Israel at Fifty

Israel at Fifty

From the Spring 1998 issue


When I was a baby, in the Jerusalem of the early 1950s, my mother would push me in my carriage through the streets of our neighbourhood. The neighbours would greet her happily and bend over to take a look at me, spit tfu! and exclaim, in Yiddish, 'How ugly!' Surviving photographs show that I was actually quite a pretty baby, but that was the custom, especially among those who had come from Eastern Europe—to insult the baby so as to ward off the evil eye. When I grew up and saw the same ceremony re-enacted, I was able to take a good look at the women's faces. I suddenly realized they were not trying to protect the baby from some vague, hypothetical evil eye, but from something very concrete, something they carried around with them in those gazes that had already seen so much, knowing that nothing could be more terrible than what they had already seen.

Israel was founded on a great insult, an insult to a people rejected and sentenced, in the eyes of the nations among whom it lived, to be a horrifying symbol of the foreign and the cursed. This insult is still etched in the individual and collective memory, in the form of endless wounds and small, heartbreaking humiliations. Some time ago I participated in an encounter between Israeli army officers and Holocaust survivors. Two brothers, now in their sixties, sat on the stage. As children they had lived in the city of Vilna, at the time of the Nazi invasion. One day, while they were playing soccer with their Christian friends, the Nazis began rounding up Jews. They were kidnapped from the playing field and put onto a train that took them to a death camp. The tracks ran by the field where they had been playing. Through the cracks in the sides of the car, they could see their friends continuing the game.

The two brothers told their story in very quiet voices, and the officers began crying like children. Some of them ran out of the room. I especially remember one of them, little more than a boy, with a wiry body and curly hair. I cannot forget the way he kept banging his forehead, over and over again, on the barrel of his M-16.

Almost all Israelis have gashes like that in their memory. If a child is not born with one, the educational system carves one out. There are family sagas that hand them down from generation to generation. There are Jewish holidays and days of observance—so many of them to remind each and every Israeli. Here are holidays to remind us of the miracle that saved us when the Greeks or the Persians wished to destroy us; a holiday to remind us of our flight from slavery in Egypt; a fast in memory of the destruction of the Temple; Holocaust Day...

Israel, which brought itself forth out of sorrow, and hoped for tranquillity, lives in unending sorrow. For fifty years we have lived immersed in violence, in wars, in mourning, in terrorism and murder. More than twenty thousand Israelis have been killed in hostile attacks during the country's half-century of existence. On average, since the founding of the State, one person has been killed each day, one family destroyed. Thousands of sites all over the country remain open sores because of a battle or terrorist incident that occurred there. There are fully 900(!) memorials to the war dead in this small country (one memorial, on average, for every seventeen dead soldiers; in Europe, the ratio is one memorial for every 10,000 dead). There is no week in the Israeli calendar without a memorial day for some sort of traumatic event—a date connected to a war, a terrorist attack or a military operation; there are even days with two scars. Someone walking through downtown Tel Aviv can, in the space of five minutes, set out from Dizengoff Street (where a suicide bomber murdered thirteen people two years ago), glance apprehensively at the number 5 bus (on which another suicide bomber killed twenty-nine civilians four years ago) and try to regain composure at the Appropo café (where, just a year ago, yet another suicide bomber killed three women; none of us can easily forget the television images of one's bloodspattered, newly orphaned baby). Even the names of the streets cast a melancholy air over such a walk in almost any Israeli city you can stroll from a street named after the refugees who drowned when the boats bringing them from Europe sank, to a street named after the martyrs of the Holocaust or the Jewish freedom fighters hung by the British. When my daughter went with her kindergarten on their first field trip, they went to Rabin's grave and the adjacent military cemetery.

Life is full of the dead. Five boys who went to school with me were killed in wars, and many more remain injured. Not one of Israel's five decades has been without a major war, and just two months ago Israel was panicking at the possibility that Iraq would attack it with deadly bacteria (which is why every new-born Israeli baby receives from the government a special gift—a kind of sealed cradle to protect it from poison gas and germ warfare).

Yet it is the country's vitality and appetite for life that first strikes visitors to Israel. Energies pent-up during generations of repression seem to be breaking out on all sides and demanding expression (for those who can afford it) in an indulgent, consumerist, ostentatious life style. There is a craving to travel the world—there were three million departures by Israelis to other countries in 1997, almost one for every second member of the population. People are having lots of babies, too—24 births per 1,000 inhabitants in 1996, as compared with only about 14 in the United States and Europe. There is a huge nation-wide building explosion.

