This Place Called Hope

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08 Feb 2007

A couple of months ago, I had an appointment with a new doctor, just hours before I had to fly to the States. We didn’t know each other, this new doctor and I, but he seemed like a nice guy. I was in a rush, and needed to get back home to pack. All I wanted was my prescription, so I could get meds before I got on a fifteen hour flight to LA.

But he was in a kind of friendly mood. “Why you going to the States?” he wanted to know. “Work,” I said, not terribly effusively. “What do you do?” I was feeling way too lousy to explain what the Mandel Foundation does, and referring him to our website seemed a bit obnoxious (and wouldn’t help me get meds). So I lied, a bit, and said, “I write.” “What do you write about?” he persisted. Really not wanting to have this conversation, looking hungrily at the printer which I was praying would soon spew out a prescription, I said, “About the future of Israel.” At which, he looked up from his keyboard, turned to me and said, “Oh, you write short stories.”

I laughed, and he did, too, but it was clear that neither of us thought that it was terribly funny. And in the weeks since that brief encounter, I’ve thought about it more than a few times. For it captured, I think, the mood here, a mood that no one talks about, but that everyone feels. A mood, a kind of desperation which isn’t about the war that was, or the one that may be coming, but about something deeper.

I was speaking with an IDF general the other day about some work we do together, and our conversation turned to the recent government scandals that have the government so busy defending itself that it can barely function. Two Chief Rabbis under investigation. Two Justice Ministers accused of wrongdoing, trials under way. The now-resigned IDF Chief of Staff still pursued by accusations that he sold his stock portfolio in the first hours of the war. Heads of the Tax Authority under investigation, some under house arrest. The President accused of rape. The Prime Minister under investigation for alleged corruption (he, like all the others, insists that he’s done nothing wrong).

“How do you explain this country?” the general asked me. “In any normal country, people would be in the streets, burning tires, protesting by the thousands. But here, nothing happens. People are going on as if there’s nothing to get worked up about.”

They understand that this problem is much deeper than the government, or the corruption, or the war. It’s Zionism.

I’m not so sure that it’s terrible that people aren’t burning tires. Burning tires would suggest that a change in the government would be enough. But that would be delusional. The reason Israelis aren’t protesting, I think, is that deep down, they understand that this problem is much deeper than the government, or the corruption, or the war. It’s Zionism. No one frames it that way, but that’s the real issue. One hundred and ten years after the First Zionist Congress, people are beginning to wonder if Zionism hasn’t begun to fail.

Zionism, a failure? How, one could ask, could that be? A country with what will soon be the world’s largest Jewish population? An economy chugging along quite nicely, even in the face of everything. Real estate prices going through the ceiling in Jerusalem and elsewhere, internationally recognized universities, an army that is still nothing to trifle with, cultural and intellectual life that is astounding for a population of this size. Think about what was here 75 years ago, look at what’s here now, and you can call this a failure?

No, Israel’s not a failure. The State is a huge success. But, I would still claim, it’s not doing for the Jews what the original Zionists had hoped. And part of the national funk has to do with precisely that.

A century ago, the early Zionist ideologues promised the Jews that if a Jewish state were created, there would finally be one place on earth where Jews could be safe. It might not be big, it might not be beautiful, but it would be safe. Here, it was said, Jews would be able to defend themselves. Here, it was said, they would be spared the capriciousness of the world.

For a while, it seemed that Zionism had fulfilled that promise. Things were bad in 1948, and in the days before June 1967. But the Six Day War and other campaigns (and yes, even the security fence) seemed to make the point – the Jews would do what they needed to do to defend themselves.

But the summer of 2006 put an end to that illusion of safety. For thirty-four long days, the IDF unleashed enormous portions of its (conventional) firepower, but it couldn’t stop the firing of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets on the north. As more than a million Israelis cowered in bomb shelters that few people here thought we’d ever use again, the IAF destroyed huge chunks of Beirut, blockaded Lebanon, sent troops way into the north of Lebanon, even close to the Syrian border … but it couldn’t keep Israeli citizens safe. In the end, the only thing that stopped the shelling of Israel’s northern cities was the United Nations.

