TEL AVIV — Behind the lacquered antique portal of Israel's third-largest advertising agency lies a glimpse of a country in the throes of a profound social and economic revolution.
Israel is undergoing unprecedented changes, fueled by 1985 economic reforms, the unraveling of the Arab boycott since the 1991 Gulf war, and the advent in 1993 of the Israel-Palestinian peace accord and American-style commercial and cable television.
This confluence of social, economic, and political events is reshaping Israeli society, drawing it into a global village where the forces of individualism and free-market consumerism - from MTV to McDonald's - are challenging religious and communal values that have epitomized Judaism for 4,000 years.
"Of course, there is both good and bad in this," says Rony Herz, creative director of Kesher Barel, the ad agency. "The society around us is changing, and we can't just remain a little tribe. I think there is a way to retain our traditional Jewish heritage and still live in modern world," he says.
Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist, notes that unchecked economic individualism is perceived by Israelis as a soulless, even degenerative force.
"Israeli individualism is developing very slowly and under difficult conditions, but its future will be crucial for the development of a liberal democracy," says Mr. Ezrahi, author of a book on the subject of individualism and collectivism in the Jewish heritage to be published later this year.
Yet this individualism has begun to overtake the socialist dream on which the state of Israel was founded. The children of the kibbutzim (collective farms) are learning the ways of capitalism and increasingly going into the free market to make ends meet.
The state-owned corporations of the Histadrut, the trade union federation, are being dragged kicking into privatization. The Histadrut and such primary organs of Zionism as the Jewish Agency are getting more than a facelift as their budgets are slashed and their goals redefined.
The relationship between the Jewish state and world Jewry is changing, too. "Israeli is no longer the brother in danger, in need of charity," says Alon Liel, director of the National Planning Authority in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "The standard of living in Israel is now higher than in European countries such as Spain."
In making Israel more acceptable to outside investment, these economic forces have also hastened more normal ties with the surrounding Arab world of some 250 million people.
During the past three years, multinational corporations such as Unilever, General Motors, Sony, Motorola, and Procter & Gamble have poured into Israel.
Along with brand names have come multinational advertising agencies like Saatchi and Saatchi, BBD&O, McCann Erickson, and Leo Burnett, which have affiliated with Israeli agencies on Tel Aviv's Yigal Alon street.
Set in the threshold of the entrance door of the Kesher Barel agency is a miniature fantasy world of plastic mermaids, scuba divers, and crocodiles encased in clear plastic that has clouded over from the constant patter of designer boots. The receptionist, dressed in denim jeans and a designer T-shirt, sits behind an exotic desk sculpted in wood and metal against the backdrop of a sky-lit tropical garden.
It is a far cry from the television images on international networks of a seemingly endless cycle of conflict between Arab and Jew: suicide bombings by Islamic terrorists and civilian carnage in Lebanon wrought by Israel during its recent offensive against Hizbullah militants.
Here, in the avant-garde corridors of one of Israel's most flourishing industries, is a flip side of Middle East peace that has little to do with conflict and strife. "The multinationals have realized that Israel has great buying power and is a bridge to the Middle East," says Mr. Herz, a United States-trained advertising executive.
"Multinational brands are coming in and the major international advertising agencies have affiliated to Israeli agencies," Herz says. "The arrival of commercial and cable television and the influx of the multinationals is changing the culture of advertising, and it is changing the culture of Israeli society overall," he says.
The result is an orgy of advertising on commercial television, billboards, and magazines.
A dramatic poster of a pouty-lipped brunette in a silver spacesuit top contemplating a sip of the latest fruit-flavored iced tea is one of the agency's recent successful advertising campaigns. A similar campaign for the same product flopped a few years ago - an indication of how Israelis are accepting Western-style advertising.
"There is still a low 'zap factor' in the viewing patterns of television commercials," says Herz, referring to the prevalent American phenomenon of switching channels during commercials. "Israelis still see commercials as an art form. They watch them as part of the program."
Increased exposure to international products through more frequent foreign travel and commercial and cable television - there are two MTV channels in the 56-channel cable package that has 1.7 million Israeli subscribers - have made Israelis more discriminating. "It has changed consumer patterns and preferences by giving people the right to choose," Herz says.
"Culturally, Israelis have become more sophisticated in their tastes and more fashion conscious in relation to music, clothing, and food. As a result, they demand more and better service, and we can talk in a more international ... language. It has closed the ... gap between Israel ... and the United States and Europe."
The flourishing agency, situated in the middle of three modern pink buildings complete with roof gardens on a street adjoining Tel Aviv's bustling Ayalon highway, is peopled by young Israelis earning salaries unthinkable five years ago.
Concepts like Zionism and the Chosen People are not found in the lexicons of Tel Aviv's creative directors and high-tech gurus. Such concepts are giving way to an international culture.
"For me, Zionism is something of the past because it had to do with the creation of an ideal [Jewish] state," says the Israeli-born Herz.
His values, he says, are different from those of his grandfather, an ardent Zionist who emigrated to Israel from Germany by camel caravan through North Africa.
"People of my age feel more Israeli than Zionist," he says.