in Arabic schools, and enforce the law in Arab-populated areas of the country, so that polygamy, unauthorized construction and smuggling will be clamped down upon.

“In contrast to the past, when Israeli Arabs protested against the presence of the police in their villages, now they protest in favor of greater police presence. And as the recent elections showed, Arab politicians are harnessing their newfound power not to delegitimize the system but to influence it. These trends offer opportunities that must not be missed and which, if catalyzed by policy, can make Israel 2048 a truly cohesive state,” he said.

Women’s Rights
In his book, Oren discusses the difference between how outsiders perceive Israel and how Israel is in reality.

“Growing up in America in the 1960s and 1970s, Israel looked to me like the paragon of women’s rights. There were photographs of short-skirted women soldiers marching proudly with their Uzis, the kibbutz women in their kova tembel [hats] working the fields, and women who appeared to be self-confident to the point of brashness. There was Golda Meir. Israel looked like a feminist forerunner. Only when I came here did I begin to see the deep discrepancy between the myth surrounding Israeli women and their far less-than-egalitarian reality.

“Though the IDF was one of the only armies in the world to draft women, it strictly limited them to noncombat roles, many of them clerical. Sexual exploitation by male superiors was commonplace. Similarly, on the kibbutz, relatively few women worked in the fields but rather [most] remained in the communal kitchens and children’s houses,” Oren wrote.

“And if the Israeli women were outspoken, their candor did not translate into equal career opportunities. Golda might have been prime minister, but she was only one of three women in her 56-seat party. Beneath these disparities lurked even darker injustices such as polygamy, female sex trafficking and honor killings.”

Oren said that Israel has progressed much since then, but still women earn 70% of what men do.

“Between college-educated men and women, the gap is even wider. Though women have traditionally dominated the banking sector, the percentage of women on boards of major banks is under 20%. The percentage of women in the Knesset falls far behind that of the Swedish, Norwegian and Rwandan parliaments. There has yet to be a woman head of the Mossad or Shabak [the Shin Bet] or a woman minister of defense. Women cannot serve as Knesset members for any of the ultra-Orthodox parties,” he said.

Furthermore, “Women in Israel are afflicted by a scourge of societal evils such as family violence, female sex trafficking, gentile mutilation and the marriage of minors. Each year sees the recurrence of the so-called honor killings in which an Arab woman accused of sexual improprieties is murdered by a male family member. Honor killers have traditionally received relatively light sentences,” Oren said.

“Israeli women seeking a divorce must work through the chief rabbinate, which reserves the right to grant a divorce only to the husband. Refused by their spouses, hundreds of Israeli women become agunot, unable to remarry and receive alimony and child support. In religious sectors, women are increasingly excluded from public spaces and events. Their images on billboards are defaced.”

He continued, “Such discrimination is outlawed by a list of Knesset bills and Supreme Court decisions, all of which are flagrantly ignored. Israel must be a state that relentlessly fights sexual harassment and public exclusion, and that eliminates the scourges of agunot and genitally mutilated women. It must treat the killing of women to preserve their family ‘honor’ as exactly what it is, premeditated murder, punishable by life imprisonment.”

Oren hopes that Israel in 2048 will be a far more egalitarian society not only for diaspora Jews and minorities but also for women.

“I am not a prophet,” he proclaimed in his talk. “My vision is not in any way sacrosanct. This [book] is my vision. It is 22 chapters that cover every field of Israel’s future, educational policy, social policy, foreign policy, Israel as a state for Jews, Israel for the Palestinians, Israel for the Arabs, gender issues, environmental issues, etc. It is all there.

“The idea is to get people here and, in the diaspora, to engage with my vision. You can get angry with it. You can throw my book at the wall. But still engage with it and facilitate a discussion on what kind of future we want for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I look at the issues Israel is facing now and it did not take a prophet to see these issues coming. If we thought about them 10 years before, we might be in a different situation. Here is your opportunity to think about the future,” Oren said.

Plan For Future?
Historian Gil Troy also spoke at the book launch.

He said it was not really Jewish to think about the future. In all their holidays, Jews like to time travel throughout different periods of history, but they never visit the future.

“Nevertheless, Zionists do not just live in the present and do not just root ourselves in the past, but we also think about the future, roll up our sleeves and make it better.”

Therefore, even though it goes against his Jewish instincts, Troy said the book makes him excited as a Zionist, for Theodor Herzl always thought about the future and worked to make what he aspired to happen.

“This is not just a book launch,” said Troy. “It is a conversation launch. It asks what Israel should look like and what we will do to make it happen.”