A Dose of Nuance: Still time to reimagine

Shimon Peres was a model for being able to change oneself, says the writer.

Shimon Peres (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Shimon Peres
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Yom Kippur ended with Ne’ila, which symbolizes the closing of the gates of repentance.
Interestingly, Jewish tradition has long asserted that the gates do not quite creak entirely shut as the sun sets on the holiest day of the year. The period of repentance extends, said our sages, through the last day of Succot. It is as if they were desperate to remind us that even when we think it is too late to change, too late to rethink, too late to reimagine ourselves, it is not. There is still time, even if it is ebbing.
Their surprising extension of the days of repentance is an important reminder for each of us. Who has truly done all the work of reimagining ourselves by the end of Yom Kippur? The question is no less relevant to us as a people and a nation. Are we sanguine about the state of this country? About what we will bequeath to our children? We would have to be foolish or blind not to be worried.
The value of worry, though, is that we believe that change is possible. The meaning of repentance is that we recognize the past, yet focus on the future.
That embrace of the future was what always animated the best of Zionism. Was there reason to think, in 1897 when Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress, that the world would ever endorse the idea of a Jewish state? Half a century later, with Polish Jewry destroyed and the British still forbidding Jewish immigration to Palestine, what were the chances that we would ever be able to declare Independence? When hundreds of thousands of Jews poured into a newly established and impoverished state, who could have thought that we would survive, that our fledgling economy would somehow manage? With all our challenges, we still need to repair. We have what we have and are who we are because Judaism – and Zionism – are committed to looking to the future. The past teaches us, informs us, shapes us and admonishes us, but it does not define us. Ours is a tradition that embraces the future – what it can be and what we can make happen.
I was reminded of Zionism’s audacity, its embrace of the future, its willingness to move beyond the past, as I watched Mahmoud Abbas attend Shimon Peres’s funeral. As the cameras focused on him periodically, I kept asking myself, “What is he thinking?” “What is he seeing?” Does he realize, I asked myself, that though the Arab world is many hundreds of times the size of Israel, it boasts not a single statesman whose passing would evoke that kind of international outpouring of tribute and honor? Did Abbas ask himself why? I wondered if he noticed the city. He knows well what Jerusalem looked like just 80 years ago. Sparsely populated, largely empty, the capital now barely has room for another building. Its new towers gleam in the sun. The light rail carries Jews and Arabs to and fro. In the hospitals, Arab doctors treat Jews and Jewish doctors treat Arabs. Abbas didn’t see that, of course, but he knows it.
Did his motorcade through the flourishing capital of a country that did not yet exist when he was born lead him to ask himself what it would take for his people to have this? Did he wonder, if even for a moment, whether instilling hatred and clinging tenaciously to the indignities of the past will ever enable them to have this? Did the Palestinians’ leader listen to Amos Oz vilify the prime minister for not having advanced a two-state solution? Did he see Netanyahu sit and listen respectfully, no matter how vehemently he disagreed? Did it register that Oz could ridicule the leader of his country as the entire planet watched, without a moment’s concern for his own safety? Did Abbas ask himself which would be better for his people – a democracy like Israel’s, or a regime like his own, which dismissed an official for criticizing the PA’s president for attending the funeral?
Shimon Peres himself was a model of that very capacity for change. Did Abbas hear that? Did he hear many speakers note that Peres had built Israel’s military infrastructure and had been instrumental in the development of its nuclear program, but had also devoted the last years of his life to the pursuit of peace? Did Abbas wonder, if he, too, could have a different final chapter? Did he notice all the members of the Likud party, which defeated Peres in 1977 and 1981 and which Peres had long despised in many ways, come to pay him honor and tribute? Did he recall that in the 1981 elections, Peres spoke derisively to and about the Mizrahim, but that those North African Jews came to love him as president, because Shimon Peres had changed?
Did Abbas ask himself whether he, too, could do that? Did Abbas understand that he was witness to the power of embracing a future, rather than dwelling on the indignities of the past? Did he wonder, even for a moment, how his people might live if he led them down that path? The gates of repentance are swinging shut, but they are not yet closed. Imagine a world in which both sides of our deep and painful divide understood that, and acted accordingly.
The writer is Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is being published this week by Ecco/Harper- Collins. See review on page 41.