I. Losing Hope for the Future
Ever since last summer's war in Lebanon, Israeli society has been engaged in a process of soul-searching unlike anything seen since the Yom Kippur War. That process was triggered by the inability of the vaunted IDF to provide security for Israeli civilians during the second Lebanese War, and has been exacerbated by a continual string of revelations about the various failures of the military and political echelons by various investigatory bodies in the months since the end of the war.
Those months have also witnessed an unprecedented string of corruption scandals. One former Justice Minister has already been convicted of indecent acts, another is under indictment, the president has been forced to suspend himself pending a criminal indictment, the heads of the Income Tax Authority, the Finance Minister, and the prime minister's closest confidante and director of his bureau are all under investigation for fraud; and the prime minister himself faces a half dozen various police investigations, any one of which may be enough to force his resignation.
Meanwhile Israelis fret that they may soon find themselves in the cross-hairs of a nuclear Iran, run by religious fanatics who appear convinced that even the incineration of millions of their own citizens would be a double blessing, both assuring a speedy entry to paradise for those killed and hastening the advent of the missing iman. For the first time in more than two decades the Holocaust is being invoked in Israel's security and political debates. "The Iranian threat has returned the Final Solution to the heart of Israeli discourse," write Michael Oren and Yossi Klein-Halevi in the New Republic
And finally, there is a near universal recognition that peace with the Palestinians will not be achieved in this generation, and likely not the next one either. A generation of Palestinian children has been raised since Oslo to believe that the greatest goal for which one can hope is to kill as many Jews as possible. Hamas' control over the Palestinian educational system adds to the brew of Palestinian the even more volatile element of religion – the belief that, as a matter of religious duty, every inch of present day Israel must be returned to Muslim sovereignty.
Zionism promised that a Jewish homeland would provide a safe haven for Jews all around the world. But, admits Daniel Gordis
, who writes from the traditional Zionist point of view, it is today often "more dangerous to be a Jew in Israel than any other place in the world."
Last summer's war forced Israelis to acknowledge that the IDF cannot protect them from every danger. "For thirty-four long days," writes Gordis, "the IDF unleashed enormous portions of its . . . firepower, but couldn't stop the firing of Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets on the North. . . . . In the end, the only thing that stopped the shelling of Israel's cities was the United Nations."
Reflecting on the concatenation of recent events, Israelis are beginning to lose hope for the future. "Israelis, for the first time in their history, see no conceivable light, not even an imaginary will-o'-wisp, at the end of the tunnel," writes Hillel Halkin
in a New York Sun piece appropriately entitled "An Israel without Hope."
Gordis writes nostalgically of the days when Jews, full of hope for the future, danced upon completion of the national water carrier. But he finds precious little of that hope today. He recounts his first meeting with a new doctor. The doctor asks him what he does, and he replies, that he writes.
"What do you write about?" the doctor asks. "About the future of Israel," Gordis replies. "Oh, you write short stories," is the doctor's response. Both laugh, but as Gordis notes, "neither of us thought that it was particularly funny."
Opinion polls show Prime Minister Olmert's approval ratings in the single digits. Yet, after a brief protest campaign by army reservists, the Israeli public has grown quiescent. Perhaps Israelis feel that the challenges currently confronting Israel are beyond the capacity of any political leaders to solve. And certainly they have concluded that the problems go far deeper than a few incompetent political leaders and clueless generals. Our politicians are merely a reflection of a deeper rot that has overtaken Israeli society. II. The Search for National Will
As they survey the threats arrayed all around, Israelis are beginning to ask whether they possess sufficient resources of will power to carry on the fight and to prevail. The name of the game, declared Ha'aretz's Ari Shavit
, at the end of the war in Lebanon, is rebuilding national will, and all our resources must be directed in that direction.
No one, however, believes that the task of reconstituting national resolve will be an easy one. In a speech at the recent Herzilya Conference, Nobel Laureate in Economics Robert Aumann described Israelis
today "like a mountain-climber caught in a snowstorm. The night falls, he is cold and tired, and he wants to sleep. If he falls asleep, he will freeze to death. We are in terminal danger because we are tired." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert exemplified that weariness when he told a group of American Jewish businessman
that Israelis are "tired" – tired of war, tired of winning, tired of being brave.
The result of that weariness, argued Aumann, has been to convince our Arab neighbors that "we no longer have spiritual strength, that we have no time, that we are calling for a time-out." And therefore the only recipe for survival is to convince the Arabs, "We have time; we have patience; we have stamina." Doing so, Aumann added, is not a matter of repeating mantras, but of the Jews of Israel truly understanding and internalizing the message. About how that might be done, however, he has little to say.
At the height of the Lebanon War, Shavit accused Israeli elites
, in Ha'aretz, the paper of the elites, of having undermined every element of national strength by making mincemeat of the old Zionist historical narrative, while failing to substitute anything else in its place; criticizing Israel's militarism and denigrating military service; and making mockery of the old communitarian values. The result, he charged, has been to drain the nation of all its vitality.
