A Fallible Nation

by Brian on November 16, 2006

in In the News,Only in Israel

Nicholas Goldberg, editor of the Los Angeles Times’ op-ed section, published an article in that paper portraying Israel as a nation exhausted and suffering from a deep malaise.

The summer’s failed war in Lebanon, the inability of the Israel Defense Forces to stop the Kassam barrage coming from the Gaza Strip, and ongoing corruption and sexual abuse scandals have plunged the country into a deep depression, Goldberg wrote.

Goldberg quotes Israeli novelist David Grossman who, in a November 4 speech marking the anniversary of the assignation of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said that “Israel faces a profound crisis, much more profound than we imagined, in almost every part of our collective lives.”

Goldberg is right: Israel is unquestionably at a crossroads. The various and at times inconsistent policies Israel has pursued towards peace, especially in the ten years since Oslo, seem to have led us in circles, crying out for new directions. Ariel Sharon, the leader most Israelis thought would get us to those new directions, abruptly exited the political stage when he fell into a coma last year, from which he has not yet and probably will never awaken.

Meanwhile, our new leaders are raw and untested – from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who, following the summer’s disastrous debacle in the North, has been found wanting by most of the public – to Amir Peretz, a former union rabble rouser who was thrust into the unlikely position of Defense Minster and who has done nothing but confirm rather than surmount his country’s contempt for his glaring limitations.

Nevertheless, Goldberg’s portrayal of a country dazed and confused is misleading and inaccurate.

Goldberg prefaces his piece by describing the idealized Israel he discovered while living here in the late 1990s – a nation “famous for a sort of stoic optimism in the face of trouble…there was a seemingly unshakable sense of the inevitability of peace…When I returned several weeks ago for a visit, however, I found a deeply changed country, its confidence and unflappable optimism badly battered.”

Goldberg’s problems stem primarily from expectations. In his article, Goldberg quotes Amos Oz who refers to Israel in a state of “exhaustion.” But Oz goes on to offer a strong argument to Goldberg’s main thesis. For Oz, the Israeli glass is still half full.

Israel was built on monumental dreams, Oz says. Some expected it to be a socialist paradise; others a classic Western democracy. Some people wanted to re-create the Biblical kingdoms of yesteryear, others only went so far back as yearning for the rosy world of the Eastern European shtetl.

But “the moment you try to carry out such monumental dreams,” Oz said, “they carry the taste of disappointment. Planting a garden or carrying out a sexual fantasy or writing a novel or building a nation – the disappointment is the same. It’s what happens when you live out a dream. Everything is better as a theory.”

I was reminded of this point in a most unlikely setting – while watching the movie “Bride and Prejudice” the other night. The film resets Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice” in India.

Now, India and Israel were both founded nearly sixty years ago, after shaking off British colonial rule. Perhaps this explains some of the affinity between the two countries: Israel and India share similar national birth stories and both have wide extremes between the application and development of advanced technology and persistence of poverty and traditional practices (Israel admittedly less so, but the comparison is still fair, I think).

In one scene from “Bride and Prejudice,” an Indian expatriate living in Los Angeles who has come back to India to search for a suitable bride criticizes his birth country as backward, primitive and ultimately a disappointment. His would-be father-in-law takes him to task. “We are still a young country,” he says. “We have a lot of potential.” The clear implication: don’t pre-judge us by your expectations of what we should be. Allow us to evolve into what we yet can and will be.

It is a part of Israel’s mythology to be a “light unto the nations,” a moral role model to respect and draw strength from. Every time the country doesn’t live up to that position, it disappoints the world. Depending on your perspective, that disappointment may come from the left (“Israel slaughters its enemies indiscriminately” and commits wanton “massacres”) or from the right (“the nation is weak and cannot even define, let alone defend, the supreme spiritual values entrusted to it by the nations”).

Goldberg’s criticisms of the Israel of 2006 draw from both sides of his expectations. Despite the recent intensive operation in Gaza (that ended in the tragedy in Beit Hanun where 19 civilians lost their lives when faulty radar on an Israeli missile sent it 500 meters off course into an apartment building), Kassams missiles are still falling on Sderot and Ashkelon.

In the north, Hizbollah only stopped firing its Katyushas because of a flimsy UN resolution, one that is allowing the Shiite terror organization to re-arm and prepare for what I called in an article I published in August “the next war.”

Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, has been accused of rape and misconduct and, although obstinately staying put for the time being, there is no doubt that he will ultimately be forced out of office, as will be former Justice Minister Haim Ramon who went on trial for similar charges.

But does this represent what Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of the acclaimed book “Six Days at War,” called “an erosion at the core”?

Israelis certainly don’t think so. A 2005 survey by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics found that 82 percent of Israeli adults are either satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. 52 percent said they are optimistic about their future and expect their lives will improve.

I would prefer to find solace in the belief that what Israel is going through now amounts to further steps on its road to “normality.” Not the kind of normal life we immigrants to Israel grew up with in North America, riding our Sting Rays to the shopping mall and having little more on our minds than who to ask to the prom. But normalcy in the sense of fallibility.

Israel long ago convinced the world that not all Jews were nice or honest or smart – the country is a heterogeneous society, complete with Jewish prostitutes, drug dealers and other miscreants. Now Israel is losing the mantle of invincibility too, a process that may seem new but has its roots in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It’s a role not without its dangers: a gross misstep in a fight with a more existential enemy than Hizbollah or the Palestinians could have devastating consequences.

But recognizing normality is a key part of the recovery process. A fallible nation must necessarily act differently than an invincible one.

A fallible nation would not send troops into a war without proper supplies.

A fallible nation doesn’t pin its entire hopes on the single leader of a new political party that is totally dependent on him.

A fallible nation cannot let its enemies arm themselves to the point where they can exploit that same nation’s fallibility.

Beyond our tiny borders and provincial concerns, Israel’s co-dependence with the Jewish Diaspora and the world community in general can only improve once we are seen as flawed, perhaps deeply, but ultimately human.

The next months and years will not be easy. Israel must make progress on the terror threats against it. Its leaders need to get their acts in order. But what Goldberg sees a country in deepest despair, I see as a positive step on the road to rehabilitation. If Israel is a nation suffering from depression: the good news is there are drugs to lift the malaise. Now all we have to do is find the right cocktail.

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