Israel's saving grace is Israelis - opinion

A country cannot be judged by its politics or its politicians.

 THE TOUGH training the writer’s son endured helped build strong bonds of friendship among the soldiers, who hail from different sectors of society. (photo credit: COURTESY TROY FAMILY)
THE TOUGH training the writer’s son endured helped build strong bonds of friendship among the soldiers, who hail from different sectors of society.
(photo credit: COURTESY TROY FAMILY)

Clearly, there’s something wrong with me. Whenever I walk outside I don’t see what the media tells me I’m seeing. I’m supposed to see a society collapsing, a looming civil war. Instead, despite my objections to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s injudicious reforms, I see, hear, feel, an Israel more united, resilient, and patriotic, than the headlines – and many people I know – suggest.

It’s not just that I keep meeting the Snubbed Sixty-Five Percent, middle-of-the-roaders disgusted by both extremes, who want unblocked roads, airport access, sane ministers, and a constructive prime minister representing all Israelis. It’s the young guy in my Ashke-sephard minyan, who says, when I offer him three different flavors of prayerbooks: “It doesn’t matter, anachnu am echad” (we’re one people). It’s American Jewish liberals inspired by the protests – seeing the anti-Ben-Gvir-Israelis that The New York Times overlooks. It’s the five, calm, respectful, haredi-protester conversations my older son witnessed in a 20-minute walk downtown. And it’s the nut-job who jogs around Jerusalem yelling at cops in Hebrew: “We appreciate you, keep up the great work.” (That kook might be me.)

Last Thursday, my wife and I attended a graduation party as our younger son finished three-and-a-half intensive years in the army. One family hosted the dozen or so soldiers in his unit, and their parents, for an evening that was surprisingly fun and moving.

You can visit your kid’s army base. You can attend Harvard commencement. You can reach a lovely moshav with guys who have been living on top of each other, day in, day out. Yet whenever parents invade kid-world, it always feels like visiting day at camp. 

That’s how the evening started. Awkward conversations with strangers from many different Israels, with few overlapping ties. There were religious and secular, urbanites and farmers, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, sabras and immigrants. 

 Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 18, 2023.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on July 18, 2023. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In one corner, 10 men prayed. In another, Canadian, French, and Belgium Israelis-by-choice chatted in French. There were even two lone soldiers, with two proud, relieved, parents who had arrived from Amsterdam.

But as soon as the toasts began, we became one family. The remarks by some kids, some parents, and the unit’s commander, hit common notes. The hosting mom recalled her son’s first impression of the guys who were blasting Mizrahi music as “hardcore!” with half singing different religious songs to open, then close, Shabbat – “hardcore!” 

But, she said, as they bonded, the differences were eclipsed. One latecomer recalled joining after the group had jelled, huffing and puffing through his first training exercise with them, feeling inadequate – then being reassured by one after the other. A group cohesive enough to absorb newcomers is robust indeed. 

Most parents’ toasts elegantly emphasized that these kids must be a model for all Israelis and our leaders. They know not just how to unite against the enemy, but how to enjoy one another too, transcending political, cultural, social, and religious differences.

A four-minute army video reinforced that message while reminding us why we all had so many sleepless nights of uncertainty – a word parents used repeatedly. These sweet-looking kids performed heroic feats to protect us all – Left and Right, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs alike. 

The next 20 minutes of filmed antics charmed everyone. We saw our kids’ magical ability to be serious and silly, to be tough as nails when training and in action, then share their soft sides when fighting off heat stroke or decompressing after combat or mourning together on Remembrance Day. 

It’s no wonder, but quite impressive, that after living in each other’s faces for so long they are starting their post-army adventures by traveling together.

The Israelis of tomorrow

THE BARBIE movie blockbuster is one colorful rant against “patriarchy.” The Washington Post keeps running articles about modern masculinity. Many impose one first name on masculinity: “toxic.” Then, without wondering how males can build healthy identities while being stereotyped and pathologized, others mourn America’s many lost, listless, flaccid teenage boys.

I’m not naïve. These ex-soldiers aren’t saints (except for my son). Some will struggle with post-trauma. But having gotten to know many of them, I was wowed by their character, patriotism, discipline, sense of purpose, joie de vivre, and, yes, their healthy identities as young men defending their country when necessary – but enjoying, chilling, dreaming, and moving forward whenever possible.

Those kids and their parents epitomized the Israel that President Isaac Herzog embodied last week in Washington. Threading the needle, acknowledging the political crisis, but framing it properly as proof of Israel’s robust democracy, Herzog triumphed. He delivered a tough warning about Iran while celebrating 75 years of Israel, and 75 years of American-Israeli friendship.

When Netanyahu finally retires – and it can’t be soon enough – Herzog’s Washington star-turn will be even more appreciated as a critical phase in Israel’s too-long-delayed de-Bibification. 

Step One was the five-round electoral stalemate, proving Israelis’ mass Bibi fatigue. Netanyahu, who refused to retire, kept placing his personal needs ahead of party and country. 

Step Two was Naftali Bennett’s leadership moment. Israelis saw that someone else could be in charge and keep Israel equally safe. 

Step Three occurred last week, when Israelis saw that other Israeli leaders could charm Americans and address the Congress eloquently, proudly, and effectively.

This week’s vote on the reasonableness legislation, without any coalition concessions, caused much damage. We have much healing to do. But just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a country by its politics, or its politicians. I keep believing in Israel… because I keep believing in most Israelis.

The writer is the editor of the new three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (