Inside Israeli Society/ Michael Oren
May 8, 2009 | AIJAC staff
May 8, 2009
Number 05/09 #03
Today’s Update contains some recent comments on the state of Israeli society – with an emphasis on the work of distinguished Israeli historian Michel Oren, who has just been named as Israel’s next ambassador to the US.
First up, Oren discusses the changing dynamic within Israel concerning the relationship between Israeli-ness and Jewish-ness. He describes his own experiences as an immigrant, encountering pronounced de-emphasis on Jewishness, and a trend in the opposite direction since the 1967 war, plus a growing rift on this issue in recent years. He makes some suggestions about how Israel can move toward squaring this circle – “welding its identities as an Israeli and a Jewish state.” For his complete discussion, CLICK HERE.
Next up, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about his own experiences of Israeli society – and especially the fact that it is “a country held together by argument” and a “reticence-free zone.” He provides numerous examples of how Israelis lack respect for authority or personal space, and value bluntness. And he points to three benefits he believes Israelis derive from this culture of contentiousness – a social vividness, a sense of national unity (something of a paradox), and a sense of responsibility for the country’s problems and future. For this interesting take on what is unique about Israel as a society, CLICK HERE. Another positive assessment of Israeli society – in terms of its love for its children – comes from Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit,
Finally, this Update also features another recent article by Oren outlining what he sees as seven existential threats to Israel’s continued existence – some domestic, and some external. These range from the obvious external threats – terrorism, missiles, and the Iranian bomb, to issues like demographics, corruption, delegitimation, and the loss of Jerusalem as a national focus. Oren also points out that daunting as these problems are, Israel has survived far worse threats in the past. For all of Oren’s essay, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the increasing threats to Israel in a video lecture is French philosopher Bernard Henri Levi.
Readers may also be interested in:
- PA head Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly given up on forming a national unity government with Hamas, and is forming a government on his own. More on the state of Palestinian unity talks is here.
- Meanwhile, the PA is reportedly attempting to catch and remove spies in its ranks from both Hamas and Hezbollah.
- Top Arab Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh warns that appeasing Hamas by letting it receive funds as part of a national unity government, without first requiring it to meet the conditions set by the international community, would damage the region’s moderates.
- A terrific interview with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
- An interesting article from Foreign Policy magazine on the journey of Israeli historian Benny Morris, who epitomises the political development of much of the Israeli left over recent years.
- Hamas continues to fire into Israel from Gaza, despite that New York Times interview by Hamas head Khaled Meshal (noted yesterday) claiming Hamas was refraining from such attacks. Another rocket attack is reported here. More analysis of Meshal’s statements comes from American columnist Charles Krauthammer.
- An interesting examination of the claims of both sides in the argument over casualty figures during the Gaza conflict in January.
- A leader of a group demanding an academic boycott of Israeli institutions in fact attends an Israeli university.
- Iran is launching air strikes on towns in Iraq.
- A British Muslim speaks out about his persecution by Islamist extremists there. Plus, a story on the bizarre censorship that occurs in Lebanon, which is supposed to be one of the more democratic polities in the Arab world.
- Both former AIJAC analyst Daniel Mandel and journalist Claudia Rosett comment on US efforts to join the highly problematic UN Human Rights Council.
by Michael Oren
New Jersey Jewish News, May 7, 2009
I will never forget my first day in Israel when a group of teenagers pointed at my tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and laughed. It was the summer of 1970, and, at age 15, I had realized my dream of volunteering on a kibbutz. Raised in an American home in which Conservative Judaism melded effortlessly with moderate Zionism, I never suspected that some Israelis would see contradictions between the two or that I might some day be forced to choose between them.
Instead, I believed that Israel represented the fulfillment of both my national and religious identities. And desperate for that completion, I mowed lawns and shoveled snow to pay for the privilege of working in Israel for free.
But no sooner had I arrived at Gan Shmuel, a die-hard Marxist kibbutz, than my illusions of wholeness unwound. Seeing that my suitcase contained a tallit bag, several young kibbutzniks broke out laughing. Incredulously I asked them, “Aren’t you Jewish?,” to which they replied: “Ma pit’om” — of course not — “we are Israeli.”