Post-Zionism has infected the elites, particularly in academia. The leaders of the worldwide movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions and academics are tenured professors in Israeli universities. As Ben-Dror Yemini noted in Ma'ariv
, "Hosting those that deny the Zionist enterprise's right to exist at Tel Aviv University is not very different from hosting Holocaust deniers in Teheran."
In their search for new sources of national will, Israelis have turned a lacerating eye on themselves and found much wanting. Yair Sheleg, again writing in Ha'aretz
, wondered whether a decadent society is capable of confronting the various threats to its existence. . Signs of that decadence are everywhere to be found. Hedonism and the pursuit of material goods occupy the adults. Being a celebrity -- regardless of achievements -- is the primary goal of Israeli youth.
To quell any qualms of consciences about their naked pursuit of the good life, charges Shavit, the Israeli elites have convinced themselves that Israel is so powerful, so insanely strong, that nothing can threaten it. That strength justifies their failure to show up for reserve duty or to send their children to combat units (a trend recently confirmed by the Chief of IDF Manpower Gen. Elazar Stern.) Prime Minister Olmert's campaign pledge to turn Israel into a "fun" place to live pretty much sums up the view that life is primarily about the pursuit of pleasure. According to Yossi Klein-Halevi
, the internal threat to Israel society is no less great than the external. The internal challenge, he writes, is nothing less than to recreate the sense that Israeli society is worth fighting for – a sense that has been undermined by the profusion of corruption scandals. Once Israelis knew that their leaders, whatever their personal foibles and weaknesses, at least had the interests of the nation at heart.
The same cannot be said about today's politicians, says Klein-Halevi, "who absorbed the wiles of the founders but not their self-sacrifice." Prime Minister Olmert – a real-estate speculator cum prime minister -- epitomizes for Shavit a widespread "cultural affliction: the relinquishing of ideas, principles, basic beliefs, worldviews, and an overall grasp of reality -- . . . sophistication without a [moral] compass."
Zionism promised to normalize the condition of the Jew in the world. Having failed to assimilate on an individual basis into European society, Herzl and others believed that Jews would be able to assimilate at the level of nation states. That has not happened. Left-wing novelist Amos Oz notes with bitter irony that as a child his father's gentile neighbors assaulted him with taunts of "Jews go to Palestine." The bottom line message: "Don't be here. Don't be there. In short, don't be."
Nearly sixty years after its creation, the "Jewish state" finds itself anathematized like no other state in the world and held to a set of standards by which no nation is judged, and certainly no nation forced to defend itself from constant attack from the day of its birth. Far from having normalized the condition of the Jew, Israel has provided excuses for Jew-haters around the world to once again vent their spleens at Jews.
Iran speeds ahead with the development of nuclear weapons and boasts of its intent to wipe Israel off the map; North Korea seeks to export nuclear weapons technology, even as millions of its own people starve; the Sudanese government works hand-in-hand with Arab militias that have killed approximately 300,000 black Muslim farmers – and all this evokes fewer outcries and less international concern than one International Solidarity Movement volunteer being rolled over by an Israeli earthmover that could not see her as she sought to protect tunnels through which weapons were being smuggled into Gaza. The degree of attention paid by the world to Israel is certainly not "normal." III. The Consequences of Despair
Israeli society is not just having a bad hair day. The dark national mood threatens Israel far more than it would a more normal nation. For nearly two decades Israeli leaders have been obsessed by the fear that at some point those with the skills and money to move elsewhere will do so. Yitzchak Rabin came reluctantly came to support the Oslo process, in part because he feared that if he did not hold out the hope of peace to a tired public they would jump ship. Prior to going to Camp David in 1999, at which he made an offer to Yasir Arafat far beyond the Israeli consensus of the time, Prime Minister Ehud Barak spoke of the loss of national resolve from that of the generation of the Yom Kippur War. And before embarking on the Gaza withdrawal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke to an American Jewish audience of the necessity of holding out hope to the population.
To some extent the fears of Israeli leaders from Rabin to Olmert have already been fulfilled. A recent study by the Shalem Institute
showed that the rate of emigrations of researchers and professors almost doubled between 2002 and 2004 – from .9% to 1.7%. Of those educated Israelis who have left the country from an extended period of time from 1996 on, 96% did not return.
A nuclear Iran would exacerbate the threat of large-scale flight ten-fold. A nuclear Iran, warns Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh
, would lead to mass threat and perhaps destroy Zionism even without resort to arms: "The danger is not so much Ahmadinejad's deciding to launch an attack, but Israel's living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction. I'm afraid that under such a threat, most Israelis would prefer not to live her; most Jews would prefer not to come here with their families; and Israelis who can live abroad will. . . . I'm afraid Ahmadinejad will be able to kill the Zionist dream and without pushing a button."
Patriotism and national will are more important to Israel than in other, more normal countries. Other countries may have more corrupt public figures, and other Western nations may have academic elites who identify with the country's enemies without the country's existence being threatened, at least in the short-run.
