Israel in Winter

Posted on Mar 07, 2012

A friend wondered aloud, as we sat in a Jerusalem restaurant on a mild winter day in mid-February, why it is that books continue to be written, and reviewed in Ha’aretz, asking whether Israel has a future.

“Is there any other country in the world where this could happen?” she said.

None came to mind. Nations routinely worry about all sorts of things: political divisions, economic stagnation, ethnic conflict, and the like. Few, even if they were born more recently than the Jewish State, seem plagued by anxiety about their very survival. Israel will turn 64 this May—the age that had the Beatles asking, “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” —and it’s not uncommon to read or hear of dire warnings that if something is not done soon about this problem or that (settlements, Haredim, Palestinians, lack of a constitution, divisions between “religious” and “secular,” divisions between “right” and “left”), the country will not live much past 70, whether needed or not and no matter how well-fed.

“Oy,” one wants to exclaim. “Enough with the doom-saying already. Let apocalypse remain a genre of ancient text and only that. Israel has so much going for it right now. Couldn’t we just get on with the daunting business of facing today’s problems, and appreciating tomorrow’s possibilities, undistracted by worry about whether there will bea tomorrow?”

Two very real threats, one emanating from outside Israel’s borders and one from within, seem primarily responsible for the latest bout of fear for Israel’s future.

First and most important, there is Iran—a subject much in the news right now, of course, but one about which I heard much less during this visit than I had expected. I suspect that worry about Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capability is ubiquitous among Israelis and never far from the surface of conversation or consciousness. How could it not be? Everyone understands the threat Iran poses; they know too that, should Israel attack Iran’s enrichment plants, thousands of missiles would almost certainly rain down on Israeli population centers. Casualties would be enormous. Why then so little talk about it? For several reasons, I believe: the danger is too great to ponder, and so it is not pondered; the average Israeli will not have much say in how events unfold and so sees no point speculating; the matter does not lend itself to insertion into ordinary conversation. (“How has your trip been so far? We may lose entire neighborhoods or cities to Iranian missile strikes, you know. What did you think of the restaurant in your hotel? We need these rains, you know. ”) It is assumed that a way will be found out of the current impasse, because it must be found. What is more, Israelis generally seem to rely on America to resolve the Iran crisis, with the assistance of Israeli talk about a possible attack. Here in America, by contrast, it seems that Israel is driving events, with the US in a supporting role.

Whatever the reason, the Iranian threat has become part of the so-called matsav, “the situation,” which has been the subject of hourly news bulletins for as long as anyone can remember. Israel has rarely known moments of real peace. Everyone agrees that its problems with Palestinians and its neighbors are serious—and no one expects to see a solution any time soon. The matsav is therefore not permitted to interfere with the joys, cares and satisfactions of daily life. Existential danger to the country, for everyone but soldiers on active duty, constitutes one more hassle one learns to handle . This is perhaps as it should be, or needs to be.

I am always struck most by continuity rather than crisis when I visit Israel. The announcer on the morning radio news show was the same one who has been doing the program for decades. Traffic, as always, was worse than ever. The government has been slow in responding to the social protests of the summer. Ministers are under investigation. The sun shone in clear blue skies after drenching rains. Jerusalem, its light rail system finally operating, was magical as ever on Shabbat. Tel Aviv throbbed all the time, except by the sea. Life for my friends, despite all the problems they face, seemed good indeed.

The principal internal threat to Israeli democracy, if not to Israeli survival, seemed uppermost on people’s minds this winter: the growth in Haredi numbers, power, and assertiveness. The issue is not so much recent offenses by ultra-Orthodox extremists as the long-term questions of Israel’s democratic and pluralist character. Will the State be ruled by the laws passed in the Knesset or by halakhah as interpreted by ultra-Orthodox “Torah sages”? Will soldiers wearing kippot obey orders from their commanders or their rabbis? Will Israeli public space be made to conform with Haredi convictions, a move that infringes particularly on the rights of women? (Buses segregated by gender with women forced to the back, streets divided down the middle like an Orthodox synagogue, women’s voices silenced within range of Haredi men’s hearing.) The questions are still rhetorical in 2012 when posed by me or those with whom I spent time on this visit. For many Haredim—the fastest growing segment of the Israeli population by far—the desired answer to all the questions I posed might well be different.