Other things cannot be quantified but colour life here, and can hardly be left unmentioned. Israel is a very emotional country; Israelis are, generally, direct, open and warm, extreme in their passions, anxieties, sensitivities, manner of speaking and body language. They are also extreme in the volatility of their moods, in their periodic swings between euphoria, elation and arrogance, on the one hand, and depression, defeatism and despair.

They are even intimate with total strangers. One morning I got on a bus and sat down next to a fleshy older man with a red face. He gave me a doubtful look, as if considering whether I was reliable enough to hear what he had to say. Then he sidled up next to me and gave a quiet sigh: 'Nobody knows what the other guy keeps inside.' Even before I had a chance to ask what he meant, the man raised a huge brown envelope, drew out an X-ray and held it up to the light. 'That's me,' he said with unrestrained pride. I took a careful look, but wasn't able to identify him from the picture. 'Those are my kidneys,' he explained, 'they're always making sand and stones.' He raised the X-ray higher so that other people could enjoy it, and explained his entire inner world to a crowd that had gathered around. For a moment I was able to view the colourful crowds of Jaffa Street, Jerusalem's main thoroughfare, through his internal organs. There were school kids with earrings, a squad of soldiers gathered around two blonde tourists, Hasidim in long black coats, a pro-Israeli Japanese sect processing in lemon yellow, two policemen frisking an Arab, three-year-old kids from a nearby heder running and shouting; all that swarming noisiness through a single pair of kidneys!


It is hard to admit on such a festive day, but the feeling pervading Israel is one of discomfort, of despair; of having missed something. This unfairly ignores the huge achievements the country can take credit for during its fifty-year existence—the absorption of mass immigration, the greening of the desert, the building up of its defence force, the recreation of Hebrew culture, advances in science and technology. And, despite everything, Israel is a democratic country, even though most of its citizens came from countries without a democratic tradition.

Yet Israelis cannot be happy on this anniversary. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the commission appointed to plan the celebrations has resigned on three separate occasions. The mood in the country today recalls a family in crisis. Perhaps this is because, deep in their hearts, Israelis sense that for more than thirty years, since the Six Day War, they have been caught up in a profound historical error, one that has wound itself inextricably around them. It could be that the violence I described is beginning to invade our internal tissues, turning even brother into enemy. Or maybe it is the inevitable disillusion of those who experienced a great miracle that, as the years go by, has disintegrated into a human reality full of contradictions and bruises?

The Israelis direct their disillusion in all directions—at the world which, according to a popular song, is 'entirely against us'; at the international press, which always seems hostile; at the United States and Europe, which 'dare' to propose peace initiatives; at the Arab countries and the Palestinians. But above all they direct it at themselves, and sometimes it seems as if hardly anywhere is as hostile to the Jews as Israel.

'Together in pride, together in hope,' proclaims the official 'anthem' of the fiftieth anniversary festivities. But in recent years Israel has seen the gradual emergence of 'ghettoes' entirely alienated from one another, and from the state and its institutions. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who now comprise more than a fifth of the country's population, have created their own sociocultural enclave which shows few signs of blending with an existing culture disdained for its 'shallowness'. To be fair, native Israelis are equally wary about getting close to the new immigrants. Oriental Jews, whose roots lie in the Muslim world, have for most of the country's history felt discriminated against socially, economically and culturally, and have not been full members of the leadership and elite. Today they are demanding compensation, rejecting those aspects of national life that seem to express the Ashkenazi or Western character of the state. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants feel that they are treated like pariahs or foreigners; the ultra-orthodox Jews do not recognize the state and Zionism at all; the million Palestinian citizens of Israel—another fifth of the population—do not identify with its national, mostly Jewish, goals. They are also compelled to finance, through their taxes, an Israeli army that holds sway over their brothers in the occupied territories. Some 200,000 foreign workers live in abominable conditions in poor neighbourhoods on the margins of the big cities, serving as Israel's 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'. They have replaced the Palestinian workers, who in turn replaced the Jews in manual labour, agriculture and industry.

The kibbutzim, too—once the country's glory, the most salient symbol of the Jews' return to their land, their earth and a normal existence—have in recent years undergone a process of delegitimization and decline. First they were depicted, by right-wingers, as a symbol of the arrogance of the Western Ashkenazi Jews; religious leaders denounced them as 'not Jewish enough'. Then they became entangled in financial adventurism. Like other Israelis during the hyperinflationary spiral of Menachem Begin's first government, many kibbutzim were tempted by dreams of quick profits and soon began to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. Today most are deep in debt, the younger generation is leaving, and the older generation feels as if the kibbutz ideal is melting away before its eyes.


