Today is a set of anniversaries of sorts, one personal and one national. 40 years ago today was the day I began my service in the I.D.F. and 20 years later, on the same day, our Prime Minister was assassinated.
I wish I could write how much things have changed in these four intervening decades — and indeed some things have certainly changed. Forty years ago, when I drafted into the IDF, Israel was still reeling from the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. The IDF was concerned it did not have enough manpower to operate the divisions of tanks, hundreds of planes and thousands of artillery pieces it believed it needed to defend the country. Today, thanks to our growing population, together with changes in technology, a deficit in manpower is no longer a problem.
Today, the greater question appears to be whether can afford all of the latest products that our Defense Ministry says it needs. The problem has reached a level of such absurdity that the Knesset refused to pass the government’s own budget for the Ministry of Defense, since the Defense Minister — a member of the government — said the defense allocation was not big enough.
Forty years ago, just nine days after I started my army service, a bomb went off in Jerusalem, killing six. As a result, I — a totally untrained soldier — was sent to patrol the Kasbah of Nablus and guard Joseph’s tomb. Today, 40 years later, Israelis are worried that some knife-wielding terrorist might jump out and attack us, in any of our cities. While I am not quite a senior citizen, the current crop of terrorists seem to focus their attacks on people closer to my age today (rather than seeking victims my age 40 years ago.)
Sure, on one level, things have significantly changed. We have had a peace treaty with Egypt for 37 years and that agreement has held. We also have peace treaty with Jordan and there is no conventional Arab army presenting a threat to us. However, we still have to worry about a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, as well as, coping with various terrorist organizations on a several of our borders (each maintaining missiles that can disrupt our lives at any moment).
Yet, 40 years ago, I was an idealistic young man, who hoped I could complete my army service and bring true change to Israel. Back then, I believed the Israeli political system was totally non-functional and that my work for the new political party Shinui (lit. meaning, “change”) might make the needed difference. Forty years later, Israel’s political system remains unchanged. Indeed, Israel’s government and governing system have become ever more dysfunctional (and definitively more corrupt.) Forty years ago, I had hoped my children would not need to serve in the army. As of now, two of my children have already completed their service and my third child turns sixteen next week.
Over the course of the last four decades, Tel Aviv, (the city in which I proudly reside), is nothing like its past alter ego. New York, the city in which I lived for several decades, remains largely unchanged over the course of the past two score. True, some New York neighborhoods have been gentrified and crime is down. However, by and large, the Big Apple is the same city. Many of the same comments regarding New York can be made about Jerusalem as well. During that same time, Tel Aviv has changed dramatically. Forty years ago, Tel Aviv was a minor city on the Mediterranean, whose beaches were not even very good — If we wanted to go to a nice beach we always went to Herzliya. Today, Tel Aviv is a city of tall buildings, incredible restaurants and night life, gorgeous beaches and parks, which also happens to be one of the most powerful high-tech centers of the world.
However, other than Tel Aviv growing and maturing into the gem of the Middle East, little has fundamentally changed all these years. Our very young democracy is no longer young, and despite its supposed commitment to democratic values, it appears that most Israelis, (especially our current politicians) have little idea what true democracy really is. Over the past four decades we have had a right-wing and left-wing who share one thing in common — a fundamental misunderstanding of our predicament. The left-wing often believes “if only we were in power, we would …”. To the left, it is our fault we have failed to reach peace. The left-wing’s specific criticism is often correct. Certainly some of our largely right-wing governments over these 40 years have done a number of things that have not been helpful.
Ultimately however, up until now, (when push comes to shove) the Palestinians have never publicly been willing to make the substantive concessions that might bring about peace. However, our right-wing seems totally clueless to the effects that the longest occupation in recent history has had on our country and our relations with the rest of the world. The right-wing is outraged when the EU attempts to label products made in the West Bank (ignoring the fact that under international law we can keep troops in the West Bank until such time as we reach a peace agreement, though allowing settlers to sell and operating factories are illegal). When asked, the right-wing never has no answer the question of how our country is going to remain both democratic and Jewish, if keep control of the territories.
Forty years — to the day — after picking up a gun to defend the state for the first time and twenty years after seeing a fellow Jew use his gun to shatter what might have been a different future here, I am not the optimist I once was. I love living in the beautiful “bubble we call Tel Aviv”. While I still consider myself a Zionist, it’s profoundly challenging to be an optimist. Two of my three children currently live here and I truly do not know what I wish for their futures. I wish I could believe my grandchildren would not have to serve in the army if they continue living here. I wish I could be confident Israel will still be a thriving democracy when it comes time for my oldest grandchild to be drafted (he is currently 6 weeks old).
I wish I would be able to say (if by some miracle I live to be 100 — in 40 years) that the second 40 years after my draft had been so much better for the State of Israel. It is my deepest wish for all of these things to be true, but I completely unsure that any of these things are even possible. Unless a new generations of leaders comes forth and replaces the current failed leadership; unless a new generation of mentors comes forth to replace our misguided educators, unless something fundamentally changes, with utter sadness, I believe our past looks brighter than our future.