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Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Future

This is the seventh and final post in a series that build on each other. Each post of the series can stand on its own, but if you want to read them in order you can use these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall  5. Ethnic Struggle  6. Borders

Professor Johnny Aumann has a long white beard, sparkling eyes, and a warm smile.  He is an old friend of my parents, and -- incidentally -- a Nobel prize winner in economics.  Johnny once had five children, each one brilliant and kind, until his son Shlomo -- whose name derives from the same root as shalom or salaam -- was killed in 1982 while serving the Israeli army in Lebanon.  For as long as I can remember, an 8x10 photo of Shlomo's smiling face has been sitting on the piano as the centerpiece in the Aumann's living room.  

Since receiving his Nobel prize in 2005, Johnny has been speaking publicly on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he has become known for his right-wing views.  I can remember a conversation already at least fifteen years ago, in which he told us that the conflict with the Arabs will never end.  We must keep fighting and accept our losses, for that is the cost of living in Israel.  Those who cannot stomach the cost should leave, he said. 

Johnny's views seemed extreme to me at the time, and deeply depressing.  I find them no less depressing today, but unfortunately they are no longer extreme.  Most Israelis seem to have given up hope of achieving peace with the Palestinians.  Many who once saw themselves as lefties have now moved to the right.  They see no choice but to continue in this struggle indefinitely.  For the first time in history, Israel's coalition government is composed exclusively of right-wing parties.  And I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu's angry reaction to President Obama back in May reflected the fatalist attitude of Israelis in general -- the feeling that we have no options left, but must put our heads down and keep fighting.

But the left has not disappeared entirely, and I have been privileged this year to meet a different kind of leftist from those I know back in America.  On the subject of Israel, left-leaning American Jews often seem motivated by shame. "My people are not living up to my standards," one rabbinical student said to me.  Jewish Israelis (with some notable exceptions) are committed to Israel in a much deeper way.  They put their lives at risk serving in the army.  They have placed their lots here, and their criticisms of Israel's right-wing government emerges not from a place of shame, but from a conviction that Israel's future demands peace.  

Both President Obama and President Shimon Peres have recently warned that the conflict cannot continue indefinitely.  A citizenship of 7 million cannot sustainably control 2.4 million people who are not citizens.  Eventually, God forbid, if the conflict cannot be resolved the Jewish state may disappear, either in an explosion or by the slow, painful crumbling of her resources.

The price of the fight is extremely high.  

My son spent his third grade year in an Israeli public school, and he was miserable.  The children spend hours each day at their desks copying from the blackboards, because the teachers have an inadequate photocopying budget.  Israel pours so much money into defense, too little is left for education.  (Interestingly, Israel's socialized medicine is actually quite good, perhaps because doctors' salaries are extraordinarily low -- and yet many of the best Israeli students continue to choose medicine.)  Even more so, my son was overwhelmed by the classroom culture: loud and aggressive, a poorly controlled microcosm of the worst of Israeli culture.  The moral costs of the conflict are higher yet than the financial ones, as 18 year old boys are trained to kill, and then live out their lives -- marrying, raising children -- with the psychological impact of those experiences. 

Golda Meir famously said in 1969: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."  I wonder how many Isarelis still feel that way?   
During each of the so-called pilgrimage holidays -- Pesach (Passover), Shavuot and Sukkot -- thousands of Jews flock to the Western Wall to remember the Holy Temple that once stood there.   The municipality sets up a stage in the square just outside the Old City, and when I was there during Pesach a boys' choir was singing traditional Hebrew songs over loud amplifiers.  As I arrived on the scene, they were bellowing out הקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם, The Holy One saves us from their hands.  I cringed, conscious of the Arab vendors standing 50 feet away, trying to make a living off of the seeded bagels they sell from pushcarts at Jaffa gate.   Israel still has dangerous enemies.  Gilad Shalit's family knows this with excruciating certainly.  But the words of that song were written to describe a different kind of enemy: powerful kings and nobility that tossed Jews about like so many chips on a playing board, or armed mobs that could descend without warning on a defenseless shtetl.  That song, and quite a few like it, seem deeply inappropriate amidst the complex reality of Jerusalem.

