The tenth anniversary just passed of the start of the Second, or Al-Aqsa, Intifada, which began not long after a breakdown in negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It was the week of Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, the week Palestinians renewed their rioting against Israeli forces. This time, the rioting was more violent — as was the Israeli response. These events killed the peace movement inside Israel, and sadly a lot of Israelis and Palestinians as well.
This July, I visited Tel Aviv for two weeks. Arriving on a Friday afternoon, I greeted the Sabbath — like any good secular Tel Avivian — by going to a bar. By 11 p.m. the bar was so packed with carousing Israelis drinking imported beers that our group decided to go elsewhere. What can you do, I thought, Friday night in Tel Aviv. On Saturday night, more crowds, more noise — but hey, it was still the weekend. By Tuesday night, in yet another packed café populated by yet more hip Israelis of every age, I realized something remarkable was afoot. I realized I was sitting in one of the capital cities of early 21st-century hedonism.
What connects 2000 to 2010? How did a time of such pain lead to one of such pleasure? A couple of recent, high-profile pieces — one a cover article in Time, the other an Op-Ed in the New York Times — have attempted to answer these questions, both arguing that Israelis are no longer interested in peace. Violence is down and the economy is up. Why fight the status quo?
These articles are right to a certain extent. The concrete horrors of 2000 have given way to more manageable, more abstract anxieties about Iranian intentions, while the Israeli economy avoided the many cavernous potholes ours more recently did not. All in all, the day-to-day in large parts of Israel is pretty damn good.
But this complacency hides a troubling silence. The traumas of 2000 were often summed up by the conventional wisdom that there’s “no one to talk to.” But now Israelis aren’t even talking among themselves, at least not about this. I spent a year in Israel back in 2007. Already then people avoided “the conflict” in conversations, but the silence was acknowledged. People would, at least, talk about not talking about it. But not now. This year it’s obvious that there’s no point in even bringing it up.
We Jews like to think of ourselves as talkers. Two Jews gets you three opinions, so the joke goes. And here in the Diaspora we like to think of Israel as a typical Jewish family: a lot of talking, a lot of arguments, a lot of opinions. But what happens when they stop talking? Right now, Israel seems to me more and more like a collection of atomized mini-states inhabited by populations — the ultra-religious, the settlers, the Israeli-Arabs, the secular left — that have each retreated into their various bubbles, each pursuing their own limited goals in the absence of any genuine national vision or leadership.
For now Tel Aviv aspires to globalized cosmopolitanism, and appears to be succeeding quite nicely, its chefs, artists, and high-tech tycoons as worldly as their counterparts in Paris or San Francisco. But that lingering bitter taste in locals’ otherwise amazing coffee may be because, for all their cultural clout abroad, they no longer influence politics inside their own country.
After all, apathy and ignorance are not the same thing. Tel Aviv’s liberal elites, for all their supposed indifference, still know that life on the other side of that concrete wall isn’t much fun. They know that if they, as one Israeli put it in the Time article, “live in the day” long enough, that years will go by, that lopsided birthrates combined with a collective shrug will make that nasty word used by that nasty Jimmy Carter — apartheid — harder and harder to dismiss out of hand.
But for now another round of overpriced drinks seems to interest Israelis more than another round of meaningless talks. Put it on my tab, they’ll say, like it’s New York in 1995. Fair enough, but when it comes time to finally settle accounts, let’s just hope that they don’t wake up in September 2000, because that would be one hell of a hangover.
Todd Hasak-Lowy is an associate professor of Hebrew at the University of Florida.
Todd Hasak-Lowy: Partying or Peacemaking?