Permit me to give Charles Dickens the opening words to this column: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...”
I couldn’t put it better.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens was referring to the dualities of London and Paris in 1775, at the time of the French Revolution, but his words came to me this week as I celebrated my 44th aliyah anniversary amid the paradoxes of social and political turmoil in Israel.
I have spent more than two-thirds of my life in Israel and I have witnessed firsthand more than half of the country’s 75 years. That’s a lot of ups and downs, but no regrets. After all this time, I still consider the word “Zionist” to be a compliment.
It’s natural to feel nostalgic when celebrating an anniversary like this. Israel in the summer of 1979 was a different place: better in some ways, worse in others.
The Likud win in the 1977 elections was still fresh – and to a certain extent, today’s protests still reflect the “mahapach,” the upheaval as Labor and the Left lost control of the government. It has been posited that support for the judicial activism promoted by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak during the 1990s is partly a means to transfer power to the judiciary from the legislative body. The country proudly considered itself Jewish and democratic even before Barak’s revolution. We argued about other things.
Yom Kippur War, still an open wound
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was still an open wound. It is typical of the country that an astonishing victory against the odds when attacked by the surrounding countries on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar was perceived at home as an abject failure. The country was traumatized by the loss of more than 2,600 soldiers and lost faith in its leadership and lost a sense of security. I arrived between wars.
In June 1982, we were embroiled in battle once more – The First Lebanon War, an effort to get rid of the terror attacks and rockets being launched on Galilee from over the northern border.
A few weeks after our arrival in the country, I joined a Nahal army garin on a southern kibbutz, while my parents soon moved to Karmiel in Galilee. In those days, pre-withdrawal from Gaza, the South was safe from rockets but the North suffered from frequent bombardment and terrorist infiltrations.
Looking on the bright side
Traveling from the North to the South and back used to be slow and uncomfortable. As protesters this week crowded train stations and blocked highways bringing transport to a halt on yet another Day of Disruption, I looked on the bright side and marveled at how far we have come. In those early days, Karmiel didn’t even have a set of traffic lights, now it has its own train station.
Private cars were still a luxury item at the end of the 1970s. Even the army lacked vehicles, hence cars could be commandeered for use by the military. People got the joke when Israel’s ultimate comedy team, Hagashash Hahiver, produced a skit entitled “The Conscripted Car” in which a vehicle comes back from service without the radio, the seats, and even the engine. The skit’s catchphrases: “Haya manoa?” (“Did it have an engine?”) and “Hamaftehot bifnim, sa!” (“The keys are in the ignition, you’re good to go!”) are still used – at least by my generation.
At a time when some pilots and members of other elite units are refusing to do reserve duty to protest the government’s judicial reform, it seems particularly funny to think of an era when people were willing to let their own prized cars be mobilized.
Incidentally, we listened to Hagashash, as they were fondly known, sitting around transistor radios, cassette players, or Channel 1 – Israel’s only TV station at the time. In 1979, Israeli TV was broadcast only in black and white out of a sense of solidarity for those who could not yet afford color televisions.
Home phones were also still not a given, and needless to say, cellphones were in the realm of fantasy. As a result, friends and neighbors just dropped in without warning. Mobile phones and social media are a blessing – but it’s a mixed one. The phones make life easier. Social media can bring people together – or tear them apart.
The world has changed - Israel is no exception
THE ENTIRE world has changed dramatically since the 1970s. And Israel is no exception. There has been progress in almost every field imaginable – and some of the changes have been beyond our wildest imaginations.
Advances in healthcare, in which Israel is an innovative pioneer, are miraculous. When I first arrived in the country, by the way, which health fund a person belonged to usually depended on which political party they were affiliated with.
On the other hand, environmental protection – or nature protection, as it was known – was identified with both Left and Right, born from a natural love of the land. Today, Israel is an international leader in agritech, which allows greater and more efficient food production, essential in face of the threat of global food shortages. Its desalination projects mean that – uniquely in the region – the country doesn’t lack water even in a sizzling summer such as this. It even provides Jordan with large quantities as stipulated in the 1994 peace agreement. The Abraham Accords of 2020 are also a success story based on Israel’s strengths and innovations.
The Israel of 1979 was still getting started; it was far from being the Start-up Nation.
In an age when combating climate change is imperative, Israel’s advances in the field of alternative energy, particularly solar energy, are shining examples of what can be done – although, ironically not implemented enough at home. At the same time, Israel which used to be dependent on the whims of an oil-dependent world, now has strategic foreign relations stemming from, among other things, the country’s own gas fields.
My aliyah in 1979 was naturally the most important event in my life that year and the country celebrated its second Eurovision Song Contest win with “Hallelujah.”
In world affairs, the Islamic revolution in Iran in ’79 was obviously more important and continues to cast a global shadow. Before the Ayatollahs took over, Iran and Israel shared strong ties. Now Iran threatens to destroy Israel, fosters terrorism, and has progressed in its nuclear aspirations – endangering the whole world.
Nonetheless, in the inimitable words of American-born Israeli basketball legend Tal Brody: “We’re on the map! And we are staying on the map – not only in sports, but in everything.” Israeli arts and entertainment are appreciated around the globe and the country has become an empire when it comes to food and wine. We’ve definitely come a long way.
The biggest change in the country is the size of the population. In 1979, it numbered around four million (and the cost of buying a home was reasonable.) According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, on the eve of Israel’s 75th Independence Day in April this year, the population of Israel stood at 9.727 million: 7.145 million Jews (73.5%) and 2.048 million Arabs.
The leap in numbers reflects Israel’s bucking the trend in the West and maintaining a high birthrate; a life expectancy that is among the highest in the world; and immigration – the biblical Ingathering of the Exiles. Although today’s protests are often portrayed as an expression of the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide, over the years the gaps have shrunk and nearly every family has “intermarried” relatives.
As the population continues to grow, we can expect continued development in all fields – and ongoing arguments. It’s essential not to let the disagreements destroy all we have built. The country has produced astonishing achievements, but also devastating divisions.
In the decades I have lived here, we have fought over the First Lebanon War, the Oslo Accords, and the disengagement from Gaza. The assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 almost pulled us to pieces. It should serve as a modern lesson of what uncontrolled political hatred can do. Or, as we mark Tisha Be’av next week, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, we can recall the ancient tragic results of baseless hatred. It scares the Dickens out of me.
I gave the English author the opening lines. It is fitting to conclude with a quintessentially Israeli Hebrew expression: “Avarnu et Paroh, na’avor gam et zeh” – We survived Pharaoh, we’ll get over this too.