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, we entered a new stage as a people.  On that day, Moses and Miriam lead us in creating a new song, שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים לשמך על שפת הים.  

I believe we have again entered a new stage.  We have been redeemed from exile, we are back in our own land, under our own rule.  If the peace with Egypt and Jordan is a cold one, it is nonetheless peace and full-scale war is very unlikely.

It is time to leave behind the victim mentality.  It is time also to leave behind the aggressive mentality that is the immediate backlash to it.  It is again time for a new song.  

When Yitshak Rabin zt"l was shot, in his pocket  were the words to this song: 

Allow the sun to penetrate                          תנו לשמש לחדור 
Through the flowers                                           מבעד לפרחים
Don't look back                                               אל תביטו לאחור
Let go of those departed                                   הניחו להולכים

Lift your eyes with hope                             שאו עיניים בתקווה
Not through the rifles' sights                              לא דרך כוונות
Sing a song for love                                       שירו שיר לאהבה
And not for wars                                                  ולא למלחמות

Don't say the day will come                         אל תגידו יום יבוא
Bring on that day -                                             הביאו את היום
Because it is not a dream -                              כי לא חלום הוא
And in all the city squares                                  ובכל הכיכרות
Cheer only for peace!                                      תעירו רק לשלום


  1. Once again, you've managed to say what I try to think through and you say so beautifully. I am in Israel right now, and as I travel around I see all the tent cities everywhere and I think of what it is like for these students who after serving for 3 years then try to go to University but can't afford housing because it is so expensive & they do not have the funds for Univ. & housing and family, as at this point many of them do have family.

    Take that problem and multiply it many times over and figure out what the Palestinians can do for themselves. Meanwhile, don't forget what is happening in Shdeyrot and even further. The missiles keep flying into Israel and while they have not as yet, thank God, caused many deaths, the shield that Israel deploys regularly has made a big difference. Is there a simple answer? No! Is there any answer? That's what a lot of people keep hoping and praying for, because there better be!!

  2. What is 'left'? What is 'right'?
    This emphasis in your post is not useful.
    These labels get in the way of thoughtful discussion of appropriate strategy to insure Israel's security. As an American Jew, I don't care much which government - left or right - is in the majority or in power. What I do care about is whether Israel is able to defend itself against a world that apparently wants to see it

  3. To Anonymous September 30, thank you for your comment. You and I agree on the importance of Israel maintaining her security amidst a hostile environment. In the short term, that might mean being as tough as possible -- this is the hawkish view, often characterized as right-wing. In the long term, I do not believe that continued conflict is sustainable. Ultimate security means peace -- this is the dovish view, often characterized as left-wing. Of course these sketches are simplifications, but unfortunately Netanyahu has chosen not to include in his government any parties that are willing to make short-term compromises in pursuit of long-term peace.

  4. >>Netanyahu has chosen not to include in his government any parties that are willing to make short-term compromises in pursuit of long-term peace.<<
    Blaming the current government for the stalled situation is a classic example of blaming the victim. On Nov 25 of last year, Israel announced a 10 month settlement freeze. I believe the current PM was also in charge then. This was a short term compromise. What was the response?
    Again, it is not useful in these discussions to use the terms 'hawkish' or 'dovish', left or right, or liberal or conservative.
    The phrase "peace for our time" was spoken in September 1938 by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. One doesn't achieve peace unless both parties are truly interested. History teaches us that peace agreements with untrustworthy parties are worse than no agreement. Until there is a Sadat again, who came to Israel prepared to make peace, Israel will get nothing by making 'short term compromises'. I believe since 1948, every single Israeli government has desired peace. The Palestinians have not yet found their Sadat. When they do Israel will have a peace agreement with them, whether the Israeli government is hawkish, dovish, left, or right.