Seeing the forest for the trees

Israel is many things and has many faults, but its people are anything but hopeless. That is part of their charm.

Celebrating 66 years of independence. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Celebrating 66 years of independence.
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
It’s as perennial at this time of year as the madly inconsistent weather, hay-fever and the kids at busy intersections selling small Israeli flags to mount on cars. Open up the papers, watch the television, look on the Web and you will see – as Israel approaches another Independence Day – learned reports, essays and articles asking what has become of the Israel that we once loved, and whether the country can survive.
This year the genre took on an odd new twist: Not only essays about whether Israel will still exist in 2048 – the actual title of a very downbeat 2011 essay in the Guardian (albeit in September, not in May) – but also when Israel will morph into Iran.
The New York Times ran the mother of that type of article last month, a ridiculous piece jointly penned by Stanford and Haifa University academics titled “Are Iran and Israel trading places?” “Israel’s secular democrats are growing increasingly worried that Israel’s future may bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Iran’s recent past,” wrote Abbas Milani and Israel Waismel-Manor.
They continued: “The Orthodox parties aspire to transform Israel into a theocracy. And with an average birthrate of 6.5 children per family among Orthodox Jews [compared with 2.6 for the rest of the Jewish population], their dream might not be too far away.”
Are you kidding me? But, never mind. These hyper-ventilating, hyperbolic, dark characterizations of Israeli society have been with us as long as the state itself, and along with them the predictions of Israel’s imminent demise.
At the dawn of independence there were diplomats and pundits the world over predicting that the Zionists’ ragtag army, representing some 600,000 Jews, could not survive the onslaught of the entire Arab world.
In the ’50s they said Israel could not survive economically; in the ’60s, militarily. In the ’70s they said Israel could not survive the Arab oil weapon, in the ’80s the Lebanon War, in the ’90s internal rifts and post-Zionism.
At the turn of the century it was terrorism and the second intifada that the naysayers said threatened the country’s ability to survive, and now – in this decade – it is the “Arab Awakening,” enemies all around, “porous borders,” and Iran.
And one theme that has run like a thread throughout all these predictions is a line that appeared in another doomsday piece that appeared in The New York Times in September 2013 by Ian Lustick.
“Once the illusion of a neat and palatable [two-state] solution to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict disappears,” the University of Pennsylvania political science professor predicted, “Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.”
Isolation, emigration and hopelessness. There are some, sworn enemies like Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who threaten our extinction through violent means; and there are others who predict it will come about because of isolation, emigration and hopelessness.
Really? As we turn 66, how truly isolated are we? Yes, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (a bitter bigot), doesn’t like us. Nor does the Oxfam NGO, or Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or much of the Spanish public. But still, isolated? We have never exported as much, attracted as many investments, or hosted as many tourists as we do now. Not every aging rocker that boycotts us (Elvis Costello), nor every European company that refuses to do business with us (the Dutch water giant Vitens), need send us into paroxysms of self-doubt and despondency. There are other rockers out there (the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Rihanna) and other companies (Google, Apple, Warren Buffett’s firms) that have no problems with us.
Emigration? We’ve heard this now for decades: that life will get so rough, or theocratic, or narrow, or conservative or violent that Israel’s people will flee by the boatload, leaving only the hard-core religious zealots.
But the statistics show the opposite trend. Studying this country’s population charts is amazing. I always remember as a kid being told that Israel was a country of some 3 million Jews, and that there were more Jews in New York. Indeed, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel’s population stood at 3.3 million, of whom 2.8 million were Jews.
And today? Today, following hundreds of articles about mass emigration and the specter of a debilitating brain drain, the country’s population stands at 8.2 million, some 6.3 million Jews. So much for disappearing of our own volition.
And why? Why don’t people leave, and why do people still come? Because the country is attractive, and vital, and energetic, and alive, and Jewish, and democratic, and promising, and full of meaning for people looking for meaning, and drenched in sunshine and – most important – home. And I don’t mean home in the over-idealized way that new immigrants tell visiting relatives returning home after a short visit that “you are home.”
No, I mean it in the sense of home to millions born and raised here, who like the climate, the vistas, the language, the rhythm, their friends, the music, the feel, the tastes, sounds and smells of the country. My children and yours. They just don’t pick up and leave.
The years have shown that Israelis are much more committed to this country – and indeed to Judaism, Jewish destiny and history – than all those predicting Israel’s demise give them credit for. Were they not, they would have left, for the tension here is indeed great, and the exit gates are wide open.
And then there is the claim of “hopelessness.” Hopelessness, ironically in a country whose national anthem is “The Hope.”
Anyone who makes this claim does not know Israel. Do not confuse or conflate constant carping, and continuous kvetching around the Shabbat table about everything, with hopelessness.
Israel is many things and has many faults, but its people are anything but hopeless. That is part of their charm. In fact, for the most part they are inexplicably optimistic. Poll after poll bears that out, oddly – considering our political reality – placing Israelis among the happiest, most optimistic people in the world.
There are many reasons for that happiness and optimism, ranging from sociological explanations to religious ones.
One reason, certainly, has to do with Jewish historical experience. One cannot look at where we were as a people in 1945, after the horror of the Holocaust, look where we are now, and not be wildly optimistic.
You want optimism? Look at Israel’s birthrate, among the highest in the developed world. There is nothing in a developed, educated society that bespeaks more of optimism than in wanting to bring more children into the world. And Israelis of all stripes – not just haredim, but also the secular – are doing so.
No, Israel – as it turns 66 – is not isolated, facing massive emigration or hopeless.
Which does not mean it is universally loved, that all is good, and everyone is content, well and happy. Like any individual that has reached that ripe age, Israel has enemies, has made its share of mistakes, is often crotchety, and has offspring – or offspring of offspring – who have not exactly followed in its footsteps or lived up to its dreams and expectations.
But those who look at the objective forces bearing down on Israel and predict the country’s demise under that pressure, miss the fundamental change that the creation of the State of Israel has brought upon the Jewish people. The establishment of Israel ensured that Jews would no longer be just a passive actor in history that others acted upon, but that rather now – backed by strong state power – it could assert itself into history.
It is not as if everyone else is getting stronger, only the Jews are remaining static and weak; that everyone else is developing and moving forward, only the Jews are staying in place and dependent; that many others are planning our demise, and that we are just sitting on our hands.
Is Hamas acquiring more missiles? Yes, but we are obtaining ways to deal with them. Is Iran developing nuclear weapons? Yes, but we are not just watching idly as they do so. Is the region around us getting increasingly dangerous? Yes, but we, too, are figuring out how to protect ourselves from those dangers.
On this, the country’s birthday, we who live here can look with great satisfaction at two things: First, how far we have traveled; and second, how much skill and energy and innovation and creativity and talent is deposited within us, giving us the ability to face our enormous challenges.
Are there problems? Yes, and they are myriad. Can we cope with them? Yes, as we have proven with astounding success over our first 66 years.
We spend an abundant amount of time throughout the year focusing on the trees – not necessarily the healthy ones, but the rotting trees, the threatening trees, the broken trees, the decaying trees – that we miss the forest.
The beauty of Independence Day is that it allows us to step back for one lazy day and see the forest. And viewing that lush forest from a vantage point that also sees the charred ground from which the Jewish people emerged, can only give one enormous hope.