A Transformative 5781

Writing under isolation and lockdown during High Holidays, change is indeed in the air. The tide toward greater lockdown to curb COVID 19 and the tide for reopening because of economic damages fight it out in the Knesset. As is sadly becoming all the more common, clear guidelines are nowhere to be truly found. This occurs as 30 Israelis die daily from the virus, a number likely to grow.

In a time of great tribulation, many want to close the synagogues to prayer. However all the more, major currents are taking place, one that will likely shape the year to come.

To Netanyahu’s credit, but likely even more to the credit of Kushner and Trump, Israel is rapidly normalizing relations with the Sunni Arab world. This development, which was improbable as far as a year ago, is even more remarkable with the number of positive Sunni voices embracing their long lost Jewish cousins. The internet is flooded with Sunni Gulf Arabs, praising Jews and the Jewish state. In recently antagonistic Saudi Arabia, the pulpit in Mecca is being used to advance tolerant messages toward Jews. In fact it is widely believed that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, wants ties to Israel. Permission to fly over Saudi territory and the normalization of Bahrain, a Saudi protectorate, all but hint of what is to come. Sudan and Oman are likely to follow Saudi and the Gulf Arabs.

While largely overlooked at the moment because of COVID 19, the rules of the game are changing. With the exception of our immediate neighbors, the Palestinians, our acceptance into the Middle East region is now all the more assured. In fact, the Palestinians seem to have become increasingly isolated among their fellow Arabs. Many see the conflict as a hindrance and old news, with a focus on Israel ties and a more tolerant peaceful middle east being a new trend.

This said, another trend is equally dark: that of Turkey, the once great “friend” of Israel in its earlier years. Its leader Erdogan uses every pulpit at his disposal to blacken the name of Israel and curse the foundations of which this country is based. This is done as Turkish tourism and business still flow into Israel but there is a limit of how long a country can operate in a conflict of interest. Turkey’s priorities are increasingly to support Muslim radicals in the region, and to embrace anti American interests. It is only a matter of time until Turkey will rise up firmly not only against Israel but against the USA as well.

Another country of equal concern is Iran. As the world fights over arms sales to the Islamic Republic they are rushing toward the creation of a nuclear weapon. The harm to global peace and security of such weapons in the hands of the Ayatollahs seem to be overlooked by an increasingly apathetic Europe, a business friendly Russia, and an energy friendly China. As Iran receives more weapons and more materials beyond US sanctions, its ability to create a capable nuclear weapon become more potent. Once it has such weapons and with its anti Israel and Saudi messaging, nothing would stop it from sending nukes to their proxies. This conflict will likely only sour further in the coming year.

The United States is in an unstable place globally, between an unstable president Trump who wishes to withdraw ultimately from the Middle East and create a deal with Iran based on strength, and a Biden presidency who may use less heated rhetoric but still to bridge ties with Iran. All the more, in this game of poker, Iran may be eventually playing a formidable hand. Play a wrong move and it will breakout to a nuclear weapon and one day a city in Israel may turn into a nuclear wasteland.

The overall climate domestically is as stark as the regional transformations. Half of the Israeli workforce are taking turns being on sick leave as we are now in our second national lockdown. The population is adjusting to a year where we simply see far less people, and our festivals are far less flamboyant. Even with the restrictions many in the country are undergoing a form of “Corona fatigue” and do not want to follow the guidelines if others are not forced to do this same. For this reason, ultra-Orthodox “red” cities were not locked down with us all paying the price of the government politicking. The country is full of examples of people sneaking past the rules. The ones that are caught pay the fines, but many find ways around the guidelines. The damage to law and order and the trust we have for the system may take years to repair.

The politicking takes place as increasing numbers of Israelis cannot make ends meet. While the cries made headlines for months, now the pleas have silenced. Before the pandemic, Israel was a proud and strong economy, where abundance for the first time became a norm in society. Real estate rose to world heights making it increasingly difficult to live here, and work was plenty. The Israeli dream was everywhere of one building their place in the Holy Land. The Coronavirus has put this dream on hold, as real world limitations prevent us from truly being free with our money.

This all takes place as Netanyahu (Bibi) himself continues to outmaneuver his competition and is on trial for bribery and other charges. Many Israelis increasingly protest against him, yet polling continuously see the country in his pocket. The country has as thus increasingly become complacent to the whims of our leader, who knows that he will win under any outcome. It is not that Israelis approve of Netanyahu. It is more a realist worldview or simple apathy that the “leader” is irreplaceable. None of the other MKs or party leaders are viewed as Prime Ministerial. As such, an aura over Bibi persists, as a larger portion of society protests against him. Perhaps Rabbi Schneerson (the Rebbe) was right, the man will be the last leader until Messiah, for no one can see a way without him.

The year has also taken a dent out of Israel’s cultural and spiritual strength. Passover under lockdown and now High Holidays and Sukkot, it is hard for us to feel like we are performing the right mitzvahs as Jews. Our health, or the illusion of our health, takes precedence as we are less and less able to pray in our houses of worship.

This year rather will be one of transformation. It is also one of cleansing. The times when we could be abundant are no more. We cannot leave our homes and whoever is in our lives is increasingly selective. We need to increasingly decide what is important and what to focus our energy which is increasingly contained. A reset year, of the good and perhaps also the bad if we did not learn from our mistakes.

We need to continue being Jews this holiday season and to appreciate our heritage, religion, and roots. In this time we need to continue to pray for a Temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem. If we let the virus take us away from our roots, we will become no different than the Greek and Roman invaders who tried to forcibly stray us thousands of years ago. We need to remember that the virus is temporary.

Heritage, a collective reset, and a new Middle East are key for the upcoming year 5781.

About the Author
Born in Israel but raised in Canada, Gil Lewinsky worked as a journalist in Jewish newspapers including the Jerusalem Post after completing a Masters degree at the Munk School of Global Affairs from the University of Toronto. He also has a LLM in International Law from Lancaster University in the UK. His past topics include a book written about the Status of Gaza under International Law soon after its conquest by Hamas in 2007. He is perhaps best known as one of two people that brought a flock of Jacob Sheep from Canada to Israel in 2016, making history. He currently works as a teacher and public relations professional in Israel.
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