‘I have no other country, even though my land is burning,” goes the opening line from the song “Ein Li Eretz Aheret,” written by Ehud Manor and first recorded by Gali Atari in 1986. “Here is my home. I will not be silent, for my country has changed its face.”
Those words – “ein li eretz aheret” (I have no other country) – were uttered repeatedly this past week. They were uttered by protesters against the judicial overhaul plan explaining why they poured into the streets on Sunday night after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. This phrase became a slogan for what they said they were fighting for: to save the country’s democracy because they have no other.
These words were also uttered this week by those on the other side of the political fence who favor judicial reform but urged Netanyahu to freeze the program because it was tearing the nation apart. They argued that he had to take action because the country was headed for the abyss and “we have no other country.”
Is Israel's face changing?
But how about that other most memorable line from Manor’s song: “my country has changed its face.” What about that? Have the traumas of the last three weeks irretrievably changed Israel’s face? Has the land been altered forever? Have the last three months left scars on the face of the nation that will never heal?
One thing interesting to note about Manor’s song – which includes the lyrics “I shall not give up on her [my country]/I will remind her and sing into her ears until she opens her eyes” – is that it was written in the 1980s.
While many believe this song to have been a protest against the First Lebanon War, Manor himself said it was written belatedly after the death of his brother in the War of Attrition and reflected the anger he felt toward the state for a willingness to needlessly risk their lives by sending soldiers to the Suez Canal to absorb artillery barrages being fired by the Egyptians.
Either way, whether the song was about the First Lebanon War (1982) or the War of Attrition (1967-70), it reflects anger toward the state – that something had gone terribly wrong, that the real Israel at that moment was far from the aspirational Israel of everyone’s dreams.
What the words of that song remind us, however, is that 40 years ago the country was also grappling with a sense that something had gone awry, and that this is not the first time the state has faced a profound crisis of confidence that has led people to despair that the nation’s face is changing forever.
Israel is in the midst of a storm
In the midst of a storm, it is difficult to see beyond it. And Israel, as it approaches its 75th birthday, is undeniably in a storm, quite possibly the most powerful domestic one it has ever faced.
But it is not the only storm it has ever faced. The nation faced similar storms during the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005; in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination in 1995; during the days following the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982; following the Yom Kippur war in 1973; and after David Ben-Gurion signed the Reparations Agreement with West Germany in 1952.
Those periods were days of deep internal divisions, of the country broken up into camps of “them versus us,” of people wondering whether the country had lost its path, of a lack of faith in the institutions of the state, of citizens feeling that the state had violated its contract with them and badly let them down.
Then, as now, some asked whether Israel could survive the crisis intact. Interestingly, at each of the above junctures, the question of survival was not whether it could survive external threats – the country had proven it was pretty good at weathering those – but, rather, internal ones.
ON SATURDAY NIGHT, in his dramatic address to the nation that brought the current crisis over the judicial overhaul to a head, Gallant said, “I am saying now, in my own voice, for the sake of the security of Israel, for the sake of our daughters and sons, there is a need at this time to stop the [judicial reform] legislative process and enable the people of Israel to celebrate together Passover and Independence day, and to mourn together on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s wars and Holocaust Remembrance Day. These are holy days for us.”
While this crisis has put a severe crimp on the 75th-anniversary celebrations – who is in the mood to celebrate? – that the crisis is happening now, just before Holocaust Remembrance day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen, is somewhat propitious. Gallant was wise in mentioning these days, because they are likely to give the nation a wake-up slap in the face and remind it of what it has and what it has to lose.
Deep in the nation’s consciousness is the haunting understanding that this booth we dwell in – this country called Israel – is fragile and could easily crumble.
Holocaust Remembrance Day will come as a reminder of what happened recently when even this fragile structure did not exist. Then Remembrance Day for the Fallen will remind us of the sacrifices made to erect this structure. Both are likely to have a sobering effect, helping put things in perspective for a nation losing its perspective. Gallant alluded to that when he called these “holy days.”
HAS THE country been damaged by the events of the last three weeks? Undeniably.
It has been damaged economically by people who have pulled their money out of the country and by others who will be hesitant to pour any more into it. It has been damaged economically because investors are petrified of instability, and this country now looks unstable.
It has been damaged militarily because pilots, officers and soldiers saying they are not willing to fight for this country harms morale and operational readiness. It also sends a message of weakness to the country’s enemies, who may make decisions based on the assumption that the people have lost their will to fight. Israel’s deterrence has been harmed.
It has been harmed diplomatically in the West because its image as a liberal democracy has been tainted not only by the judicial reform plan, but also because of the hard-right composition of the government and the extreme pronouncements of some of its ministers. And it has been harmed diplomatically in the region because it becomes less of an object either of desire or fear to neighbors if its relationship with Washington deteriorates.
It has also been damaged at a societal level because the crisis pulled open the curtain on deep fissures that were glimpsed but then covered up again during the corona crisis: of a nation made up of different tribes with little in common that are increasingly losing sight of the thread that holds them together.
All of that has been damaged, and it could take years to repair. But the damage is not irreparable. Some will argue the opposite, however, that it is irremediable and that the lack of agreement over what it means to be a Jewish democratic state will eventually sink the nation.
As Israel approaches Independence Day, brace for learned comments about how the country will likely not last to celebrate its centennial.
But we have heard those dire warnings before. Over the years pundits and politicians, columnists and authors have written profusely about how Israel cannot survive: how it will be destroyed by enemies around it or overcome by its internal contractions and the deep and passionate divisions they engender.
In 2008, long before Netanyahu became the country’s fault line and anyone heard of a sweeping judicial reform plan, the Canadian newsweekly Maclean’s ran a cover story titled “Why Israel can’t survive.”
The Independent ran a piece in 2011 under the headline “Will Israel still exist in 2048?” In 2015 Vox ran an article called “Israel’s dark future,” and the journalist Gregg Carlstrom wrote a book in 2017 called How Long Will Israel Survive? The Threat From Within.
Predictions of Israel’s imminent doom are nothing new nor the product of the Netanyahu era. The forecasting of Israel’s demise has always overlooked an important feature, however: that the people dwelling in Zion desire life, and that they desire life in an independent land in this particular corner of the globe.
This life-affirming impulse has compelled the nation to adapt and improvise since its inception to confront changing demographic, military and political realities and take the necessary steps needed to ensure survival. That healthy impulse was fully on display this week when the judicial overhaul legislation was stopped and negotiations toward a compromise were finally begun in earnest.