Last week on the fourth night of Hanukkah, Jerusalem defeated the Hellenists again. We are the modern Maccabees, as Theodore Herzl envisioned us to be. We have become somewhat of a “normal” society, even though we remain unique in many ways. Let me explain.
In addition to being the “holy city”, Jerusalem is a place of many mundane events. One of them revolves around our professional basketball team, HaPoel Yerushalim, which won the Israeli championship in basketball last year for the first time.
In recent years, I have become a fan of this team. My youngest daughter and her husband and I now have season’s tickets for this year. In fact, my youngest daughter, Ariella, played basketball in high school, and my son-in-law Amit coached basketball and grew up in a household of devout fans of this team for more than twenty years (his father has been a regular season’s ticket holder for decades.) So I have become caught up in the excitement.
Last week, I went with them and their three young daughters (they are socialized into being avid fans of this team at a young age!) to watch our team play against a team from Athens, in a very exciting game which we won be four points. The game took place in the sparkling new basketball arena, in a southwestern neighborhood in Jerusalem, in a completely normal atmosphere, with over 10,000 happy and enthusiastic fans in the audience, and without any special security forces to guard us (the arena is far from the Old City of Jerusalem, where most of the violence has occurred in recent months). This beautiful new sports stadium is one of Mayor Barkat’s most ambitious achievements for bettering the social and cultural life in Jerusalem (there are many others, such as the First Station, which I will talk about in my next blog post).
Despite what you read about in the headlines every day about stabbings in Jerusalem and constant violence in the West Bank, life in Jerusalem and in most of Israel goes on as “normal”. People go to work; their kids go to school, students go to universities, and thousands of people view sporting events, either in person or on no less than 5 special sports stations on cable television networks.
Israel had become a country like any other (Western) country, and the Jewish People have become a people with a state, like so many other peoples who have their own state. Our daily life seems as good, if not better than in many Western countries and we score very high on happiness ratings by people who do happiness surveys.
In addition to the local Israeli basketball leagues, we play basketball in European leagues, i.e. we play ball in Europe, but we live in the Middle East. It is kind of an illusion that helps us get through the day or the week or the month.
But are we actually all that normal as a people and as a state?
Yes and no. In many ways we are a first world country and in other ways we are third world.
But what about our uniqueness? After all, Israel is meant to be, according to some of our visionary founders a “light unto the nations”. Or at the very least, it is meant to be a “Jewish and democratic” state, according to most of our centrist Zionist political parties. How are we doing with this dialectic?
Well, despite the fact that we defeated the Greeks in basketball, many of the secular Jews in our society—especially in the Greater Tel Aviv area (what some people call Medinat Tel Aviv, “the state of Tel Aviv”) –have abandoned almost all signs of the Jewish religion and culture in their lives and have become “Israelis”. In a conversation I had with a devout secularist from the Tel Aviv area a while ago, he even referred to himself as a “Greek”, implying that he had no Jewish content or consciousness in his life!
On the other hand, recent right-wing governments have tipped the balance in favor of Jewishness or Judaism, but mostly of the orthodox or ultra-orthodox variety, often combined with rampant nationalism, a very dangerous cocktail indeed. Accordingly, one can read in our daily newspapers many stories every day, and many op-eds, which warn that our democracy is in danger.
Perhaps, rather than defeating the Greeks again—and then becoming Greeks ourselves!—we need to seek a healthier balance between our particularistic and our universalist tendencies. Just because we are descendants of the Maccabees does not mean that we have to repeat all of their mistakes!
I would argue that one of our greatest challenges in Israel is how to balance between these two dimensions of our existence. On the one hand, we want this state to help us preserve our Jewish identities—as pluralistic as they may be. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to be fair towards the strangers in our midst and to develop a democracy which grants our minorities equal rights and equal opportunities. It is incumbent upon us to do both, not one or the other.