The assertion that one could be an Israeli Jew and yet deny one’s Jewishness was utterly unintelligible to my American-Jewish mind. Yet, the goal of fostering an Israeli identity distinct from Judaism was cherished by many of Israel’s founders. Early Zionist thinkers such as Ber Borochov and Micah Joseph Berdichevski regarded Judaism as the guarantor of Jewish continuity during 2,000 years of exile, one that was easily discarded once the Jews had regained their ancestral homeland.
In place of the mitzvot and rituals, these “secular messianists” advocated a “religion of labor” that promised redemption through working the soil. “The Jewish National Home must be created exclusively through our own work,” David Ben-Gurion declared — “the product of Hebrew labor.” For some radical Zionists — many of them ironically associated with the Right — even the re-establishment of a Hebrew nation was merely a stage in the re-emergence of a secular society in which Jews and Arabs united as “Canaanites.”
Whether right wing or left, most of the first Zionist theorists came from strict Orthodox backgrounds. They knew the Bible, often by heart, and were fully conversant with the tradition they rejected. Israelis watching Ephraim Kishon’s 1956 play Black on White understood that its central joke — the inability of some Jews to pronounce the word “shibboleth” — was a reference to Judges 12:6. As late as 1967, Israeli teens were rocking to hit songs by Hachalonot Hagvoim (The High Windows), Israel’s hottest band, about the coolness of the Prophet Ezekiel (“his eyes are like the stones of Tarshish”) and the sad absence of “Abraham our father” and “Moses our teacher.”
Yet, the further Israelis strayed from the traditions their grandfathers abandoned, the closer they moved to a national identity shorn of religious content. The Hebrew nation of which Ben-Gurion and many Zionist founders dreamed had indeed crystallized, but without durable roots in the Jewish spiritual past. Less than two decades after its establishment, the Jewish state found itself in a crisis of identity, floundering between a Jewishness that much of its populace disdained and an Israeliness that few of them fully understood.
Israelis nevertheless managed to avoid confronting this dilemma until 1967 and the outbreak of the Six-Day War. The sudden reunification of the State of Israel with the Land of Israel transformed a country centered on the post-biblical cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv to one focused on the sacred sites of Hebron and Jerusalem — from a largely Israeli state into an increasingly Jewish state. That dynamic process provided a fillip to the relatively small and formerly low-profile religious Zionists, those who abjured any contradiction between their Jewish and Israeli identity and believed both were integrally linked. Gush Emunim, or the Bloc of the Faithful, which spearheaded the settler effort, appropriated many of the precepts of the old secular pioneers, above all the commitment to inhabit and defend the land.
But the insularity and elitism of that movement, to say nothing of its support for a morally nebulous “occupation,” alienated it from a large segment of secular Israel. Along with the ultra-Orthodox, who rejected the state entirely and refused to serve in its army, the ultra-nationalist settlers failed to furnish these Israelis with a model of an open, broadly based Zionist and Jewish identity worthy of emulation.
The rift in Israeli identity deepened during the Oslo years, from 1993 to 2000, when secular Israel resolved to forfeit much of the land deemed holy by national religious Israelis. Desperate to prevent this, radical elements assassinated the prime minister. Yet the murder of Yitzhak Rabin failed to halt the peace process, and it was only suicide bombings — not an attachment to the land — that persuaded most Israelis that the process was futile.
But even that realization could not bridge the rift, as demonstrated in the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. For the first time, the State of Israel evicted Jews from an area they regarded as the Land of Israel, creating a chasm that has never completely been bridged. Some of the evacuees even repudiated the covenant between Judaism and the Jewish state, reviling Israel as the impediment to — rather than the catalyst for — redemption.
Reconciling Israel’s twin identities as a secular and a Jewish state would be sufficiently difficult if that state were religiously homogenous, which it emphatically is not. Roughly one-fifth of the country’s population — one-fourth under the age of 19 — are Arabs, most of them Muslims, many of whom want to transform Israel into a binational “state of all of its citizens” or replace it with an Islamic caliphate. There are also hundreds of thousands of Druze, Circassians, and Russian Orthodox Christians who, though generally patriotic and willing to serve in the army, have no desire to convert. Tellingly, the Israel Defense Forces today provides a Hebrew translation of the Christian Bible for the swearing-in of Christian recruits. The Jews who fight alongside these soldiers are apt to feel closer to them than to anybody in the Diaspora because they are all, manifestly, Israeli.
