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Israel Then and Now: 6 Big Changes Since 1994 (Part I)

Monday, August 03, 2015| Permalink

Jessamyn Hope is the author of Safekeeping, which has received critical acclaim from The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail, and Tablet Magazine. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

My debut novel Safekeeping takes place on a kibbutz in northern Israel over the summer of 1994. The world has changed a lot since then, and Israel, being such a young country with unique socio-political challenges, transforms at a particularly quick rate. Some of the changes that have come to Israel over the last two decades mirror those found in other countries: the sea change that came with the Internet; cellphones stowed in pockets instead of asimonim (phone tokens) or telecards; and no more smoking while browsing clothes in the Dizengoff Center. Many changes, though, have been distinct to Israel. Over the coming week, this blog will explore six of them. Here are the first three:

1. Television

When I was a volunteer in 1994 on my great-uncle’s kibbutz, I watched television only rarely on his fuzzy tube TV. The viewing options were slim. All the antenna caught were three choices: a staticky Arab soap opera coming from nearby Lebanon, and the only two Israeli stations at the time, both government owned—the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and the aptly named Channel Two. Television came late to Israel, in 1966, and only then as an educational tool for schools; and although cable came to the country in 1990, the vast majority of homes still did not have it in 1994. Now Israel digitally broadcasts over ninety national channels, and Israeli television is in midst of a golden era, with shows like Hatufim and BeTipul being adapted in the United States as Homeland and In Treatment.

2. Cars

While an ulpanist on another relative’s kibbutz near Haifa, I had a crush on a young kibbutznik who would take me on day trips by signing out one of the kibbutz’s white Subarus. Nearly every car in the kibbutz lot, and seemingly every car speeding down the roads of Israel, was either a white Subaru hatchback or a white Subaru mini-truck. Why all the white Subarus? For many decades, the League of Arab States boycotted any company that did business with Israel. Since the Arab market was much larger than the Israeli one—today it’s 450 million people versus 8 million—many companies, such as Pepsi and McDonald’s, agreed not to sell their products in Israel. And this was the case for all Japanese cars except the Subaru. Since the mid-nineties, a majority of Arab countries have abandoned the boycott, and today Israelis drive cars of various brands, and only a quarter of them are white.

3. Road Signs

In 1994, road signs and other government notices in Israel were written in Hebrew and Arabic (the two official languages) and English. Today, they often include a fourth language: Russian. In 1989, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Jews to leave the USSR, and soon afterward the United States ceased accepting them as refugees. Over the next decade, 1.1 million people flooded from the Soviet Union into Israel, a country with a population under five million. At the time, people compared it to the United States absorbing the entire population of France. Temporary caravans to house the immigrants popped up all over. Now 15% of Israelis claim Russian as their mother tongue, and their influence is marked not only on road signs, but in Israeli politics, literature, music, theater, science, and technology. By 1998, the number of professional orchestras in Israel quadrupled; by 2004, half of Israel’s Olympic athletes were immigrants from the former Soviet Union; and by 2009, one in four staff members at Israeli universities was a native Russian-speaker.

Want more time travel? Tune in to the next post. Or if you can’t wait, travel to 1994 Israel with my novel Safekeeping.

Jessamyn Hope's short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and other literary magazines. Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City. Read more about her here.

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