A professor of Jewish law at Hebrew University who once headed the office of the chief rabbinate recently published an opinion piece that bemoans and excoriates the recent wave of outrages committed by Haredi extremists. “The time has arrived for radical change.” “The only solution that seems plausible, for the good of religion and the good of the State . . . is separation of religion and state.” I think he may well be right—but the chance of that happening any time soon is close to nil. There seems broad agreement outside Orthodox sectors that Israel desperately needs a written constitution, but I doubt the American model of separation between church and state is fully applicable to Israel in any case. Judaism is not Protestantism; the relevant unit of covenant and faith in our tradition is not the individual but the family, the community, the Jewish people worldwide. Israel in my view should be the arena where competing visions of Judaism are peacefully contested and consensual ideals of Judaism are put into practice in public life. Restricting Torah to private space and time is not a possibility compatible with the Sinai covenant.

A new survey of belief and practice among Jewish Israelis released last month by the Guttman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute reveals just how complicated the situation is. Only 7% defined themselves as Haredi, and only 3% as “secular, anti-religious.” 15% said they are Orthodox, 43% are “secular, not anti-religious,” and another 32% eschew those labels and call themselves “traditional.” Asked “to what extent do you observe tradition,” 26% said to a great extent, 44% to some extent, and only 16% not at all. Detailed questions about observance confirmed this pattern. 94% said circumcision of newborn boys is important, nearly as many said one should sit shivah and say kaddish for deceased parents and have male children bar mitzvahed. Sabbath observance to varying degrees is nearly universal.

The main take-away? Neat divides between “religious” and “secular” are woefully off the mark. I think the categories should be dropped entirely in Israel (as among Diaspora Jews). They tell us little that is important—and turn our view away both from commonalities that should not be missed and from divisions that are all too real and will not be healed any time soon. Israelis are bound by a “covenant of fate” that links them powerfully to the Jewish people and the Jewish past. Questions of faith are not easily avoided.

In Ein Karem, a former village now on the outskirts of Jerusalem, I watched a dozen young Israeli men and women—students at the “secular yeshiva” recently established there—discuss the meaning of words such as secular, holy, Torah, obligation, freedom, and rabbi. Two founders of a project devoted to reviving piyyut—ancient Jewish liturgical hymns—told me of the many choirs that have sprung up all over Israel in the past few years to sing music that crosses and re-crosses the boundary between “secular” and “religious”—just like the members of those choirs. I learned about a “secular prayer” group that has been meeting for some time and about the Friday night service that has taken root at the “secular” moshav of Nahalal, once home to Moshe Dayan. I discussed a new program that explores Jewish values with a range of Israelis drawn from all different walks of life and religious leanings. An Israeli general explained how his entire life, like that of many Israelis, has been shaped by faith that the country he serves evinces a divine purpose. Rationality must loom large in the nation’s decisions and the authority of the government, he believes. The army cannot be undermined in the name of Judaism. But neither can the state be separated from God and Torah.

Because of individuals like him and the others I met this visit —thoughtful, dedicated, idealistic, free with jokes about Israel’s inadequacies, quietly lending new meanings daily to the word Jewish—I never come home from Israel depressed about the challenges facing the country, even knowing full well just how euphemistic that word “challenges” is in this context. One final example: the soldier who gave a tour of an IDF robotics lab to the “Nachshon” group from Chicago of which I was happily a part for several days. The man was so competent, so bright, so naturally and un-self-consciously proud of his unit and his country. “Look at the talent this country has at its disposal,” I said to one of the guys with me on the tour. “It’s hard to worry about Israel with that reserve of character and brain power.”

I know, I know: there is ample cause for worry; Israel had better face up to the looming threats from within and without, and do so sooner rather than later; complacency will hurt us; time, if we are passive in the face of danger, is not on our side. But it would be helpful, as we face difficulties and seek solution, to stop dividing Israelis into “religious” and “secular,” as if those categories are homogeneous or explain much of anything, and it would help still more to cease apocalyptic warnings at every turn that the end is near.

I expect the traffic will still be bad next time I visit and, with luck and skill and Providence, the morning news will sound much the same.