There is indeed today an Israeli nation — a fact that is widely overlooked both by Israel’s supporters and detractors abroad. But that nation, in spite of a robust commonality of language, experience, and culture, remains in large part spiritually deracinated. At a recent performance of Black on White at my son’s public high school in Jerusalem, not a single student understood the play’s biblical allusions. A more disturbing display of ignorance occurred at a Shabbat dinner my wife and I attended in Tel Aviv, where candle-lighting and prayers were followed by a sumptuous main course — of pork chops. Our sabra host could not even fathom why we were not eating.
Religious anomie and polarization are rife in Israel, yet the state is today poised for a historic change. In secular batei midrash (houses of Jewish study) and in programs for instilling Jewish values in IDF officers, nonreligious Israelis are reclaiming Judaism from the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-nationalistic monopoly and rediscovering their Jewish roots. The post-army encounter of many young Israelis with the spirituality of India and the Far East has spurred them to explore their own heritage at home. One only has to listen to the innovative music of Shotei Hanevua (The Fools of Prophecy) inspired by the Zohar or the biblically influenced lyrics of the incomparable Banai singers (Ehud, Meir, and Eviatar) to know that Judaism is once again a source for Israeli creativity.
Much is still to be done, however. Serious efforts must be mounted to loosen the Chief Rabbinate’s stranglehold over personal affairs — marriage, divorce and burial — to rid the kashrut system of corruption, and reform the conversion process. Major resources must be invested in facilitating dialogue between Israeli Jews from various religious backgrounds as well as between Israeli and Diaspora youth. The Taglit-Birthright Israel program that has strengthened Jewish identity worldwide by bringing nearly 160,000 young Jews to Israel should be expanded to enable more Israelis to experience different forms of Jewish spirituality in America and elsewhere. National priority must be given to convincing all of Israel’s citizens that the state can be made more Jewish without rendering it less Israeli.
Israel has succeeded in surmounting immeasurable obstacles and galvanizing a nation. But it still faces the most formidable challenge: welding its identities as an Israeli and a Jewish state. The goal is to create an Israel where young kibbutzniks watching a newly arrived American Jew unpack his tallit will not laugh but rather remark, “Sababa” — cool — “Want to see ours?”
Michael Oren, who was raised in West Orange, is Israel’s ambassador-designate to the United States. This essay originally appeared in The Jewish Week (www.thejewishweek.com) and is reprinted with permission.
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By DAVID BROOKS
New York Times, April 17, 2009
TEL AVIV- On my 12th visit to Israel, I finally had my baptism by traffic accident. I was sitting at a red light, when a bus turning the corner honked at me to back up. When I did, I scraped the fender of the car behind me.
The driver — a young, hip-looking, alt-rocker dude — came running out of the car in a fury. He ran up to the bus driver and got into a ferocious screaming match. Then he came up to me graciously and kindly. We were brothers in the war against bus drivers. Then, as we were filling out our paperwork, another bus happened by and honked. The rocker ran out into the street and got into another ferocious screaming match with this driver. Then he came back to me all smiles and warmth.
Israel is a country held together by argument. Public culture is one long cacophony of criticism. The politicians go at each other with a fury we can’t even fathom in the U.S. At news conferences, Israeli journalists ridicule and abuse their national leaders. Subordinates in companies feel free to correct their superiors. People who move here from Britain or the States talk about going through a period of adjustment as they learn to toughen up and talk back.
Ethan Bronner, The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, notes that Israelis don’t observe the distinction between the public and private realms. They treat strangers as if they were their brothers-in-law and feel perfectly comfortable giving them advice on how to live.
One Israeli acquaintance recounts the time he was depositing money into his savings account and everybody else behind him in line got into an argument about whether he should really be putting his money somewhere else. Another friend tells of the time he called directory assistance to get a phone number for a restaurant. The operator responded, “You don’t want to eat there,” and proceeded to give him the numbers of some other restaurants she thought were better.
