Living more than 5,000 miles away and following the lives of Israelis through the lens of the media gives us a two-dimensional view of life in that very contentious part of the world.
Just over a week ago, Carl Sheingold, JRF’s executive vice president, and I returned from 10 days in Israel, where we were able to gather a much fuller understanding of both the politics and lives of our Israeli brethren.
Our trip began as part of a mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. This is the 35th trip by this group, which includes leaders from the broad spectrum of American Jewish organizations – ranging from conservative to relatively liberal organizations.
It was clear from the parade of Israeli government and political figures and speakers from leading think tanks and academic organizations that this group of Americans is highly regarded by the Israeli establishment. In addition to the speakers, our group also took an excursion to see the Israeli military industrial complex as well as the Israeli Military War College, where we met the next generation of military leaders.
Fortunately, during the same trip, I was able to move beyond the official world of grand Jerusalem hotels – as interesting and important as it was – to meet other Israelis, some who are dedicated to improving their country and others who are simply trying to make a living.
A number of impressions – and that’s all they can be from such a brief visit to any country – became fairly apparent, if only because they were heard from a wide variety of sources.
Clearly, the Second Lebanon War, as last summer’s battle with Hezbollah is now called, had a profound effect on the nation – mostly negative, but some of it salutary. But what seemed clear is that there is a strong resilience among the Israeli people to meet the challenge.
Almost every night, I was able to walk through a park next to my hotel, at night – something that few Americans would dare in most of our own cities. Yet, even after dark, there were groups of boys and young men playing basketball under the lights, with their frock coats on the ledge. Girls were shooting baskets as well, but in a separate court.
The dust-up about the ramp leading to the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City was a major topic, though many people seemed confused about the source of the concern. My cab driver from the Kotel, an Israeli Arab, was upset not because of he construction but because he was afraid that the confrontation was going to hurt business. Feeding his five children was at the top of his list, not squabbling about the replacement of a failing structure. Yet, it seems high noise and low regard are a continuing state of affairs.
Somewhat contrary to most people’s impressions, the Israeli economy is actually doing very well, with growth largely uninterrupted by the war. Warren Buffett, one of the world’s shrewdest businessmen, recently paid $4 billion to buy control of an Israeli cutting-tools company. A number of high-tech companies and other businesses continue to make money, creating a wealthy class that is driving up the price of real estate in the most desirable neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Yet, poverty remains a concern. My cousin, who lives outside of Tel Aviv, said she has a hard time convincing her friends about the needs of many Israeli children, for whom the sandwiches she makes are often the only good meal they will receive that day. Several commentators remarked about the growing divide between the rich and poor.
Another divide in Israeli society is between the Israeli Arabs and the Jewish majority. Since almost 20 percent of the nation is Israeli Arabs, there are many who are trying to develop a new social pact to replace a relationship that has become badly frayed. The Israeli Arab population is growing much faster than the Jewish population, which raises questions about the future of the Jewish majority. Yet Israeli Arabs are economically and socially deprived, according to one speaker. The issue is complex, as are so many of the society’s problems, but it is also one that seems cannot be ignored.
A more subtle issue is the secular nature of the majority of Israeli society. The very term "secular" has a much different meaning in Israel than it does in the U.S. Basically, secular in Israel is everyone who isn't Orthodox. A leading topic for many is trying to establish a more pluralistic vision for Jewish identity in Israeli society beyond Orthodoxy on the one hand and Israeli citizenship on the other.
Many among Israel's "secular" leaders believe that the nation itself is imperiled unless Israelis as a people understand that their continuing Jewish identity is dependent on the preservation of Jewish education and ritual practice. Without this deeper understanding, they fear, Israel is in danger of losing its purpose as a Democratic, Jewish state.
The discussion is quite different from those who are worried about the future of American Judaism, where reduced practice is less mourned than concern about intermarriage. Of course, in Israel, intermarriage isn't exactly a concern, while creating a Jewish identity broader than Israeli citizenship, is.
We met a number of thoughtful "secular" Israelis who are working to bring engagement with Jewish texts, and in some cases, ritual, to a broader swath of Israeli society. Their work is very exciting and especially interesting to us as Reconstructionists. Several of these leaders attended our Convention last November and we look forward to developing important relationships with them and the organizations they lead.
We also met and spoke to several Israelis who are either Reconstructionist émigrés or sympathetic to our theology. We are building stronger bridges to this group, with the prospect of establishing a Reconstructionist presence in Israel over time.
I was also able to visit several archaeological sites in the Galilee, where it became very clear that war and civilization have been a part of life in the Middle East for almost as long as people have lived in the area. At the same time, I was fascinated to see the sophistication of the Greek and Roman culture in Beit She’an and remnants of ruins from 3100 BCE in Meggido.
The latter attracted a steady stream of Christian tourists, who came to see the proverbial location of Armageddon, the location in Revelations where the final battle between good and evil is set to occur. As the groups moved through the site, an occasional cry of “Amen” arose, making me concerned about whether I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. In general, tourism is bouncing back, a minister told our group, and may be at prewar levels within the next several months.
While the battle in Lebanon was not Armageddon, it certainly had a substantial impact on life in Israel. For many Israelis, the inconclusive end to the war pointed up shortcomings in the political leadership, which have only become exacerbated by scandals and investigations. And because of the fragmented political system, there doesn’t appear to be an apparent solution to the perceived weakness.
While there was some consternation that the Israeli military did not destroy Hezbollah, the confidence of the military seems to have rebounded. A number of official inquiries into the execution of the war point to weaknesses in the command structure and training of reserves, but overall the military seems ready for the next round of fighting, if and when it comes. In that respect, the war was a wake-up call.
Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions are on everyone’s mind, though there are varying opinions on the immediacy of the threat. There is even some questions about whether there is complete unity in the Iranian leadership about the pursuit of the nuclear option, given the economic and political isolation that has accompanied the bravado coming from Teheran.
We visited a missile defense site, where the military scans the skies for incoming and can send up anti-missile missiles. Unfortunately, the anti-missile system is built to defend against larger strategic missiles and was relatively ineffective against the Katusha’s launched during the Lebanon War. However, they were able to use their radar to give advance warning to the residents in the North.
Everyone is hoping that the threat will be dealt with through diplomacy. If anything, the threat of Iran to their Sunni Moslem neighbors has opened the doors to them for Israel, if only a crack. The Palestinian turmoil, on the other hand, continues to defy diplomacy, with even more liberal politicians wondering with whom they can negotiate.
While one of our speakers said that “you can never be too pessimistic when it comes to the Middle East,” there was also a sense that Israelis were going about their lives. The Mahaneh Yehudah Market in Jerusalem was bustling, and its Ben Yehudah Mall had a steady stream of tourists. I was assured that my price on my Ahava creams from the Dead Sea at the store on Ben Yahuda was much better than I could find anywhere else. Then I found the same thing at a little drug store for less. I smiled. Some things never change. I was ready to come home.