“When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other.”
—David Ben Gurion
David Gruen’s transformation into Daveed Ben Gurion, from European socialist to Zionist utopian, reflected his potent awareness that outward perception impacts inner identity. And the individual experience echoes the larger, societal one. The pioneering prime minister’s seemingly cynical sentiment, an aspiration for a base normalcy, was a necessary counterpoint to the messianic idealism that fueled the realization of the Zionist enterprise.
Yet lofty hopes still inform all that the modern State of Israel embraces, especially when faced with the annihilationist vision of nuclear aspirants and the messy compromises of contemporary statecraft. But there has been a new, pernicious strain of realism afflicting a society bearing the transcendent dreams of global Jewry.
While Israel has borne its comparably small share of extremist tragedies, recent abominations of intolerance, particularly among the young, bode ill with the prospect of an emerging new era of bigotry. The desecration of monasteries and mosques, the firebombing of a Palestinian taxi by B’nai-Mitzvah–aged assailants, and the brutal beating of a Palestinian youth by Jewish teen thugs in the heart of Jerusalem before a mob of hundreds reveal an unprecedented, virulent strain of Jewish xenophobia. More broadly, the growing appearance of anti-immigrant graffiti, and the more frequently expressed nativism it signifies, reflect a significant departure from the inclusive regard for the other by this young nation only a few generations removed from its roots as refuge for the stateless.
It is no coincidence that increases in violence percolate from the darkest corners of the religious settlement movement. As Israeli society confronts the growing divide between the negotiated demands of modernity and the theocratic visions of fundamentalists, the intractable resist change and growth with greater ferocity and ignorance. But unlike most evolving, Western cultures, Israelis are permitting the marginal to erode the mainstream.
As scrupulously documented by journalist Gershom Gorenberg in his controversially incisive book, “The Unmaking of Israel,” years of cynical complicity in the spread of settlements by the leadership of all political persuasions has created not only a permanent caste of territorial intransigents, it has empowered maximalist ideology to permeate all facets of Israeli culture, including, and most disturbingly, the IDF. The recent spate of violent racism is but one symptom of this growing infection of the democratic body politic.
And while the secular Israeli education system has confronted these tragedies with a systematic heshbon nefesh (self examination) that could most likely not be found, or would most likely never be adopted by, the majority of Palestinians or any Arab state’s education system, to compare Jewish moral sensibilities to the undistinguished track record of three generations of radicalized Islam is to set the bar uncomfortably low.
Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, the scion of a religio-political dynasty, lamented what he decries as “Israel’s fading democracy” in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. Burg mourns the devolution of the covenant between Israel and America, formerly founded upon humanistic values, but currently metastasized into the mutual interests of “war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma.” For Burg, Israel’s support for the most destructive expressions of religion and capitalism, paired with an increasingly aberrant brand of democracy sorely lacking the constitutional checks and balances necessary for civic health, paves a path for Israel to become just another Middle Eastern theocracy.
In the midst of the last decade, the leadership of Israel’s right, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, building upon the surprising conciliation of previous reactionaries like Menachem Begin, took critical steps to cede territory toward the creation of a Palestinian state, not out of an appreciation for the self-determination of this beleaguered people, but from the very practical awareness of demographic pressure: To maintain Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, it could no longer occupy the land of a growing Arab population. And while Palestinian recalcitrance and Islamic extremism have spurned opportunities to create a viable state, these courageous gestures, and the mindset underlying them, remain critical to Israel’s secure and stable future.
But there is an equally important existential confrontation that lies ahead. Someone once noted that for the first 50 years Israel focused on insuring its safety; the next 50 would be about securing its soul. Israel is currently in a battle for its soul. The next few years will determine whether Israel can extract itself from becoming a permanent occupying force, excising territory that threatens its security and well being, and impacting its essential identity as an unparalleled experiment in Jewish democracy. Or, will Israel ingest the occupation existentially, empowering its soul-crushing character to irrevocably alter the nation’s moral and spiritual DNA?
The prophet Isaiah inspired Israel to perceive itself as an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations. Throughout most of its proud, tumultuous history, Israel has fulfilled this mandate, resisting the base standards of the rest of the world in its enlightened conduct of war, its regard for the vulnerable and afflicted of all nations, and its unqualified pursuit of peace in the face of ongoing nihilism, terrorism and global prejudice. This exemplary history renders this recent, widespread descent into base intolerance, nativism and religious radicalism even more troubling, disappointing and dangerous. It is rightly difficult, even an existential challenge, to rise to the task of lighting the nations. It is far easier to be lit by the sensibilities, standards and expectations of others in an increasingly divided world. Will Israel continue to be a source of light to illuminate the world that can be, or will it become yet another pale reflection of the world as it is?