The temptation is to write about the small things, the odds and ends of daily life that describe what it is like to be in Israel these days — better than all the momentous debates and decisions that are very much, and appropriately so, in the news around the world.
The first two weeks of my six-week teaching stint in Israel are now over, and while I know the risk of generalizing on the basis of so brief a time, some aspects of life-under-siege jump out at me. The first will surely shock those who know Israel up close: People are more polite to one another than they have traditionally been. There are endless jokes about the rudeness of Israelis, but these days they seem outdated.
Assuredly, that is not what one might have expected in this period of national trial. In theory, the tensions that people experience as they are stopped and (however cursorily) searched before entering shopping malls, cafes, restaurants; as they wait for the next suicide bomber to evade all the nation’s defenses; as they read of grave decisions in the making, should have led to short tempers.
In fact, however, they seem to have led instead to a sense of solidarity, of a neighborliness that shows in how people drive, in how waiters behave, in how people respond when a stranger stops to ask directions. I cannot say what happens in the intimate context of the family, but in public, at least, there is a new and quite charming near-sweetness.
That detail noted, I turn to two “big” things. The first is a sort of “good morning, Tzipi” observation. The Likud, Ariel Sharon’s party, will on May 2 vote on the prime minister’s proposal for a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The polls suggest that it will be a very close vote, and even though the vote has no legal status — the decision itself will be taken (or rejected) by the government and then brought before the Knesset — it is a very major event.
Essentially, if the Likud voters approve the Sharon plan, they are abandoning decades of opposition to the partition of this land, decades that go back to the 1930s and a split in world Zionism on this very question. For many years, the anthem of Likud’s predecessor party was “There are two banks to the Jordan — this one is ours, and so is that one” — meaning not only all the West Bank, but Jordan, too. That anthem is now merely a curiosity. But the West Bank? That, together with what is now Israel, is what is called “the Land of Israel,” and those who have settled there are widely regarded as the new Zionist pioneers. But if tomorrow Gaza, then before long, the West Bank, too.
So it was something of a shock to see Tzipi Livni interviewed on television the other night. Livni is minister of absorption in the Sharon government. More than that, she is the embodiment of Likud ideology. She was raised in “the nationalist camp,” and if, as she has now said, she intends to vote for the withdrawal, she might have kept a low profile or rationalized her intention in any number of tortured ways.
But here, in sum, is what she said: My heart breaks, but if I have to choose between the whole Land of Israel and a Jewish democratic state, I choose a Jewish democratic state. There is no way we can retain control over all the land and preserve both a Jewish majority and a democracy. And if that is the case, then better to bite the bullet now; it will only become more difficult if we wait.
That is a remarkable statement, since in substance it is exactly what the dovish camp in Israeli politics has been asserting since at least the late 1970s. So: Good morning, Tzipi.
Finally, from politics to culture: This week is the most carefully choreographed in Israel’s calendar. Just two weeks after Pesach, the holiday of our liberation, we come to Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day — with what has become a kind of subtitle, V’Hagvurah (and Heroism), meant to rebut the idea that we were led like lambs to slaughter, to affirm the resistance. So what begins with freedom, ends with catastrophe. As the Yiddish poet Jacob Gladstein wrote, “At Sinai we received the Torah and at Lublin (close by the Maidanek death camp) we gave it back.”
But history cannot point to calamity and leave it there. So, just one week after all traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, stops for two minutes as all the nation’s sirens wail — few scenes are so moving as when all the cars on the highway stop, their drivers emerge and stand at attention for two minutes, when all the passengers in the buses rise — we come to Yom Hazikaron, remembering those who have fallen in Israel’s wars, sirens both evening and morning, a very real and very present memorial day that is almost immediately overtaken by Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, a day of poetry and picnics, a day when all the flags, flown at half-mast during Yom Hazikaron, are raised once more.
The scheduling of all this is powerful and problematic. The implicit suggestion is that Israel is in some sense an “answer” to the Holocaust, a suggestion further encouraged by the blessing created for the occasion, referring to Israel as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” Such messianic allusions become both burdens and excuses, and in the light of Israel’s reality, a reality of extravagant political corruption, a worrisome crime rate (including organized crime), the division — nay, chasm — between the secular and the religious, they seem more a mockery than an aspiration. It is a long, long way from near-sweetness to redemption.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).