The Jewish state in a state of denial
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
JERUSALEM — The British writers Robert Graves and Alan Hodges described the period from 1919-1939 as the “long weekend.” In their 1940 book of the same name, they reviewed the Roaring Twenties, the “Crash,” the Great Depression, and the rearmament-versus-appeasement debate of the 1930s. They discuss how Britain behaved as if it were on “holiday.” Then on Sept. 1, 1939 — when the Germans invaded Poland — a new reality hit.
One has a sense that while Israel today is not militarily weak or unprepared or cocky — as it was in 1973 before the Yom Kippur War — the country is living in a state of avoidance on a multitude of levels; the people behave as if they are passing through their own “long weekend.”
The economic boom continues in Israel unabated. Construction, housing, and especially home expansion, grow while private sector development is thriving. High-tech, bio-medical technology, and finance are flourishing.
Domestic woes are also distracting the populace from the security situation. Housing and food prices are rising while government subsidies and support are down, and the lower class is seriously in need.
Educational funding is being cut. Class size increases as teachers’ needs are ignored. The quality and content of study in many sectors of the system is being challenged. There are serious questions about the quality of the education, specifically concerning Jewish history and culture. This is true among all sectors of the community — the secular, the religious, and the haredi.
There are conflicts between religious groups and among them as well. Ashkenazi and Sephardi leaders and their followers have no compunctions about trashing each other. The split between the haredi world and the national religious camp is intense, to say nothing of the continuing intolerant attitudes of secular and religious leaders toward each.
These internal tensions have come to the fore concerning the publication of a book by Rabbi Yizhak Shapira, in which he justifies the killing of non-Jewish civilians during wartime. Shapira was detained and questioned over the contents of his book, which challenges the role of the state in determining law and order in Israel. Two of his endorsers — the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba and the son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — were arrested and questioned on suspicion of incitement.
The entire political and electoral system cries out for change and reform. Small minority parties have even more power today than ever, their tails wagging the body of the national political leadership. Party elections loom already and no one discusses the inherent problems within the system itself. There is nary a constructive voice for change being heard from any of the think tanks or universities, let alone the bureaucrats and politicians. All of this is occurring while the government is virtually unchallengeable — except perhaps from within.
Most Israelis recognize the looming threats from a nuclear Iran, a rocket rain from Hizbullah in Lebanon, a revitalized and rearmed Hamas, or even a potential threat posed by a Muslim Brotherhood victory in the September elections in Egypt. Israelis just live in a realm of avoidance.
The concern is, for now, dealing with the stress but not wanting to address the political and diplomatic reality. Even the prime minister’s longtime friend and public supporter, World Jewish Congress head Ronald Lauder, told Netanyahu he is disregarding these issues at his nation’s peril. Speaking in a private session before Jewish parliamentarians in Jerusalem, Lauder argued that there was a desperate need for Netanyahu to take dramatic action on the peace front before the September meeting of the UN General Assembly; even if such action were to result in Bibi triggering an internal challenge to his own political leadership.
Unlike the late 1930s, most Israelis recognize the potential threats being posed by radical forces surrounding them. They just opt to cope with these issues by blithely dismissing any efforts to change the status quo, and by asserting that there is no one with whom to speak. Polls may indicate that 60-65 percent of Israelis are ready to back territorial compromises, but there is hardly a single voice in the government reflecting this significant majority view.
In this environment Israelis therefore pull back and focus on their own interests and needs and ignore the existential questions. Many merely seem to postulate that if no one else wants to focus on these issues, why should they? If they do not think about these issues, perhaps they will all disappear. The fears are there, but they do not discuss them or express genuine anxiety about the lack of political initiatives to find solutions to reduce the threats.
The crowning irony is that Netanyahu is seriously considering making Sunday a day off in Israel. Israelis would be off beginning at noon on Friday, creating what he himself is calling — what else — “a long weekend.”