As the rockets flew over the entire north, few people in Israel missed the irony of the fact that it’s now more dangerous to be a Jew in Israel (at least in certain periods, like in Jerusalem during the Intifada, or in Haifa during the war) than in any other place in the world. Nor, as the war drew to a close only because Israel agreed to a UN-brokered cease fire, were they oblivious to the irony that Israelis were dependent once again on the international community for even a modicum of safety. With that, the national depression began to set in.

And if Hezbollah wasn’t bad enough, Israelis are asking, what about Iran? What will happen when they get the bomb? What does it mean for Jews, and for Zionism, that just seventy years after the world conspired to let the Jews be erased, more than half the world’s Jewish children (i.e., those living in Israel) could soon live in the crosshairs of a nuclear-armed maniacal Muslim fanatic? That’s a refuge? That’s success for Zionism? What does it mean that the world is clearly demonstrating that it is willing to watch this happen and not intervene? Another wholesale extermination of the Jewish people looms, and Herzl would dare call Zionism a success?

If it’s unthinkable that more than half the world’s Jews could live in Ahmadinejad’s crosshairs, then we’d better figure out what we’re going to do. The world won’t stop him. Will we?

As if the loss of a sense of refuge isn’t enough, Israelis are also coming to terms with the fact that Zionism failed in another of its promises. A century ago (approximately), the early political Zionists believed that having a country would normalize the condition of the Jew in the world. The Jews were singled out, people like Herzl and Nordau (and many others) believed, because there was something unnatural about a people not having a home. Poles had Poland, the Italians had Italy. If the Jews had a country, then finally, the condition of the Jew (being everywhere but being at home nowhere) would change. And the world would eventually cease its relentless attention on this tiny fraction of the world’s population.

But that, of course, has not happened either. Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur – all conflicts that have taken infinitely more lives than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – receive nowhere near the attention that Israel does. Thousands are raped and butchered in Darfur, and days go by with scarcely a mention in the world’s papers. There are 200,000 child soldiers in Sierra Leone alone, but who even knows about that? Yet one protester ignores IDF warnings to stay out of the way and accidentally gets crushed by a bulldozer, and the world goes ape. Then Broadway produces a (bad) play about her. This is normalcy?

North Korea goes nuclear, Iran threatens to do the same and publicly says that Israel should be destroyed, and still, there’s only one country in the world whose right to exist is still debated. And no, it’s not North Korea. Or Iraq. Or Iran. Or Saudi Arabia, busy exporting the Wahhabism that was key to the 9/11 attacks.

Professor Tony Judt of NYU writes an article in the New York Review saying that Israel is an anachronism, because the Jews got on the nationalism bandwagon too late. The fact that the Palestinians started their nationalist efforts three-quarters of a century later doesn’t seem to enter the equation. The solution to the Middle East crisis, Judt wrote, is an end to the Jewish state. “But what if there were no place in the world today for a ‘Jewish state’? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome?” he wonders.

Jimmy Carter writes a book calling Israel an Apartheid state, and despite the numerous reviews which point to the book’s unfairness and numerous errors of fact, the book rockets to the bestseller list. In the United States, not Egypt. It should be lost on no one that people tend to buy books that espouse positions with which they agree.

Who cares how Jimmy Carter tosses the Apartheid word around? We should care. Recall the comments of Jostein Gaarder, the author of “Sophie’s World” and a well known Norwegian intellectual. Gaarder didn’t like Israel’s policies during this summer’s war in Lebanon. His reaction? “We could not recognize the Apartheid regime,” he recalls about South Africa, so therefore, “We no longer recognize the State of Israel. We need to get used to the idea: The State of Israel, in its current form, is history.”

