Grumpy Old Man: Israel, 50 years on

What I once saw as a heroic, plucky little country is now bogged down by indecision and division, much of it over the fruits of a certain war.

Israeli troops near Rafah during the Six Day War (photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER,GPO)
Israeli troops near Rafah during the Six Day War
(photo credit: DAVID RUBINGER,GPO)
I was 13 when the Six Day War broke out. I had yet to visit. Pretty much all I knew about the country was what I had learned in my US Hebrew school and from movies like Exodus. There was also my dad, an ardent, lifelong Zionist and one of the heads of the Jewish Federation’s Israel Emergency Fund.
The importance of the country obviously filtered down, but it attracted a far larger proportion of my awareness thanks to the 1967 war.
We learned early on that the war had really been won by the air force. This was reinforced by the very first chapter of Sabra, a book by Cast a Giant Shadow author Ted Berkman that was handed out to us at one Hebrew school function or another.
The very first chapter was about a pilot identified for security reasons only as Maj. Avihu, although strangely there was an almost full-faced photo of him peering from the Plexiglas canopy of his jet.
I loved airplanes and I read this chapter over and over. (Some years later, I realized it was Avihu Bin-Nun, who went on to command the air force.) To this day, airplanes idealize almost anything to me, and it is this, I am certain, that made me more a fan – a fanatic fan, even – of heroic, plucky little Israel.
IN THE early years of my more than four decades here, I didn’t take too well to censure of the country’s policies, especially from outside. I didn’t blame it on antisemitism, but I did view a lot of it as a sign of ill will. (A psychologist might say I took it all as a personal insult over my decision to leave behind my birth family and make aliya.)
I began to take a more critical look at my adopted country, however, in the first days of the 1982 Lebanon war, when Zvi, a religiously observant moshavnik and fellow reservist in my armored personnel carrier, spat and cursed Menachem Begin with each ping of a bullet or shrapnel shard. It was my first war. It was his third.
Zvi knew what a war of ein breira (no choice) was. He had fought in 1967, after Israel’s neighbors scared the bejesus out of it by rolling up to its borders with infantry and tanks (which merely had to sit there to suck its economy dry, what with all the country’s reservists being in uniform and away from their jobs). He had fought again in 1973, when Syrian armor broke through hubristically thin defenses and reached the eastern edge of the Golan, with Haifa and the sea in clear sight.
But Lebanon? Ein breira? There certainly was a need for action in those days of rocket attacks and terrorist incursions, but a war that for all intents and purposes lasted 18 years and took the lives of so many of our soldiers? Not quite.
I credit Zvi, with his endless scorn and phlegm, for opening my eyes. I began questioning the wisdom of certain military moves, economic decisions and social policies. They were legitimate questions. And they were healthy.
There was also the settlement enterprise. Sure, the Arabs had gathered in Khartoum after the Six Day War, insisting there would never be negotiations, recognition or peace with the Jews. So what better way to answer than by retaining the lands as a buffer against such hostile people and allowing decent, religious Jews to move in and resettle their biblical birthright?
We soon realized, though, that the lands came with people, and while at first most were docile and even submissive, more and more of them began taking up either arms or an acridly sour attitude – all the improvements to their lives notwithstanding – that made holding on to the land quite costly for us in blood, treasure and hardened hearts.
It became a classic no-win situation: Retain legitimately won territorial depth to protect yourself from neighbors who still hoped for your demise, but at the same time rot yourself from within by occupying people who did not wish to be under your rule and were each day more willing to go to extremes to show this.
IT’S BEEN half a century since the Six Day War – admittedly a war of ein breira. We’ve become much more self-secure with a powerful, hi-tech army, and much more self-absorbed with the size of our homes, the color of our cars and keeping up with the Cohens. And we still don’t know what to do with what ended up in our laps as a result of that war.
Unlike the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, we haven’t given up the West Bank, and unlike Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, we haven’t annexed it either. In a way, it’s no surprise: We’re a sovereign nation going on seven decades now, and we still haven’t figured out whether we want to be a state for the Jews or a state for Judaism, or even whether democracy is all it’s touted to be.
None of this bodes well for our relationship with Diaspora Jewry. For Jews living in lands that can become hostile in the blink of an eye, it’s a no-brainer – Israel is a haven. But the majority of Diaspora Jews live in lands where they feel pretty damn comfortable, and unless they’re drawn here by the messianic fervor wafting from many of the settlements, they’ll be staying right where they are.
To these Jews, Israel is no longer first and foremost a haven. I mean, what’s the need? In fact, they are feeling less and less sure what to make of the country at all, what with the way it treats not only those it occupies, but also its very citizens, including fellow Jews who hold outlooks and beliefs that are similar to theirs.
Not every Diaspora Jewish youth will be given a book about Israel, and not every book they’re given will have a chapter that can fire their imagination the way a certain chapter fired mine. It no longer works that way. There’s no longer an “emergency.” All the Birthright trips in the world won’t tip the scales.
To be honest, if I were now the age I was when introduced to Maj. Avihu, I would not see the same heroic, plucky Israel, airplanes or not. And I doubt the overall package would have the same ramifications for my decisions. That’s truly the sad part.