We can all think of reasons that Israeli culture should have evolved into a reticence-free zone, and that the average behavior should be different here. This is a tough, scrappy country, perpetually fighting for survival. The most emotionally intense experiences are national ones, so the public-private distinction was bound to erode. Moreover, the status system doesn’t really revolve around money. It consists of trying to prove you are savvier than everybody else, that above all you are nobody’s patsy.
As an American Jew, I was taught to go all gooey-eyed at the thought of Israel, but I have to confess, I find the place by turns exhausting, admirable, annoying, impressive and foreign. Israel’s enemies claim the country is an outpost of Western colonialism. That’s not true. Israel is, in large measure, a Middle Eastern country, and the Israeli-Arab dispute is in part an intra-Mideast conflict.
This culture of disputatiousness does yield some essential fruits. First, it gives the country a special vividness. There is no bar on earth quite so vibrant as a bar filled with Israelis.
Second, it explains the genuine national unity. Israel is the most diverse small country imaginable. Nonetheless, I may be interviewing a left-wing artist in Tel Aviv or a right-wing settler in Hebron, and I can be highly confident that they will have a few things in common: an intense sense of national mission, a hunger for emotionally significant moments, an inability to read social signals when I try to suggest that I really don’t want them to harangue me about moving here and adopting their lifestyle.
Most important, this argumentative culture nurtures a sense of responsibility. The other countries in this region are more gracious, but often there is a communal unwillingness to accept responsibility for national problems. The Israelis, on the other hand, blame themselves for everything and work hard to get the most out of each person. From that wail of criticism things really do change. I come here nearly annually, and while the peace process is always the same, there is always something unrecognizable about the national scene — whether it is the structure of the political parties, the absorption of immigrants or the new engines of economic growth.
Today, Israel is stuck in a period of frustrating stasis. Iran poses an existential threat that is too big for Israel to deal with alone. Hamas and Hezbollah will frustrate peace plans, even if the Israelis magically do everything right.
This conflict will go on for a generation or more. Israelis will keep up their insufferable and necessary barrage of self-assertion. And yet we still dream of peace and the day when I am standing in line at an Israeli cash register and an Israeli shopper sees a chance to butt in front of me, and — miracle of miracles — she will not try to take it.
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Michael B. Oren
Commentary, May 2009
Rarely in modern history have nations faced genuine existential threats. Wars are waged to change regimes, alter borders, acquire resources, and impose ideologies, but almost never to eliminate another state and its people. This was certainly the case during World War II, in which the Allies sought to achieve the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan and to oust their odious leaders, but never to destroy the German and Japanese states or to annihilate their populations. In the infrequent cases in which modern states were threatened with their survival, the experience proved to be traumatic in the extreme. Military coups, popular uprisings, and civil strife are typical by-products of a state’s encounter with even a single existential threat.
The State of Israel copes not only with one but with at least seven existential threats on a daily basis. These threats are extraordinary not only for their number but also for their diversity. In addition to external military dangers from hostile regimes and organizations, the Jewish State is endangered by domestic opposition, demographic trends, and the erosion of core values. Indeed, it is difficult if not impossible to find an example of another state in the modern epic that has faced such a multiplicity and variety of concurrent existential threats.
The Loss of Jerusalem.
The preservation of Jerusalem as the political and spiritual capital of the Jewish state is vital to Israel’s existence. This fact was well understood by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, at the time of the state’s creation in 1948. Though Israel was attacked simultaneously on all fronts by six Arab armies, with large sections of the Galilee and the Negev already lost, Ben-Gurion devoted the bulk of Israel’s forces to breaking the siege of Jerusalem. The city, he knew, represented the raison d’être of the Jewish state, and without it Israel would be merely another miniature Mediterranean enclave not worth living in, much less defending.
Ben-Gurion’s axiom proved correct: For more than 60 years, Jerusalem has formed the nucleus of Israel’s national identity and cohesion. But now, for the first time since 1948, Israel is in danger of losing Jerusalem—not to Arab forces but to a combination of negligence and lack of interest.
Jerusalem no longer boasts a Zionist majority. Out of a total population of 800,000, there are 272,000 Arabs and 200,000 Haredim–ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not generally identify with the Zionist state. Recent years have seen the flight of thousands of secular Jews from the city, especially professionals and young couples. This exodus has severely eroded the city’s tax base, making Jerusalem Israel’s poorest city. Add this to the lack of industry and the prevalence of terrorist attacks and it is easy to see why Jerusalem is hardly a magnet for young Israelis. Indeed, virtually half of all Israelis under 18 have never even visited Jerusalem.
