A few weeks ago, I found myself at dinner with a visiting American rabbi. It was a couple of days after the two Israeli border policemen had been murdered in cold blood in the Old City, and the metal detectors had just been installed in response. That evening, at least, it seemed that the government’s decision to install them had worked. Many of us, erroneously, breathed a sigh of relief.
Not the gentleman sitting next to me at dinner, though. He thought the metal detectors a bad idea, but not for the reasons Israeli intelligence cited. “The metal detectors may save Israeli lives,” he said, “but they won’t bring peace any closer, that’s for sure.”
Ah, the peace refrain. It’s become wearying, I confess, this notion that an Israel embroiled in conflict is an Israel that these Jewish leaders cannot embrace. Obviously, Israel’s present conflict with the Palestinians is grinding, and painful for both sides. It is, without doubt, corrosive of Israel’s moral character and is likely a demographic and diplomatic time bomb. And yet, I wondered, why must the conflict be the primary lens through which so many of these visiting Jewish leaders view the Jewish state?
So I said to him, “Well, you do understand that while both sides can and should make things better for the other, if a formal peace agreement is all that matters, you and I are both going to be disappointed; neither of us is going to live to see it.”
He looked at me, stunned. “How do people who live here get up in the morning, if they think they won’t live to see peace? And what do you then think will be here in 10 years, or 20 years?”
In 10 years, I told him, I wouldn’t be surprised if things look very much the way they do now. Israelis can elect a government even further to the right, but the international commitment to Palestinian autonomy of some sort isn’t going to go away. Yet even a radically left Meretz government with a solid coalition would have no impact on the recalcitrant Palestinian street. Regardless of who is elected here, nothing is going to change the fact that, on the whole, Palestinians would rather wage conflict against Israel than lay the groundwork for the state they say they want. (Note the response to the metal detectors.) That’s why what you see today is likely very close to what you’ll see in 10 years.
“That’s the most pessimistic thing I’ve heard anyone say in years,” he said to me.
But I told him I thought it was a highly optimistic view. And when he grew even more puzzled, I explained. It’s optimistic because many of the most central reasons for creating a Jewish state will have been realized.
Assuming that things stay more or less the same, what will we have?
We will have a world in which the Jews do not live subject to the whims of their hosts. No more 1290, when England decided to evict all its Jews. No more 1492, when Spain decided that Jews could leave, convert or burn at the stake. No more 1930s, when Berlin turned from a land of seemingly limitless Jewish opportunity to the nucleus of the plan to eradicate our people. No more France of old, where if the Jews felt they needed to leave, they had nowhere to go. Ten years from now, Jews will determine where Jews live; and for that alone, Israel will be a success.
Some 150 years ago, everyone in the world who spoke fluent Hebrew could have fit comfortably into one of Jerusalem’s larger hotels. Some 150 years ago, virtually no one outside the Jewish world could name a single Jewish writer. Today, though, Israeli writers – reflecting a renaissance of Jewish thought, creativity and writing – win prizes like the Man Booker and the Nobel. The people of the book – and now the people of the screen, as well – have the ear of intellectual elites across the world. Jewish culture flourishes in Israel in a way that it cannot anywhere else. Even if the conflict persists, the Jewish state will still be the epicenter of a worldwide Jewish cultural revival.
In 10 years, Jews will still be reimagining the “new Jew” so central to classic Zionism. Jews, Israeli life will make clear, are as likely to be black or brown as they are white. New synagogues will be fusing the European and Mizrahi rites, as they are beginning to today. Debates over public school curricula will really be questions of Jewish identity. How much does one need to know to be a meaningful participant in a Jewish conversation? Only in Israel can that be a national conversation.
And 10 years from now, if nothing has changed, we’ll occasionally be torn by the sight of an Israeli soldier on trial for excessive use of force. We’ll disagree passionately about the verdict, no doubt, but we will still take pride in the fact that in the face of universal cynicism about virtually everything, we still believe that the “IDF Code of Ethics” should be – and is – different from that of other armed forces.
Would life here be better if the conflict could be resolved? Of course it would. But since that is not likely to happen in our lifetimes, it’s worth noting – particularly that now, after Tisha Be’av, we have entered the “Seven Weeks of Consolation” – that the Jewish state is a success far greater than anything its founders imagined.
Even if nothing changes, those founders would have been stunned, awed and proud. Imagine a world in which Jews could feel the same thing.
The writer is the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His latest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, just received the National Jewish Book Award as 2016’s “Book of the Year.”