The mood in Israel is unusually heavy on the eve of the High Holidays this year. Preparations for the traditional 10-day period of reflection and reaffirmation between the dawn of the new year and Yom Kippur are, as in the past, hectic and bursting with activity. But they seem to lack much of the celebratory spirit usually associated with the holiday season. Too much anxiety and uncertainty are in the air; far too little personal or collective joy is evident.
And there is good cause for concern at this time; there is even more reason to refresh a commitment to those common values that historically enabled Jewish survival and progress. The dictum of Hillel the Elder, who claimed that the essence of the teachings of the Torah could be encapsulated in a single phrase, “do not unto others what you do not want done to you,” is still the most accurate yardstick for assessing this past year, and the best normative guideline for making the next one far better.
The worries of most Israelis at this time center, most immediately, on their deteriorating economic situation. One in six families cannot afford to purchase the holiday meal they will be eating this evening: they will dine on donated food. Many others will streamline their traditional menus, adjusting to the escalating cost of flour, meat and vegetables. And almost all will bemoan the alarming rise in the cost of living, increased taxation and economic unpredictability which have stretched socioeconomic inequalities even further. Their sense of wellbeing has eroded during the past 12 months.
The second embracing issue that casts a pall on the holidays is growing societal violence. Parents are truly fearful of the massive spike in schoolyard brawls, many of which spill over into the discos and the streets. Women are continuously subjected to domestic violence and to sexual harassment in the workplace. Minorities are the butt of ongoing discrimination and physical abuse. The recent assaults on two Palestinians in Jerusalem by unrepentant gangs of young people and the repeated attacks on asylum-seekers and their property offer sorry proof of the extent to which the value placed on human life has diminished. And, as if to press home the point, the spate of hit-and-run accidents has further magnified the tragic consequences of aggressive behavior accompanied by impunity. Daily life is not always pleasant.
A third, ongoing, source of unease focuses on relations with the Palestinians. This past year has institutionalized the deadlock that has been associated with Israeli-Palestinian relations in recent years. With very few exceptions, the absence of any movement on the diplomatic front has cloaked the (always-dynamic) status quo with an aura of inevitability. This has been further accentuated by the almost complete separation between Israelis and Palestinians, making the latter even more invisible. Only the resumption of rocket attacks in the Negev and of “price-tag” hooliganism in the West Bank breaks the studied indifference of the majority and enables the further flourishing of extremists on both sides.
The indeterminacy of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship has helped magnify a fourth cause of concern: the shifting regional balance. This past year the regime in Egypt changed, Assad’s Syria became unstuck, and the ramifications for Lebanon and Jordan have complicated Israel’s geo-strategic position. In this context, the government’s handling of the Iranian nuclear threat has boosted the anxiety levels of the average Israeli. For those old enough to remember, the psychological strain experienced by Israelis today is not dissimilar to that which preceded the Six Day War in 1967 (albeit with one telling difference: in 1967 the population was mobilized for defense; today the government is trying to rally support for offensive action).
Fifth, therefore, many Israelis are more worried now than ever before about the strident spats between Jerusalem and Washington and their implications for ties with the United States and other democratic countries. A real crisis of confidence is brewing, directly contributing to the already-jittery climate in the country. Indeed, all the efforts in public diplomacy in the world cannot hide the fact that Israel today is increasingly isolated in the global arena.
Finally, then, nervousness surrounds this holiday season because many Israelis are simply not comfortable with current directions, policies and, consequently, with themselves. The prevailing malaise is deepened as democratic outlets for expression — in the press, the academy, civil society — are systematically targeted. Social and political rifts have been exacerbated as a result. The various communities in Israel have become more self-encapsulated; opportunities for constructive interchange are less available. The value-driven adhesive of the past, so aptly captured in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, no longer serves as a binding normative compass.
The multi-faceted discomfort of the past year is the culmination of a long period during which successive leaders have substituted pragmatism for a moral map and immediate considerations for an ethical vision. In this atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that so many Israelis feel that they must cling to each other precisely because they are so rudderless. The officially sanctioned preference for uniformity at the expense of unity, and for unanimity to the detriment of solidarity, has deepened divisions between religious and secular, rich and poor, veterans and newcomers, men and women, right and left, Jews and Arabs, residents and foreigners. The quest for one, monolithic, interpretation of what is Israel, what defines its identity, and what determines its policies, has not only led to greater schisms at home, within Jewish communities abroad and between them and Israel — it has also nurtured alienation and even despair.
It does not have to — and should not — be this way. The beginning of the new year offers a chance for the revival of those fundamental Jewish values which for centuries have informed universal notions of decency, justice and equality and helped foster dedication to common goals. The best place to start is with the core of the Jewish tradition: “love your neighbor as yourself.” The immense diversity of the Jewish community in Israel and abroad does not have to be divisive if respect for the other lies at its base. The pluralism of political ideas will not be so summarily dismissed if, as the sages grasped clearly, divergent opinions are viewed as the source of innovation. And globalization doesn’t have to fuel insularity if new forms of interdependence can promote development and human security.
Adoption of the moral precepts that have guided Jews throughout the ages can go a long way toward replacing the present atmosphere of trepidation and helplessness with a horizon of hope and ethically-channeled determination in the coming year. This is the real challenge for 5773.