If this trend continues, Ben-Gurion’s nightmare will materialize and Israel will be rendered soulless, a country in which a great many Jews may not want to live or for which they may not be willing to give their lives.
The Arab Demographic Threat.
Estimates of the Arab growth rate, both within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, vary widely. A maximalist school holds that the Palestinian population on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines is expanding far more rapidly than the Jewish sector and will surpass it in less than a decade. Countering this claim, a minimalist school insists that the Arab birthrate in Israel is declining and that the population of the territories, because of emigration, is also shrinking.
Even if the minimalist interpretation is largely correct, it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population—one-quarter of the population under age 19–and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs.
Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.
Ideally, the remedy for this dilemma lies in separate states for Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The basic conditions for such a solution, however, are unrealizable for the foreseeable future. The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops—the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judaea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.
On the Palestinian side there is no single leadership at all, and certainly not one ready to concede the demand for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to Israel or to forfeit control of even part of the Temple Mount (a necessary precondition for a settlement that does not involve the division of Jerusalem). No Palestinian leader, even the most moderate, has recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or even the existence of a Jewish people.
In the absence of a realistic two-state paradigm, international pressure will grow to transform Israel into a binational state. This would spell the end of the Zionist project. Confronted with the lawlessness and violence endemic to other one-state situations in the Middle East such as Lebanon and Iraq, multitudes of Israeli Jews will emigrate.
Since the mid-1970s, Israel’s enemies have waged an increasingly successful campaign of delegitimizing Israel in world forums, intellectual and academic circles, and the press. The campaign has sought to depict Israel as a racist, colonialist state that proffers extraordinary rights to its Jewish citizens and denies fundamental freedoms to the Arabs. These accusations have found their way into standard textbooks on the Middle East and have become part of the daily discourse at the United Nations and other influential international organizations. Most recently, Israel has been depicted as an apartheid state, effectively comparing the Jewish State to South Africa under its former white supremacist regime. Many of Israel’s counterterrorism efforts are branded as war crimes, and Israeli generals are indicted by foreign courts.
Though the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza clearly contributed to the tarnishing of Israel’s image, increasingly the delegitimization campaign focuses not on Israel’s policy in the territories but on its essence as the Jewish national state.
Such calumny was, in the past, dismissed as harmless rhetoric. But as the delegitimization of Israel gained prominence, the basis was laid for international measures to isolate Israel and punish it with sanctions similar to those that brought down the South African regime. The academic campaigns to boycott Israeli universities and intellectuals are adumbrations of the type of strictures that could destroy Israel economically and deny it the ability to defend itself against the existential threats posed by terrorism and Iran.
Since the moment of its birth, Israel has been the target of attacks—bombings, ambushes, rocket fire—from Arab irregulars committed to its destruction. In the decade between 1957 and 1967, widely considered the most halcyon in the state’s history, hundreds of Israelis were killed in such assaults. Nevertheless, the Israeli security establishment viewed terror as a nuisance that, though at times tormenting, did not threaten the state’s survival.
This assessment changed, however, in the fall of 2000, when the Palestinians responded to an Israeli-American offer of statehood in the West Bank and Gaza with an onslaught of drive-by shootings and suicide bombings. Tourists and foreign capital fled the country as a result, and Israelis were literally locked inside their homes. The state was dying.
Israel eventually rallied and, in the spring of 2002, mounted a counteroffensive against terrorist strongholds in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) developed innovative techniques for patrolling Palestinian cities, coordinating special forces and intelligence units, and targeting terrorist leaders. Israel also built a separation barrier that impeded the ability of terrorists to infiltrate the state from the east.
These measures succeeded in virtually eliminating suicide bombers and restoring economic and social stability. Yet no sooner were these historic achievements gained than terrorists alit on a new tactic no less threatening to Israel’s existence.
Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah into northern Israel and Qassam rockets fired by Hamas in the south rendered life in large swaths of Israel emotionally untenable. Though Israeli ground and air operations may have succeeded in temporarily deterring such attacks, Israel has yet to devise a 21st-century remedy for these mid-20th century threats.
