Encountering peace: A progressive new year

Israel will have to look inward and search for its original soul. Enough name-calling, enough hiding behind vacuous political labels.

GERSHON BASKIN (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
Rosh Hashana is a time for reflection, a time to look back while considering the future. Israel is an amazing country. There is so much to be proud of, so many achievements in such a short time. No other country has accomplished so much while faced with so many challenges. Yet with all its achievements, it is difficult to predict if Israel's immediate future carries the promise of peace, security and prosperity, or a much less happy fate.
Israel's Declaration of Independence promised that this country would be founded on the principles envisaged by the prophets - complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; the safeguarding of the holy places of all religions; and faithfulness to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Instead Israel has become a country founded on the principle of profits for Israel, and proponents of justice and equality hide their faces in shame.
Young people are increasingly driven to passionate narratives of nationalist fervor, built on the pernicious foundation of racism and xenophobia. Others flee into other countries and mystical religions - losing the vast wealth and heritage of the Jewish culture to cynicism and anger. Universities are demoralizing institutions: academic jobs are scarce, library acquisitions are frozen, entry standards are low and student expectations are even lower. Our graduates cannot compete in the rest of the world.
THE ISRAELI peace movement has dwindled and most Israelis no longer consider themselves among its ranks. The Israeli Left was almost wiped off the political map in the 2009 elections. Those who remain in the peace camp or who identify themselves as being progressive are on the defensive. Ironically, progressive citizens who are ready to take action are dismissed with the pejorative label "bleeding heart." Yet these are pains felt deeply and acutely by every Israeli. We have more troubles than joy in common. We are united only by loss, anger, and our enemies. And yet society would prefer to lay blame instead of thinking creatively.
Those of us typecast as "the left" - "radicals," "naïve," "Arab-lovers," "self-haters," "weak" and "subversive" - are no longer interested in such critiques. We are tired of the country using accusations of elitism to close its eyes to the realities we describe. The crisis of society is exacerbated by the utter lack of trusted leadership. The Knesset is not taken seriously. Precious legislative days are wasted on politically expedient laws while regular people struggle with a global financial crisis. Daily we are subjected to blatant injustices in what seems to be a society that has lost its sensitivity to the suffering of individuals and groups on the margins.
Perhaps in response, citizens flee anything like public life. In a society that used to pride itself on high volunteerism and public-political engagement, today public engagement leaves people cold; society is increasingly privatized, individualized and atomized; work for the collective good or a shared sense of community is fading.
ISRAEL IS on a collision course with the rest of the world. Even the United States, Israel's longtime ally, will not stand behind a state that refuses to come to terms with its neighbors. Israel will have to look inward and search for its original soul. It will have to come up with better answers than blaming the Left for the country's problems. It wasn't the Left that invented rogue settlements that are imperilling the country's future. It wasn't the Left that invented haredi behavior resembling organized crime gangs. No one invented these things; enough political name-calling, enough hiding behind vacuous political labels.
Israel is deeply in need of new progressive values. Israel needs a culture of communication within itself, and needs to shun its own extremists who scoff at the rule of law - or else convince them to return to the fold. Israel needs to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the state loses its Jewish majority and turns into an intolerable, non-democratic nightmare. It is a choice between ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or having the Israeli-Palestinian end the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.
What should unite us is a profound commitment to making this country last and making it a place where Jewish people, and any other citizen, can thrive, achieve and live peacefully - even productively - with each other. No group such as the "Right" has a monopoly over our state symbols - we are as Israeli, patriotic and proud as anyone. No unholy alliance of religion and politics should be allowed to stain the Jewish heritage, alienating generations of young Israelis who would rather be Hindus or Buddhists.
Israel is a dynamic country with tremendous potential. The achievements of its 62 years are remarkable. Israel's democracy is vibrant and offers vast opportunities for citizens to affect public policy. This kind of positive attitude is the narrative we claim in our efforts to recruit a genuine groundswell of progressive support - to help build genuine future political leadership.
If there are enough of us who agree, broadly, we will succeed.
The writer is the Co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. (www.ipcri.org). In the new year he is working on the launch of a new Israeli think-tank - the Center for Israeli Progress (CIP) to build a new progressive agenda for the future of Israel and the Jewish people.