(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Today we stand on the threshold of a new era,” said Chaim Weizmann in his first address to the Knesset immediately after being appointed president in 1949. “Let us not be over-arrogant if we say that this is a ‘great day in the history of the world. In this hour, a message of hope... goes forth from this place... to all who are struggling for freedom and equality.”
Thomas Jefferson had the same hopes for American democracy. Writing to his colleagues on the 50th anniversary of America’s independence (and explaining that he was too ill to join them in their celebrations), he wrote of the Declaration of Independence that it was “an instrument pregnant with... the fate of the world.”
It is, in the midst of the endless difficulties of creating and sustaining states, enormously motivating to believe that one is part of a project worthy of the world’s attention and admiration. Israelis have long believed that about themselves, and justifiably so. A democracy that has chugged along impressively, even when an enormous swath of Israel’s electorate came from nondemocratic societies. A small country that gave refuge to more refugees, per capita, than any other modern state. An educational system that, even in a country with a population roughly equivalent to that of the city of Los Angeles, boasts several of the world’s 100 best universities.
Although it is natural for great societies to take pride in their accomplishments, what ultimately sustains them is an appropriate degree of worry for their future. Abraham Lincoln, writing at the age of 28, said this in his Lyceum Address: “I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of illomen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”
Those are words that – if Israel had self-reflective leadership – we would hear spoken about the Jewish state today. Our manifold accomplishments notwithstanding, Lincoln could say today about Israel what he said about America almost two centuries ago.
Are we not more than slightly humiliated – and deeply worried – when a democracy appoints as the chief rabbi of the IDF a man who had called gays “sick” and intimated that soldiers could legitimately commit rape during war? Does not the arrest of dozens of Beitar Jerusalem fans, long known to be one of the most racist groups in the country, and the discovery of significant amounts of weapons in their possession, not worry us? Are we still a country about which Weizmann could have said what he did in 1949?
Whatever one thinks of the ongoing trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria for the shooting of a neutralized terrorist, why is it that we are not deeply anguished that witnesses in the trial – who received numerous threats – had to be given substantial police protection? And whether we assume that Brig.-Gen. Ofek Buchris is or is not guilty of the charge of rape, are we not sobered by the fact that some people, ostensibly seeking to defend him, “outed” the complainant, whose right to anonymity is clearly protected by Israeli law?
We’ve known all this for years, but have decided to ignore it. Beitar Jerusalem has been a cancer in Israeli society for decades, but as a society we have decided to look the other way. We have seen the continuing extremism of rogue rabbis like Yigal Levenstein for years, without asking ourselves hard questions about how rabbis are educated and to whom we will expose our soldiers and students.
Do we really believe that a thoughtful society can exist without a commitment to nuance, without celebrating the grays in a world increasingly colored only in blacks and whites? Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was undoubtedly a firebrand, but for years, to our credit, Israel has included his work in advanced literature electives. Is some of what he wrote hard for Zionists to read? Of course it is. Given where we live, is his voice one that we at least need to encounter, to hear, so we can understand the people with whom we will forever share this region? Equally obviously, the answer is yes. So why are we not more distressed when our defense minister (who does not hail from the most open society on the planet) compares Darwish’s poetry to Mein Kampf? Is that really the level of (un)sophistication to which we would like Israeli society to aspire?
What made Lincoln an extraordinary leader was not only his willingness to use force to hold the Union together. It was his ability to diagnose the ills of American society long before it devolved into civil war. Fortunately, Israel still has some voices like that. Rabbi Benny Lau’s YouTube takedown of Levenstein is a case in point. So, too, is former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s public worry about rabbinic extremism.
But they are not in the government. Where are the elected officials willing to speak honestly about the moral decay that surrounds us? What will it take to produce young Israelis who wish to serve in government and who can say what Lincoln said when he was but 28 years old? Reflecting on the generation of greats that had by then disappeared from America, Lincoln wrote: “They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy.” The writer is Koret distinguished fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is forthcoming in October from Ecco/ HarperCollins.