Sitting at the head of the table during the Seder is a mini-test of leadership. Not only do you have to silence the chattering and resist the impatient demands to skip portions of the Haggadah and get straight to the food, you also have to offer some words of wisdom about what happened to the Israelites when they came out of Egypt.
A large part of the Seder is educating the next generation. And when my grandchildren, Maya and Itai, ask the customary questions about the past, I know I will have the right answers. It is the future, though, that is bothering me.
When I was a child, questions about the future were answered with the same conviction as those regarding the past. In those days, there was no need to mince words, because just looking at my parents at the Seder was reassurance enough: two halutzim — pioneers — who came to rebuild the Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile, struggled in the face of malaria and poverty, worked double shifts to buy a house and give their children a proper education and, when attacked by the Arabs, they fought back and won. They were confident that Israel would not only survive but prosper, and in the words of David Ben-Gurion, quoting the Prophets, would become “a light unto the nations.”
We are not quite there yet (to put it mildly). While I believe that the success of Israel exceeds the wildest dreams of my parents, today we face some profound challenges.
Indeed, in keeping with the spirit of Passover, it can be said that there are four big questions that must be addressed if we want to convey to our children the same confidence about the future that we received from our parents. They are: How do we confront the threat of Iran’s nuclear program? How do we arrive at a two-state solution that will secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state? How do we deal with relations with Israel’s Haredi community? And how do we make the country’s Arab minority feel a part of Israeli society?
Each of these challenges is daunting. Yet none should cause us to give up hope. All can be addressed if we act with wisdom.
First, we must not be complacent about the dire spot Israel now finds itself in vis-à-vis Iran. The Iranian regime is pursuing nuclear weapons, and its president makes no bones about his sinister intentions.
There is, of course, nothing new about threats against the Jews. “In every generation there have been those who have stood against us to wipe us out, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands,” the Haggadah relates.
But whereas in other periods in our people’s history, Jews couldn’t defend themselves, this is not the case with Israel today. Unlike the days of my parents, Israel, stronger than ever, now has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, who, along with other Arab states, also fear Iran. We also have a strong bond with the United States, which is determined to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. What we need to do is quickly restore trust between Jerusalem and Washington, so we can face the Iranian threat together.
The second challenge is that Israel, by not separating from the Palestinians, might turn into a bi-national state, where the Palestinians, through their higher birth rate, become the majority. In such a case, Israel will either lose its Jewish identity or become an apartheid state. This is not what my parents fought for.
Again, this is not an inevitable outcome. A clear majority of Israelis are concerned about such a scenario, and that is why in the polls, Kadima — a party that stands clearly for a two-state solution — is now stronger than Likud. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not allow himself to drift away entirely from the desires of the Israeli public. That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised if he reshuffles his coalition, with the far-right parties and Shas replaced by Kadima. Israel, then, will return to its senses and — either through a negotiated peace agreement or unilaterally — finally separate from the Palestinians.
This change in government will also allow us to begin to address the third challenge, that of loosening the Haredi grip on Israeli society. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, by and large, don’t serve in the army, and their schools often condemn their children to lives of poverty. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Haredi sector tries to impose its way of life on others.
This situation is unsustainable, both for Israeli society and for the Haredi community. It has persisted because the ultra-Orthodox parties have held the balance of power between the left and the right, which have long been divided when it comes to the peace process. If the center-right and center-left — Likud, Kadima and Labor — can come together, they will be able to restore a proper balance to the state’s relations with the Haredi sector.
Last but not least is the issue of the Israeli Arabs. If we were smart, we would have made them the happiest people in Israel, thus signaling to our Arab neighbors: See what happens when you live in peace with the Jews. Instead, we left them lagging behind, feeling disenfranchised and bitter.
It’s not too late to change this state of affairs and, as a matter of fact, the Israeli government has just adopted the plan of Avishay Braverman, the minister of minorities, to invest heavily in the Arab sector. If 20 years ago a million Jews from the Soviet Union came to Israel and gave it an unbelievable boost, this time it will be the million Israeli Arabs, who, once secure in their place among the Jews, can give us the next jumpstart.
As I ponder all this before Pesach, I’m reminded of Rabbi Tarfon, who said something that is as valid today as it was two millennia ago: “The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the reward is great, the master of the house [Obama?] is insistent.” Then he said something that I feel was somehow written specifically for my generation: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.”
Uri Dromi served as spokesman for the governments of prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.