When any other country in the world does something people object to, they object to the leader, or the policy. Does anyone opposing the war in Iraq say that the United States no longer has a right to exist? Or that Britain ought to be dismembered? Or that Turkey (an aptly named country if there ever was one) should be shunned because of its treatment of political opposition and its denial of the Armenian genocide?

One hundred and ten years after Herzl, Zionism has not brought normalcy to the Jews. Not in Israel, and not in Europe. Just ask the Jews of France, where the police removed Jewish kids from the Champs Elysees because they couldn’t keep them safe from the mobs of Muslim teenagers (how’s that for a repeat of a European precedent?). Or in Germany, where the first rabbi ordained since the war recently noted that he can’t wear a kippah in public because the far right now knows that they own the streets?

Israel has progressed, but the world hasn’t changed much. Normalcy hasn’t come. And it isn’t likely to. Exit Herzl and Nordau. Enter the desperation.

When faced with the realization that Zionism has brought neither safe refuge nor normalcy to the Jewish people, how hard is it to understand state of Israelis’ morale? “What’s the fight about?” they ask. If the experiment called the State of Israel still leaves us vulnerable both at home and throughout the world, why pay the price? Why send generation after generation to the front, with thousands of mothers and fathers waiting up at night, night after night after night, anxiously waiting for their son to call, so they’ll know he made it back once again? If we got security, or normalcy, then maybe it would be worth it. But all this, just to remain vulnerable? All this, just to remain the only country in the world without a right to be?

It’s not hard to understand the fact that there are no protesters in the streets. This is something way too big for mere protests.

The issue, of course, isn’t really Israel, or even Zionism. It’s the Jews. Again. Amos Oz has written with sadness about the irony that when his father was growing up in Europe, he saw signs that said “Jews Go Home to Palestine,” but that when he, Amos, was growing up in Palestine, the signs said “Jews out of Palestine.” Oz, one of Israel’s best known left-wing intellectuals, summarizes the unavoidable point. “Don’t be here. Don’t be there. In short, don’t be.” An exaggeration? I don’t think so. What did Gaarder call his editorial objecting to Israel’s military policy, claiming that Israel is now “history”? “God’s Chosen People.” How on earth is the issue of Israel’s conduct of the Lebanon war connected to “God’s Chosen People,” unless the issue really isn’t Israel?

It’s not.

Which leaves us with a decision – the Jews have to decide, once again, if we want to survive. If we want to make it, then we need to rekindle one of the basic premises of Zionism, and take matters into our own hands. It’s not enough to simply feel that we’re back where we started, 110 years ago. The question is what we’re going to do about it. The question is, how do we restore hope?

Amazingly, very few people, either in Israel or beyond, are talking about that. The tragedy of today’s situation is that you ask young American Jews to free associate with the word “Israel,” the first thing you’re likely to hear is “Palestinians,” or “war,” or “fence.” But the State wasn’t created for any of these things. Most young Jews, both in Israel and outside, can’t say an intelligent word about why the State was created. They might mention the Shoah. Or the refuge issue. But they’ll miss the major point – that the purpose of Israel was not Statehood. It was hope.

They don’t know, anymore, that the Zionist movement, and then the State, took as its national anthem a poem called “The Hope.” They know the melody, and Israelis know the words. But they have no idea what it’s about. They can’t begin to articulate the notion that Israel represented to Jews across the globe, after the worst century we’d known, life over death. Continuity instead of extermination. A homeland instead of exile. Rebirth instead of extinction.

They’re so consumed with the plight of the Palestinians (a horrific plight, obviously, that has to be addressed – as soon as the Palestinians make that their priority) that they don’t resonate at all to the pride Jews once felt about the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, or the rescue at Entebbe, or the technological prowess of Israeli companies, or by the now stereotypical tanned and hardened Israeli youth, stark contrasts to the common portrayal of Europe’s Jews as pale and passive. They don’t understand that it’s because hope – life over death – was at the core of this country that explains why there are still huge book fairs in this country, celebrating the mere simple fact that thousands of books are published each year in a language that 150 years ago, virtually no one in the world spoke. It was why dance became an integral part of this culture, and why Jews got excited about a song celebrating a sprinkler, written when the National Water Carrier project was completed. What person in their right mind sings about a sprinkler? Who dances to the idea of a sprinkler? Jews did, and do, when the sprinkler brings water from the north to the south, when it bring life to the desert, when it bespeaks not just the flow of water, but the possibility of hope when there could have been nothing but despair.