Moreover, Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s arsenals now contain rockets capable of hitting every Israeli city. If fired simultaneously, these rockets could knock out Israel’s airport, destroy its economy, spur a mass exodus from the country, and perhaps trigger a chain reaction in which some Israeli Arabs and several Middle Eastern states join in the assault. Israel’s attempts to defend itself, for example by invading Lebanon and Gaza, would be condemned internationally, and serve as pretext for delegitimizing the state. Israel’s survival would be threatened.
A Nuclear-Armed Iran.
The principal sponsor of Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran is inextricably linked to the terrorist threat. But when the Islamic Republic achieves nuclear weapons-capability—as early as this year, according to Israeli intelligence estimates—the threat will amplify manifold.
A nuclear-armed Iran creates not one but several existential threats. The most manifest emanates from Iran’s routinely declared desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” and from the fact that cold war calculi of nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction may not apply to Islamist radicals eager for martyrdom. Some Israeli experts predict that the Iranian leadership would be willing to sacrifice 50 percent of their countrymen in order to eradicate Israel.
Beyond the perils of an Iranian first-strike attack against Israel, the possibility exists that Iran will transfer its nuclear capabilities to terrorist groups, which will then unleash them on Israel via the country’s porous ports and border crossings.
A nuclear Iran will also deny Israel the ability to respond to terrorist attacks: in response to an Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah, for example, Iran would go on nuclear alert, causing widespread panic in Israel and the collapse of its economy. Finally, and most menacing, many Middle Eastern states have declared their intention to develop nuclear capabilities of their own once Iran acquires the bomb.
Israel will swiftly find itself in a profoundly unstable nuclear neighborhood prone to violent revolutions and miscalculations leading to war. As former Labor Party minister Efraim Sneh says, under such circumstances, all Israelis who can leave the country will.
The Hemorrhaging of Sovereignty.
Israel does not assert its sovereignty over large sections of its territory and over major sectors of its population. In East Jerusalem, a few hundred yards from where Israeli building codes are strictly enforced in West Jerusalem, Arabs have illegally built hundreds of houses, many of them in historic areas, with impunity. The situation is even worse in the Negev and throughout much of the Galilee, where vast tracts of land have been seized by illegal construction and squatters. Taxes are erratically collected in these areas and the police maintain, at best, a symbolic presence.
Israel fails to apply its laws not only to segments of its Arab population but to significant parts of its Jewish community as well. Over 100 outposts have been established illegally in the West Bank, and Jewish settler violence perpetrated against Palestinian civilians and Israeli security forces is now regarded as a major threat by the IDF.
Israel also balks at enforcing many of its statutes in the burgeoning Haredi community. (According to a recent report, by the year 2012, Haredim will account for one-third of all the Jewish elementary school students in Israel.) Though it is difficult to generalize about Israeli Haredim, the community overwhelmingly avoids military service and eschews the symbols of the state.
A significant percentage of Knesset members, Arabs and Jews, do not recognize the validity of the state they serve. Some actively call for its dissolution. Israel is, quite simply, hemorrhaging sovereignty and so threatening its continued existence as a state.
Recent years have witnessed the indictment of major Israeli leaders on charges of embezzlement, taking bribes, money laundering, sexual harassment, and even rape. Young Israelis shun politics, which are widely perceived as cutthroat; the Knesset, according to annual surveys, commands the lowest level of respect of any state institution. Charges of corruption have spread to areas of Israeli society, such as the army, once considered inviolate.
The breakdown of public morality, in my view, poses the greatest single existential threat to Israel. It is this threat that undermines Israel’s ability to cope with other threats; that saps the willingness of Israelis to fight, to govern themselves, and even to continue living within a sovereign Jewish state. It emboldens Israel’s enemies and sullies Israel’s international reputation. The fact that Israel is a world leader in drug and human trafficking, in money laundering, and in illicit weapons sales is not only unconscionable for a Jewish state, it also substantively reduces that state’s ability to survive.
Though seemingly overwhelming, the threats to Israel’s existence are not without solutions, either partial or complete.