An evil wind is blowing through the country. Instead of trying to act together to save what we have, enjoying the benefits and cross-pollination of a richly varied population, different groups are declaring war on each other. Each side is exaggerating, for use against the others, its most extreme and overwrought tendencies. Religious Jews are becoming more fanatical, messianic and nationalistic; secular Jews are detaching themselves in disgust from everything that seems 'Jewish', and so losing an important part of their identity.

We have lost the sense of 'togetherness' that beat in people's hearts in the country's early days. Different populations are generally unable to read the behavioural codes of each other. The army, once a melting pot and a young person's entry ticket into Israeli society, no longer plays this role. Today it is not uncommon, as it was in the past, to hear young people declaring they will do anything they can to avoid military service. It is good that the army is losing its centrality and power, but nothing is ready to replace it as a force for social cohesion.


It seems ever clearer that Israel has still not truly internalized a sense of common interest beyond the immediate need for security. Perhaps even the idea of the state has not been sufficiently internalized. This may require generations of democratic life, and a level of political maturity, even political education, that Israel has not yet achieved. To an outside observer it sometimes seems that if Israelis still relate to their government as if it were a foreign occupier, as if they were a minority—a minority disliked by the authorities—in their own country. At demonstrations of the ultra-orthodox, West Bank settlers or extreme right-wingers, representatives of the law are often jeered at as 'Nazis!' Almost everywhere you turn you sense a deep scorn for the Knesset and government ministers. Religious and right-wing groups, which have been gathering strength, have recently begun to present a serious threat to the rule of law. They speak openly of their desire to replace democracy with a regime governed by religious law. A year ago, Netanyahu was cleared—in a way that left a wide public still very doubtful—of the suspicion that he was party to a dubious deal when he appointed a new Attorney General. Supreme Court judges and many other public figures now need bodyguards. When the Prime Minister went to a movie one evening recently, he was surrounded by ranks of bodyguards that practically filled the cinema. That was an unprecedented sight in Israel, a country well-known—until the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, whose policies were not accepted by part of the public—for its leaders' easy connection with the people and the informality of its manners.


Sometimes, in the spring or autumn, when the weather is less harsh, one's soul longs to go out into the land itself. To the land before it was covered with a thick, suffocating layer of current events and symbols and memories of heroism or catastrophe. Sometimes there is a moment of grace, the thick cloud of cliches hugging the ground clears and the land itself appears. The margins of the desert are covering themselves with the fresh green growth of spring, a wave of yellow blooms is now, in March and April, flowing from one end of the country to the other-acacia trees and clover and carpets of mustard flowers. The ever-green Mount Carmel. The Galilee, with its erotic play of mountains and valleys, and the placid, meditative eye of Lake Kinneret open in its heart.

Sometimes, precisely in those places that are most dense with meaning, an Israeli like me feels a need to get off the main road and find a path that appears on no map, a path that has no identity other than the view. The view is generally bald and miserly. There are no thick forests, no broad lakes, no rushing rivers.

There is just one little Lake Kinneret, whose water level every Israel child monitors anxiously for fear of drought, and a few woods planted by the Jewish National Fund, in an effort to create, as if by magic, an illusion of green Europe in the midst of the Orient. And there is only one river, the narrow Jordan, which must astound all the Christian pilgrims who have exalted it in their dreams.

But you can always find hidden places where you see no other human being, and no place of human habitation, neither Jewish nor Arab, neither religious nor secular, not Jerusalem, not a settlement and not a refugee camp. There you can wander a bit under the intensely blue sky, between the olive trees (that have, heaven help us, already become a Palestinian national symbol), the lumpy boulders and the yellowing stalks of grass.

I remember a moment like that, at the height of a year's odyssey that I undertook among Israel's Palestinian citizens and Jews. As I was being scarred, over and over again, by the lines of tension between populations with only citizenship in common, alien to each other in every other way, I fled for a brief moment to the land itself. I had a physical need to touch the thing itself, the way it was before it was expropriated and nationalized by politics. I lay down on a big rock that was warm from an entire day's sun, and with great pleasure I began to peel away all the names and designations and titles—Israel, Palestine, Zion, the Jewish State, the Promised Land, the Holy Land, the Zionist Entity...and, for a moment, I had it again, my land and country, with the deep fissures in its skin, with its harsh, troubled beauty. A land, as the poet Chernikovsky wrote, 'whose every inch of ground is to be softened, and every boulder'; to which the Palestinian Salem Jubran responded: 'As a mother loves her crippled child, so I will love you, my homeland.'


