Thursday, October 26, 2006

Who has the Power?

A-Plus: 2 Months, 1 Week, 3 Days
I could see the crowd swarming before me.  With tiny spasms of nervousness corkscrewing up my spine, I looked the mass of nameless faces smack in the eye and, with carefully sharpened words, lit the way to our future.  Inhaling the humid odor of the crowd, I thrived and built on their energy, until they weren't listening to what I was saying any more, they were just listening to me
In my mind's eye, that is.
There's a story that the American President, talking to the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, told her, "You just can't imagine what it's like to be president over two hundred million Americans."  To which she immediately responded, "You just can't imagine what it's like to be Prime Minister over two and a half million Prime Ministers." (Israel's entire population at the time.)  It's a true story, at least the part about every Israeli being his or her own Prime Minister.  I sit at barbecues or over the Shabbat table and people discuss exactly how Israel botched the Second Lebanon War.
"We should have dropped the big stuff on day one, gotten all the bunkers."
"No, no!  We didn't have the intelligence on the bunkers, and our air force would have missed.  We should have taken out the leadership in Damascus first, our Sayeret Matkal (special forces) could do the job!"
I used to live it too, sucking in the headlines nicotine.  After all, this is the first Jewish commonwealth in 2,000 years, trying to build a tiny free state in the midst of scores of Islamo-fascist tyrants.  Out-maned, out-gunned, and vastly out-financed, one wrong step and we're done for.  The fate of the free world hangs in the balance!  
I watched expectantly as a new messiah arose every couple of years, a great white hope with purity and promise.  But slowly, reality would begin to intrude, and his sweet talk turned sour to the ear as his failed theories on how to bring the new age smashed to pieces against the rock-hard realities of existence here.  Eventually, he would be disposed of like spoiled milk, making room for the next false messiah.
I used to watch the elections, coalition negotiations, secret deals, and corruption scandals with delicious intensity.  Israel is a political thriller of a country, with no government standing for long amid the boiling religious, ethnic, and class tensions, not to mention a war every five to ten years.  But after a time, the politics started to read with the predictability of an airport paperback.  I remember when the crowds called out " Bibi Melech Yisrael!" Bibi (Netanyahu,) King of Israel!  Within a few years, the bumper stickers read, "Bibi... TRAITOR!" and the crowds chanted "Arik (Sharon), Melech Yisrael! "  By the time he fell into a coma, the bumper stickers read, "Arik... TRAITOR!"  Today Arik's former palace servant, the suddenly-promoted way-out-of-his-league Ehud Olmert, is in rapid decline, Avigdor Lieberman's star is rising, and I couldn't care less.
Part of my disillusionment stems from a realization of just how powerless the nominal power-holders truly are.  Yitzchak Rabin was elected in 1992 on a platform of the "Three no's," no Palestinian state, no negotiation with PLO terrorists [read:Arafat], and no negotiations for a retreat from the Golan Heights captured from Syria in 1967.  By the time he was assassinated, he had already violated all three promises.  Netanyahu was elected in 1996 on a platform of reciprocity, "If you don't give [stop terror,] you don't get [the land, money, and weapons promised the Palestinians in the Oslo Peace Accords.]"  Anyone with experience in Arab culture knew that they are incapable of restraining the psychopaths among them, so it was understood that this meant an end to Oslo.  But by the end of his term in office in 1999, the blood was still flowing freely and Netanyahu had already signed over more territory than any other Israeli Prime Minister, before or since.  In marched the ex-Army Chief of Staff Ehud Barak with promises of a final accord to bring true peace with the Palestinians.  Eighteen months later, out he walked in the midst of the worst terrorist war Israel had ever faced.  Then in 2000, Ariel Sharon, the indestructible, "Arik the bulldozer," rolled in on a promise to never negotiate under fire, to fight to the end and not give one inch!  Even the remote seaside settlements of Gaza were to be the beginning of a future seaport, never to be abandoned.  By 2006, the Gaza settlements lay in ruins and he was rolled out in an ambulance.  But then, out from under Sharon's enormous shadow popped Ehud Olmert, here to lead the courageous retreat from the Judean hills, to end the alleged "occupation" (his words) and bring Israel down to manageable size.  Within six months his entire plan was derailed and he sat with thousands of soldiers in an authentic military occupation of that hell-on-earth of southern Lebanon.
Today, one can't talk about a "right" or a "left" political affiliation in Israel.  Under the old system, "left" meant "give our enemies everything we think they want, then they will leave us alone and the Europeans will finally love us," and "right" meant, "build settlements, kill terrorists, and don't give an inch, and they'll finally get used to us."  But in the last election, the left saw Peretz demanding that the fence and assumed future border be put on the green line (the pre-67 cease fire line,) Olmert in the center planning to put it a few meters up the hill, and Netenyahu on the supposed right demanding it be a few meters further still.  It was the same snake oil with three different labels.  Needless to say, voter turnout reached record lows.
So you'll forgive me if Avigdor Lieberman's declarations that, "To the right of me is the wall!", his chin high, jowl quivering in honest-looking determination, eyes wide with hunger, doesn't elicit so much as a passing glance from me any more.  I maintain my concern about the real issues and perils facing this battered land, and I still have the same enthusiasm for moving the country my way as I did when I lived here before, during the intifada.  But the perspective of four years, and my experiences in the United States, have clarified both the nature of the root problem here and the proper course of action for solving it.