Preserving Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state must become a policy priority for Israel. Immense resources must be invested in expanding the industrial and social infrastructure of the city and in encouraging young people to relocate there. Israeli school children must make biannual visits to Jerusalem; materials on Jerusalem’s centrality to Jewish history and national identity must be introduced into school curricula.
Similarly, to maintain Israel’s demographic integrity, measures must be taken to separate Israel from the densely populated areas of the West Bank. In the absence of effective Palestinian interlocutors, Israel may have to draw its eastern border unilaterally. The new borders should include the maximum number of Jews, of natural and strategic assets, and of Jewish holy places.
There is no absolute solution for terrorism, though terror attacks can be reduced to a manageable level through combined (air, ground, and intelligence) operations, physical obstacles, and advanced anti-ballistic systems. It is also essential that Israel adopt a zero-tolerance policy for terrorism, in which every rocket or mortar shell fired across its border precipitates an immediate and punishing response. There must be no immunity for terrorist leaders, military or political. Israel proved that suicide bombers can be virtually eliminated and that terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah can be deterred.
Israel cannot allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel should work in close tandem with the United States, supporting the current administration’s diplomatic efforts to dissuade the Iranians from going nuclear but warning American policymakers of the dangers of Iranian prevarication. Israel must also not allow its hands to be tied—it must remain free to initiate other, covert measures to impede Iran’s nuclear program, while continuing to develop the plans and intelligence necessary for a military operation.
There is no other option, if the state is to survive, than for Israel to assert its sovereignty fully and equitably over all of its territory and inhabitants. This means forbidding illegal construction in East Jerusalem, the Negev, and the Galilee. Major investments will have to be made to expand the security forces necessary for applying Israeli law uniformly throughout the state. In the specific case of Israeli Arabs, Israel must adopt a two-pronged policy of assuring total equality in the provision of social services and infrastructure while simultaneously insisting that Israeli Arabs demonstrate basic loyalty to the state. A system of national service—military and non-military—must be established and made obligatory for all Israelis, ending the destructive separation of Haredi youth from the responsibilities of citizenship.
Corruption must be addressed on both the institutional and the ideological levels. The first step in reducing political corruption is the radical reform of the coalition system, in which that corruption is organic. Young people must be encouraged to enter politics and grassroots movements dedicated to probity in public affairs fostered.
Most fundamental, though, corruption must be rooted out through a revival of Zionist and Jewish values. These should be inculcated, first, in the schools, then through the media and popular culture. The most pressing need is for leadership. Indeed, all of these threats can be surmounted with courageous, clear-sighted, and morally sound leaders of the caliber of David Ben-Gurion.
Though remedies exist for all of the monumental threats facing Israel, contemplating them can nevertheless prove dispiriting. A historical context can, however, be helpful. Israel has always grappled with mortal dangers, many more daunting than those of today, and yet managed to prevail. In 1948, a population half of the size of that of Washington, D.C., with no economy and no allies, armed with little more than handguns, held off six Arab armies. It built an economy, tripled its population in ten years, and developed a vibrant democracy and Hebrew culture.
Nineteen years later, in June 1967, Israel was surrounded by a million Arab soldiers clamoring for its obliteration. Its economy was collapsing and its only ally, France, switched sides. There was no assistance from the United States and only hatred from the Soviet bloc countries, China, and even India.
And look at Israel today: a nation of 7 million with a robust economy, six of the world’s leading universities, a pulsating youth culture, cutting-edge arts, and a military that, in its last two engagements, was able to mobilize more than 100 percent of its reserves. According to recent polls, Israelis are the second-most patriotic people in the world, after Americans, and the most willing to defend their country.
Israel in 2009 has treaties with Jordan and Egypt, excellent relations with Eastern Europe, China, and India, and a historic alliance with the United States. By virtually all criteria, Israel in 2009 is in an inestimably better position than at any other time in its 61 years of independence.
Though the severity of the threats jeopardizing Israel’s existence must never be underestimated, neither should Israel’s resilience and national will. That persistence reflects, at least in part, the success of the Jewish people to surmount similar dangers for well over 3,000 years. Together with Diaspora Jewry and millions of Israel supporters abroad, Israel can not only survive these perils but, as in the past, it can thrive.
About the Author
Michael B. Oren, a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center and a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, is the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. He wishes to thank Rafael Frankel for his assistance in preparing this article.