I write all this as a person who considers himself lucky to live in Israel. Not because I think it is paradise or utopia, but because Israel is the only place where Jews can live with all the essential elements of the history, culture and thought of every generation of Jews that has preceded them, and can build on them to create a new and modern reality. It is also the only place where Jews can realize the values and ideals crystallized in their culture, and can formulate them in Hebrew, the language in which their identity was forged over many generations, the language which preserves all the codes of the past and yet renews itself every day.

Living in Israel, for me, is still a spiritual adventure. It may be exhausting and frustrating, but how could I do without it? Sometimes I remind myself that my everyday life would have been an object of intense hope and longing for eighty generations of Jews who lived before me. My children play and love and fight in a language that no one spoke for two thousand years, but for them it is full of life and taken for granted. Were Abraham the patriarch (four thousand years old) to sit down for supper at my house, he would understand the greater part of the Hebrew of my five-year-old daughter. What a wonder that is!

The world certainly has more comfortable and less dangerous places. Europe and the United States offer a higher standard of living, more varied cultures, stirring scenery, tranquillity. But if a Jew wants, for the first time in 2,000 years, really to be part of the place and the society in which he or she lives, to feel all the pain, and joy, of belonging—in other words, if a Jew wants to feel truly at home, not living by the grace of others, not an outsider...

Not an outsider. That is what it all comes down to. To belong. A partner with equal rights and obligations. A native and organic part of this great body. What sweetness surges through me just from writing those words! What bitterness floods the heart at the thought that many Israelis have recently felt like aliens in their homeland, alien to its behaviour, its character, the plans it has chosen to put into practice.


It hurts me that I cannot fully celebrate this anniversary. I write this out of deep concern. Questions, both general and deeply personal, remain unanswered. How long will we be the prisoners of our fears? Will my son, when he goes into the army two years from now, also have to fight the children of my Palestinian friends, in the streets of Hebron? To what purpose do we subordinate such a huge part of our strength, money and creativity to the army, if we are unable to use our military power to promote political concessions and bring about fundamental change in the region? Has power come to be an end in itself, and have we forgotten that it should only be a means of protecting life? Or perhaps we have forgotten, because of the unbearable lightness of death that surrounds us, what the word 'life' really means? That 'living' is not just surviving from one catastrophe to the next, or being saved by the skin of our teeth from another calamity. Living does not mean just defending our borders, as Israel does with great effectiveness, but doing something about what is going on within those borders. It means improving the quality of life and relations between people; promoting mutual respect, civic freedom, the rights of minorities, democracy. If we don't pursue all these ideals, we will end up like suits of armour that no longer have knights inside them.

At the age of fifty, my mother likes to sigh, everybody gets the face they deserve. If I were given the hard task of choosing a single image from fifty years that contains the very essence of Israel's 'face', I would choose the moment no Israeli can forget—4 November 1995. Yitzhak Rabin stood on a platform facing hundreds of thousands singing 'The Song for Peace'. I saw him from just a few metres away and, for me, that is Israel's face. Not only because his career summed up all the most important stages of Israeli history—from the legendary Kadouri agricultural school, through the Palmach, the convoys to besieged Jerusalem, the Six Day War, Entebbe, and then to the signing of peace treaties with the Palestinians and Jordanians—as if he contained a genetic blueprint for 'Israeliness' within him. But also because in his face, the face of the handsome golden boy, the face of the mythical Sabra, we saw something of which we had no 'historical experience'—how a Sabra matured and grew old, and how the ideal and the miracle which he represented developed over time. We saw him as an idealistic young man, tempted by money and involved in dubious political intrigues; and we saw how, in a process that held us all in awe, he returned and renewed himself, changed his views and overcame the attitudes to life that wars had etched into him with blood. There, that Saturday night, when we stood and sang that song with him, and enveloped him in love, because we felt that he was bringing us life, that was the moment that exemplified both the strengths and weaknesses of Israel and of Judaism, once and for all—the vitality and the courage to rise above our anxieties and to be renewed again and again. But the dark forces of extremism within us were lying in wait for him in the dark. And they had a pistol. ▤