It is my belief that Israel is a country forever cowering in fear from its true self.  Israel charity benefit videos and United Nations speeches notwithstanding, Zionism in it's original, eutopian-socialist sense, was not intended to cure the problem of the oppression of Jews in Europe by creating a place of refuge for Holocaust survivors.  By the time of the Holocaust and mass exodus to Israel, all the organs of the state, from de-facto government to labor unions to newspapers to a nascent army were already in place.  Most importantly the pre-natal yishuv, or "settlement," as the entire Jewish enterprise in the Land of Israel was called at the time, had a strong ideal of the sort of person the new country was supposed to produce.  The sabra (native-born) child in Israel would be the "New Jew."  If the Europeans hated Jews for being bookish, believing, rootless, cliquish, and sentimental, then the "New Jew"  would be muscular, faithless, rooted to the land, broad-minded and tough.  By inventing this fictional character, the early Zionists made the same mistake that is made, in some form, by every generation of Jews; they accepted the reasons anti-Semites give for hating Jews at face value.  They genuinely believed that, by modifying these basic character traits on a national level, they would finally be accepted by the Europeans amongst whom they had always been despised and outcast.  Two thousand years of exile would finally come to an end!
Toward this end, the early Zionists the discarded the faith and re-wrote the historical memories that had sustained their people over the mellinia.  The "New Jews," eager to revive a mythical ideal of "Muskeljudentum," muscle Jewry, as envisioned by Dr. Max Nordau at the second Zionist conference in Basel in 1898, opened a new Jewish Olympics, the "Maccabiah Games," named for the ancient Jewish rebel warriors, the Maccabees.  Never mind that the Maccabean revolt was fought by a band of scholars who took up arms to drive out foreign Greek influences, including the Olympic games.  The holiday celebrating the success of these untrained and unlikely Maccabee victors, the eight day festival of Channukah, was transformed form a celebration of faith over physical might into a day of military swagger and jet-fighter overflights.  The festival of Shavuot, remembering the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, was re-scripted as an agricultural holiday celebrating the first harvests of the year.  The "New Jew" became a mere imitation of Zionist stereotypes of the "Non-Jew."
Today, the "New Jews" who rule the roost in Israel find themselves without answers.  They face an Arab, and specifically a Palestinian adversary, who has learned to pluck out a tune on the heartstrings of American and European sympathizers, "we are dispossessed... this land is ours... it is not theirs."  That this faux nationalism has no basis in reality is irrelevant, it gets them sympathy, which brings them money, which buys them weapons, with which they kill us.  On the Israeli side, one simply does not find an Israeli leader in any party who is willing to make a counter-claim.    The left's response has been to repeat the same tired mistake of previous generations of Jews by accepting antisemitic grievances at face value.  By offering ever larger quantities of territory, land, and weapons, we can prove to the Arabs that we don't want to colonize or occupy them, to the Europeans that we aren't stingy or cruel, and to ourselves that we are "New Jews."  The right's response has been to grasp at "security concerns."  After all, anything we give them has and will be used to attack us.
While either of these arguments may receive a passing grade in a Political Science 101 bull session, they inspire neither confidence in the people necessary to persevere nor the respect abroad that Israeli culture so desperately seeks.  For while Israel's adversaries weep over their rights, the Jews refuse to claim any.  To directly claim that we live here as a positive right, not as a reaction to the Holocaust or for defensive measures, would require the leadership to make an authentically Jewish claim, one based on religious and historical ties to the land.  The same religion and history erased by the first generation of "New Jews."  To make such a claim would be to confront the failure of their own ideology to deliver on its promises, and of their own rationale for aspiring to power in the first place.
So I still read the headlines from time to time.  The political talk over the Shabbat table is as intense as ever, barbecue discussions over leaders and war strategies still elicit shouting matches.  But I watch it all go by, content to chew on my burger and sip on a Sprite.  The real change must take place on a deeper, spiritual level.  It will happen. It will take time and work, but I'm patient and determined.


Yaakova said...

Evan, thank you for another great post.
I have encountered this unwillingness (on Israelis' part) to make an authentic religious and historical claim to the land, and it has confused me. Thank you for shedding light on a complex issue.

An interesting thing about modern evangelical Christians is that we see the Jewish entitlement to the land very clearly, with no confusion (perhaps TOO clearly in fact; all black and white with no nuance or shades of gray).
I look forward to the day when Israel stops reacting to world opinion, and grasps G-d's vision.
I think this is an area of strong commonality between evangelical Christians and religious Jews.
Shabbat Shalom!

Ephraim said...

There are actually many of us to whom the connection is quite clear, and there's no need to make all of these strange explanations that the leadership here loves to hear about why we live here. But we don't run the show, or have much of a voice outside of our community. That's gotta change.