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Buds of Hope, Unblossomed

Passover nears, and perhaps this time the winter has really passed. There are some early buds of a late-blooming hope. That hasn’t been so for a while now, so — without letting ourselves be carried away — let us allow ourselves to hope.

First, there is the promised withdrawal from Gaza. It has yet to happen, and many concerns attend it. The foremost concern, as attested by the extravagantly elaborate preparations undertaken by Israeli authorities — principally, the army and the police — is disruption, even violent disruption, by the settlers and their allies. Most will shun violence, but there are more than a handful of genuine crazies, and the mischief of which they may be capable could bring with it terrible consequences.

As we have learned and continue to learn, even sophisticated armies cannot provide perfect protection against determined terrorist threats, and the recent reckless rhetoric of some — some, not all — of the opponents of the disengagement provides a religious legitimacy that can only encourage Jewish terrorism. (And yes, I fully realize how utterly repugnant those last two words are. But the people that have Israel’s security establishment deeply concerned these days are the kind who admire Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, and heap praise on Baruch Goldstein, the slaughterer of 29 Arabs in Hebron in 1994 — Jewish terrorists.)

And all that is to say nothing of extremists on the Palestinian side, determined to derail, if they can, the fragile peace that is in very distant sight.

So: Buds of hope? Yes, withal. Prime Minister Sharon has never been accused of being a slouch, and he is plainly determined that the disengagement shall happen. Many questions remain about what happens after the Gaza disengagement, and they are entirely legitimate questions. But they will not be answered until the morning after the disengagement itself.

Then we will learn whether Sharon means it as a first step or as a last step. But minimally, it is a step, and in the right direction. And Sharon, having made it crystal clear that he will not be deterred from taking it, has brought growing numbers of Gaza settlers to the reluctant realization that they have lost the battle. They will move, grudgingly but peacefully. Indeed, the latest news is that the disengagement will take place in close coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and that is exactly the right way to prepare for the next and infinitely more difficult step, the planning for an Israeli withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank.

Barring a cataclysmic event, the disengagement will go forward.

Here at home, the Democrats, still trying and by and large failing to figure out what they stand for, seem comfortable in asserting what they stand against. What they stand against is a gutting of the Social Security system — private accounts do nothing to solve the solvency problem, ensuring only that at some future point, benefits will be lowered, if the system as we know it survives the right wing’s knives at all — and they stand against the kinds of judicial (and perhaps also other) appointments the president seems fixated on making.

The president’s appointments are in some ways a puzzle. There is a sharp distinction between the bluntness of a Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he served as our ambassador to the United Nations and the flip rudeness of John Bolton, Bush’s nominee for that position. Bolton, who mocks the institution to which Bush has nominated him, is not unqualified for the post; he is misqualified for it. So, too, the judicial nominees the president has chosen to re-submit for confirmation. And there is the continuing puzzle of an attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, who is an apologist for torture.

Yet the Democrats appear not to be cowed by the president. And the news that the president’s approval rating keeps sliding downward can only encourage their admirable obduracy.

Another bud of hope.

Now hope is, obviously, contextual. Every day brings its overflowing bushel of bad and even grim news; the long winter is by no means over. The educational system in Israel is in massive disrepair, unbecoming a modern industrialized nation, dangerous to a nation so dependent on brainpower as Israel and its economy have been, offensive to a people that regards itself as devoted to education.

The lines at America’s soup kitchens grow longer and longer; the number of people requiring food assistance exceeds the combined population of our 10 largest cities. Our foreign aid program is nothing less than shameful: The difference between our full share of the United Nations Millennium Proj- ect, which seeks to reduce global poverty and hunger by half by 2015, and what we actually contribute would be fully covered by a reversal of the Bush first-term tax cuts for just those earning more than $500,000 a year. The $15 billion we provide in foreign aid is equivalent to one-thirtieth of the Pentagon budget; it is one-eighth of 1% of our gross domestic product. And so on and so on. So there really is very little danger that we will be carried aloft on wings of hope.

But it is Passover time. Once we were slaves, now we are free men and women. How can we smother hope completely, we who have crossed into freedom? To do that would be to betray our own story, our own experience. So we look for the buds. We look for them, and we seek as best we can to tend to them, that they may speedily in our time blossom.

May your holiday be sweet and rich with the buds of hope.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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