Last week I attended an evening honoring Uri Avnery on his 90th birthday. Avnery, straight as a ramrod and looking not a day over 70, formerly the enfant terrible of the Israeli political scene, has become the grand old man of the left. When he first voiced his progressive visions for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in the 50ties, 60ties and 70ties of the last century they were revolutionary and utterly scared the Israeli establishment which took care to sideline him politically. Today central elements of his views like his very early call for a Palestinian State next to Israel have become well accepted not only among the left but among the moderate right as well with even PM Netanyahu supporting, or at least pretending to support the two-state solution. In short, Avnery’s views don’t scare anybody anymore.
So to give the event a modicum of controversy, the panel discussion was titled: “Will Israel exist 90 years from now ?”. Needless to say, this is not a question anyone would raise about any other country in the world. Participants included Prof. Shlomo Sand, Meron Benvenisti, Yitzhak Livni, Talia Sasson and of course Ury Avnery.
I won’t go into the details of what was covered by the panelists – no amazing revelations or predictions there, either way and little disagreement to boot. After all, what can you really predict when the target date is 90 years away? You should concentrate on the present and near future and in that regard, the clearest vision and the most pragmatic approach was presented by Attorney Talia Sasson. Not only did she spell out loud and clear what the other panelists philosophized over, namely that the occupation has to go or else a Jewish and democratic Israel has no viable future, but she also repeated a powerful statement she picked up at a Jewish confab in England in September this year: It appears that to an ever increasing degree, Israel, instead of being the solution for the Jewish people, is becoming the problem for them.
Any Israeli who reads this statement has to do a double take: What, Israel is becoming the problem ? What are they talking about ? Jews are getting beaten up in the streets of Sydney, Rabbis get shot and stabbed in Russia, anti-Semites are on the prowl in Europe, South-America and where not and we are becoming the problem ?
“Israel is the only place in the world where Jews can feel safe”…That’s what most Israelis would say. They would say so without batting their eyelids, even after listening to PM Netanyahu warning us for the umpteenth time that the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel (and the Jewish people, no less) and that Hizbollah’s missiles in Lebanon and those of Hamas in Gaza are a threat to everybody’s life and property.
They would say so after Minister of Finance Lapid declared in public and in New York that Jews are safer there than in Israel and after many of their fellow countrymen have elected to settle, temporarily no doubt, in Berlin, of all places. They would insist that Israel is the home for the Jews although it is pretty much the only country in the Western world where Jews do not have complete freedom of religion – if you happen not to be Orthodox but rather Reform or Conservative, your ability to practice your faith is still hampered, sometimes severely so. And they would insist that Israel is the solution for the Jews even though while the country has generally been welcoming to our Ethiopian brethren and immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as groups they continue to be discriminated against because of their origin or perceived lack of Jewishness.
They would refute the claim that Israel is becoming the problem for world Jewry although undoubtedly, Israel’s actions, in particular those that are related to the occupation of Palestinian lands and our frequent military incursions into Palestinian territory, provoke demonstrations, acts of vandalism and sometimes violence not only against Israeli targets the world over but also against Jewish targets.They would maintain that Israel is not becoming the problem even though sometimes, its military actions against terrorists, legitimate as they may be, are followed by deadly retribution against Jewish targets abroad.
They would insist that Israel is not becoming a problem for the Jews even though the state pursues policies which, often enough, are incompatible with Jewish liberal values and to no lesser degree, with Jewish religious values making many Jews feel ashamed of Israel. And of course Israelis have no problem asking Jews abroad in a survey, if put on the spot, would they stand by Israel or rather by the country they live in ? That’s what an Israeli organization just recently did.
So what is it then? Is Israel the solution for world Jewry, a safe haven for them as Theodor Herzl envisaged and all should come on aliya? Or else, is it becoming the problem, not only being unattractive as a place to settle because of its internal problems and limited civil society but at the same time, through some of its actions, making Jews ashamed while reinvigorating anti-Semitic undercurrents among non-Jews the world over who focus their anger against the Jewish State on Jewish communities in their country?
Making Israel a better and more equitable place for Jews and all other citizens would be a rational approach that would spawn a positive feedback loop. We must improve our civil society to bring it more in line with what is acceptable in the US and Europe to increase equality. Forging a final status agreement with the Palestinians to bring the occupation to an end is an imperative that would enable Israel to restore eroding democratic values and go a long way to attenuate the widespread enmity against Israel, and, by projection, Jews the world over. The latter would find Israel more attractive and would be more inclined to come on aliya to a country that finally will be able to integrate into the region and live in peace with its neighbors.
Paradoxically then the more attractive we will make Israel for Jews in the diaspora, the better Jewish communities outside Israel will fare within their environment. This of course also means that all Jews, wherever they are, have a major stake in making Israel a better place.
This is work in progress but If we don’t engage in a sincere effort to make it happen fast, Israel just might suffer the fate of the relatively short lived Crusader Kingdom in the Holyland about a millenium ago, as some of the panelists at the Avnery event hinted: After 200 years it crumbled as much as a result of the pressure from the surrounding Muslim population as from the fact that internal conditions were poor, many crusaders returned to the countries they came from and those that stayed on were not joined by newcomers since there was no particular attraction to come and live in Eretz Israel.