Songs like that strike our kids’ generation as kitsch, as relics of an era that’s long since gone. But we can’t afford the cynicism. What strikes them as kitsch was what struck Jews a generation ago as rebirth. If today’s Jews are ambivalent about the image of the Jew as soldier, other Jews understood until recently that the Jew as soldier, with all the complexity it would entail, meant that finally, Jews would determine their own fate. If there’s anything that Lebanon II, Iran, Judt, Gaarder, Carter and all the rest have in common, it’s that they afford us a reminder that once again, this place called hope, needs to take control of its destiny,.

If the government is hopelessly corrupt, then it won’t be enough to topple it (it will do that on its own). We’d better build an institution, maybe like Harvard’s Kennedy School, or France’s Ecole Nationale d’Administration, to finally train a decent cadre of leaders. If the system’s broken, let’s fix it.

If it’s unthinkable that more than half the world’s Jews could live in Ahmadinejad’s crosshairs, then we’d better figure out what we’re going to do. The world won’t stop him. Will we? What kind of power would we be willing to use to put an end to Iran’s nuclear capabilities? Would be it moral to use weapons we’ve never used if that’s what it would take? Would be it moral not to, if the future of the Jewish people is at stake? How much are the Jews willing to do in order to survive?

Hezbollah has no territorial quarrel with Israel, but still went to war. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, and says that it never will. Why the hand-wringing? Let’s pick borders, and defend them. That much, at least, Sharon understood. The rest of the world doesn’t like unilateralism? What, exactly, does the world actually like about us? The question ought not be what the world wants. The question is whether Zionism can reassert the basic question – what do we want?

We want a Jewish country, and we want a democracy. And we’ve got a huge Arab minority that is growing. Are we going to do something about that, something morally defensible? Can we have a State that is both Jewish and that is democratic? What would it take to have both? It wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t all be pretty, but it could be done. Do we want to survive badly enough to start? Or even to ask the question?

Or how about poverty? Or an educational system badly in need of repair? Or the slave trade of women in this country? Does anyone really think that a state can generate hope without tackling those issues? Do we have it ourselves to roll up our sleeves and to get to work? Would it help if we understood finally that it’s not only about poor people, or literacy, or helpless women – but that it’s about hope, about a future? About the survival of the Jewish people?

No, that’s not hyperbole. It really is about the survival of the Jewish people. Does anyone really imagine that American Jews could survive without Israel? Are people really naive enough to believe that if Israel stumbled so badly that it couldn’t recover, that American Jewish life would simply chug along? It would last a generation, maybe two. For there is a limit to how much hope a people can lose in the space of a century, and still bounce back. A people cannot long for sovereignty for two thousand years, find itself at the precipice of extinction, bounce back, get a state, and then lose that, too, and march on as if everything is OK. Nothing would be alright, and the optimism that now characterizes much of Diaspora Jewish life would disappear soon after the State did.

I disagree with my friend-the-general. I think it’s good that people aren’t protesting. Protests would be about the government, and the government is the least of our issues. The problem isn’t Olmert, or Katzav. This is not about Israel. It’s not even about Zionism. It’s about the future of what we call the Jewish people. Hezbollah gets that. Hamas gets it. Ahmadinejad gets it. Gaarder gets it.

Why don’t we?

© Daniel Gordis, reprinted with permission of the author. Daniel Gordis is Vice President of the Mandel Foundation – Israel, and the author, most recently, of Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). Visit his website at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.