In Israel, however, a lack of national resolve poses a much more immediate threat because, as Yossi Klein-Halevi notes, in no other Western nation is so much demanded of the population in terms of military service, high taxes, and constant threats to physical security. And therefore in no other country, do citizens require such a strong sense of national purpose to prevent them from pulling up stakes and leaving. IV. In Search of the Silver Lining
The foregoing picture, while not a happy one, does contain a number of reasons for qualified optimism about Israel's future as a Jewish society. The very fact that the Israeli society is undergoing self-examination, and has concluded that something has gone dramatically awry is itself positive. "Where did we lose the way?" is a question that inevitably directs the questioner back in time towards his or her historical roots.
Similarly, the emphasis on discovering new sources of national unity and strength can only reinforce interest in Judaism. National will is not something that can be picked off of a pharmacist's shelf. Nor can it be just another line in the national budget. It must have its source in something and grow organically from within the nation.
Ultimately what binds the Jews of Israel to one another is that they are all descendants of those who received the Torah at Sinai and of generations of ancestors who maintained a vital, living relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, even on pain of death. Jews of Israel are asking themselves -- Why is it important that I live in this place? What about living among other Jews or in this Land makes worth the dangers and sacrifices involved? Only an understanding of the unique mission given us at Sinai can provide the answer to those questions.
Zionism promised Jews a normal existence, an escape from their fate as Jews. That promise has now been exposed as a fraud. We can never be like all the other nations because we were singled out by Hashem for the unique mission of bringing knowledge of Him to the world. In his various jeremiads this summer, Ari Shavit berated those who dreamed that the Jewish people could somehow live a normal existence amidst a sea of Arabs, and who imagined that Tel Aviv to be another Manhattan in the Middle East. At times, he sounded not unlike Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his famous warning to the Jews of Berlin that if they continued to view Berlin as a new Jerusalem a great fire would go forth from their and consume the Jewish world.
Even the clear-sighted recognition that there will be no peace with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future has much to recommend it. We have paid a heavy price over the last fifteen years for chasing various illusions of peace, all of which ignored one central point: There is not yet a Palestinian people that has reconciled itself in peace with Israel, and that prefers building up its own society and state to destroying the one living adjacent to it.
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky in Emes LeYaakov
32:36) explains a difficult Gemara
in Sanhedrin (97a). The Gemara there states that Mashiach will not come until the Jewish people have despaired of the redemption. How, all the commentators ask, can loss of belief in the Redemption, one of the cardinal principles of faith, bring about the Redemption? Reb Yaakov answers that Redemption only comes when the Jewish people have lost any hope of redemption through the natural historical processes; when they have ceased to hope, for instance, that the nations of the world will suddenly take mercy upon us, and grant us our own land to live in peace and security. That time is drawing ever closer with every illusory bubble popped.
There are signs all around of a renewed interest in Torah, and of recognition of the need to reconnect to our historical roots as a people. Education Minister Yuli Tamir, formerly a member of the far-Left Meretz party, has decreed that the Israeli school day should open with the reading of a chapter of TaNaCh. At a recent speech to a large group of university students in Israel on a Birthright program, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert focused his remarks almost entirely on Eretz Yisrael
as the birthplace of the people and their ancestral homeland. It was that awareness he urged the students to take with them from the trip. There was no hint of the thinking that resulted in a recent Tourism Ministry campaign promoting tourism to Israel in terms of the pleasures of Eilat.
Every week, over 2,000 chareidi women learn over the phone with secular women who have expressed an interest in Torah study. And Mrs. Tzili Schneider, who runs the program under the auspices of Ayelet HaShachar, has a list of another 15,000 secular women who have been recommended as potential candidates for such learning. Arachim runs dozens of seminars of varying lengths each year for Israeli Jews from every possible kind of background. Lev L'Achim registers thousands of children from secular families for religious schools. And the network of over sixty SHUVU schools, originally founded to provide an enriched Jewish studies program to children of immigrants from the FSU, has been forced by popular demand to open its schools to children of veteran secular families, and to even open entire new schools for such children.
Ayelet HaShachar placed one religious family in Kfar Tabor, a secular yishuv on the outskirts of Afula. Initially they were ignored by their neighbors, in the best cases, and vociferously urged to move elsewhere in the worse. But two years later, sixty women are using the mikveh on that yishuv. Even veteran Shomer HaTzair kibbutzim have sought permits to build mikvaot.
The thirst for an authentic connection to their Judaism among Israeli Jews, including some of the most thoughtful among them, imposes obligations upon us. It is crucial that they see the chareidi community as a vibrant, thriving, and viable community.
We must prevent the communal agenda from being seized by those who do not care how ugly they might make Judaism appear in the eyes of our secular brothers because they feel no connection to them or sense of responsibility for the broader Jewish community.
Our course as a community must be guided by those who have taken seriously Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv's statement that the focus of our chinuch should be on the principle she'yehei Shem Shomayim misaheiv al yadecha
. That is not just a lesson to teach our children, but one that we all must absorb and manifest in everything we do. Only then can we hope to be models and guides for all those Jews so desperately in need of what the Torah has to offer.