Israel 2021: Despair, hope and confident resignation

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The mood in Israel this year was at times bitter, angry and sour, but it was not exclusively bitter, angry and sour.

 THE MOOD in Israel this year was at times bitter, angry and sour, but it was not exclusively bitter, angry and sour. There were also moments when the mood was hopeful, joyful and even downright upbeat. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE MOOD in Israel this year was at times bitter, angry and sour, but it was not exclusively bitter, angry and sour. There were also moments when the mood was hopeful, joyful and even downright upbeat.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In late August, New York Times bureau chief Patrick Kingsley and photographer Laetitia Vancon went on a journey to discover Israel.

They traveled from Kfar Giladi on the Lebanese border in the North, all the way down to Eilat in the South, stopping along the way to talk to people in Tiberias, Haifa, Tel Aviv Tekoa, Kiryat Gat and Arakib.

Of the 11 voices that appeared in the October 25 story, only the last voice – that of 80-year-old Shmuel Taggar in Eilat – sounded remotely happy or satisfied, and he could care less if the country of which he is a citizen would be Israel or Israel-Palestine.

The much-critiqued article – “Whose Promised Land? A Journey Into a Divided Israel” – painted a picture of a land full of conflicted, alienated, disappointed, disenchanted, bitter people. No one content, no one satisfied, no one – except Taggar – actually happy.

But is that an accurate portrayal of Israel, circa 2021? Is that truly the mood of the country? Are we all really all that sour?

The official Israel Twitter account is seen posting a satirical post in line with the #SadSadIsrael trend. (credit: screenshot)The official Israel Twitter account is seen posting a satirical post in line with the #SadSadIsrael trend. (credit: screenshot)

The problem with this type of portrait-of-a-country article is that by its nature it is very subjective. The author chooses which voices to throw in, and often the decision reflects more the writer’s preconceived notions or an agenda than anything else.

Another writer could have traveled the same distance, gone to the same locales, talked to a different set of people, and come away with a story reflecting a very different – perhaps more positive – mood altogether.

Are there conflicted, alienated, disappointed, disenchanted and bitter people in Israel? Undoubtedly, and by the bushelful. That is unquestionably part of our people-scape.

But is that all that there is? Obviously not, and therein lies the rub.

The mood in Israel this year was at times bitter, angry and sour, but it was not exclusively bitter, angry and sour. There were also moments when the mood was hopeful, joyful and even downright upbeat.

It’s tough to take an accurate pulse of a nation, especially a nation as diverse as Israel, with so many different “tribes” living in very homogeneous bubbles: the haredi tribe, the Israeli-Arab tribe, the settler tribe, the Tel Aviv tribe, the secular tribe.

Yet to paint the mood of this nation – even with the never-ending Palestinian conflict, even with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreading swiftly, even with the bitter political divisions, even with the hovering threat of Iran – as particularly dark is to miss the mark.

One of the most appealing characteristics of this country is its vitality, energy and optimism, and that was by no means eclipsed even by the challenges of 2021

“PERHAPS FAMILIARITY with our past gives us confidence in the future,” the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote of Jewish history in his book Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places. “Nothing takes us by surprise. Whatever happens, we have been there before.”

That comment seems equally appropriate to understanding the Israeli knack for dealing with its multiple challenges. Nothing takes us by surprise. It’s an attitude of “been there, done that; we survived it once, we can survive it again.” That, more than anything, explains the country’s unparalleled resilience, a resilience that didn’t fail this year as well (note the country’s 7% economic growth in 2021, 1.1%, higher than the global average).

The outgoing year did throw at Israel challenges it has faced in the past: the May mini-war in Gaza is one example, the rising tide of a new coronavirus at the end of the year is another.

Operation Guardian of the Walls, as the most recent Gaza conflagration was called, was particularly harrowing, with some 4,360 rockets fired at Israel over 11 days. The sheer size of that payload would have knocked most other countries way off-kilter, taking them months to recover.

Israel, as is its wont, was up and running almost immediately after. Why? Because Israel’s major population centers have been hit so often in the past. Being awoken in the middle of the night by sirens, dashing to safe rooms and bomb shelters, is frightening, harrowing and excruciating, but it doesn’t have the same overall debilitating impact on the country the fourth, fifth and sixth time, as it did the first.

There is a certain grim routine and predictability to it all. They fire, we respond; they fire more, we respond more; and then the Egyptians and Qataris move in and it ends... until the next time. Familiarity in this case breeds bouncebackability. And in 2021 the country bounced back quickly from that particular round of fighting.

YET THERE WAS one challenge during that mini-war that was new and did affect the mood of the country: the Arab-Israeli rioting inside the mixed cities as the rockets were falling. That was different, that was unexpected, that did not happen in the previous rounds in 2014, 2012, and 2008-9. And although it was eventually contained, this did leave in its aftermath concern that the vaunted Arab-Jewish coexistence in cities such as Lod, Ramle, Acre, Jaffa and Haifa was a facade, and a facade on the verge of crumbling.

But the despair that this might have engendered was alleviated somewhat by Ra’am MK Mansour Abbas – head of the first Arab party, an Islamist one to boot, in an Israeli government – going in an act of solidarity to the site of one of the burned-out synagogues in Lod, and then later in the year acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state.

In the span of just a few months, the country went from despair of Jews and Arabs ever coexisting, to hope that Jews and Arabs may actually coexist. Despair and hope over the same issue, almost side by side – a nuance not easily captured in pieces, like that in the Times, that set out to paint a country’s mood.

Another new challenge thrown at the county was the political stalemate that paralyzed Israel at the end of last year. This type of political paralysis, an inability to form a government election after election, was novel for Israel. For Italy, no. For Israel, yes.

But that political paralysis unleashed one of the country’s most important traits: an ability to find short-term solutions to problems. Not long-term solutions, but short-term ones. And what was the short-term solution to a crippling political paralysis that extended back to the fall of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in December 2018? Form a heretofore unheard-of government composed of parties from the hard Left and the hard Right, and including both Jewish parties and an Arab one.

Did anyone really believe that a former head of the Yesha Council (the umbrella organization representing communities in Judea and Samaria) would sit in the same coalition with the former head of the anti-settlement Peace Now? Or that Avigdor Liberman from Yisrael Beytenu, a politician who earned a reputation over the years as being against Arabs, would sit together with Abbas, head of an Islamist party? Yet that is what happened in 2021.

While that government has infuriated those outside it – the haredim, the Likud, the Joint List – and while those parties endlessly carp against it, creating a harsh political atmosphere, the toxicity that enveloped the country as a result of the “yes Netanyahu, no Netanyahu” debate that consumed it for so long has subsided, at least a bit.

This may not exactly be the wolf lying down with the lamb, but the spectacle of eight very different parties working together – even if not always in complete harmony – did infuse a hopeful note into the country in 2021: that ideological adversaries can actually come together and work toward common goals. That, too, is a legacy of the year just passed.

And then, finally, there is the coronavirus, and the frustration and fatigue that it has generated. Just when we thought the Delta variant was whipped by the third vaccine, in comes the Omicron variant and reshuffles the deck.

But unlike the challenge from Gaza and the one caused by seemingly endless political instability, this challenge is universal, not one unique to Israel. It affects the mood of this country in ways similar to the way it affects the moods of other countries: anger and anxiety, annoyance and fear, as well as deep disappointment with the way the government is handling the crisis (as if there is any government in the world that has calibrated its response to the pandemic just right).

But as 2021 ends, when one walks Israel’s streets and malls and sees the people carrying on with their business despite confusion about the regulations, and amid a constant stream of mumbling and complaints, one also comes away with a sense of Israeli resignation that this is what there is, that this is the way things are for now, and that they are simply going to have to find a way to deal with it – just as they have done with so much else in the past.