Forced to Look Within

Being Jewish means being aware of the existence of ghettos. Jewish religious/cultural education often includes the history and significance of the ghetto. When visiting European cities Jews frequently visit the “Jewish Quarter.” Many years ago I toured Girona, Spain because the city has ancient Jewish streets, recently uncovered after literally being buried under garbage for six centuries.

While Venice has manifold charms, no time spent there is complete for a Jew without a visit to the place where the word “ghetto,” as the guide will tell you, originated.

After the concentration camps, the Polish ghettos, with Warsaw predominating, tops the list of Nazi horrors. It was the embodiment of millennia of European persecution of the Jews. My great-grandparents and their lineage lived in the “Jewish Quarter” in Ankara, Turkey for 400 plus years. Separate and isolated within our host country.

Cut to Israel. 2013. There was a surprise outcome in the recent elections, a telegenic secular Israeli, Yair Lapid, and his newly created Yesh Atid Party, has become a kingmaker in the formation of a governing coalition. The country is searching for reasons for his ascension and Netanyahu’s Lukid Party’s decline. Maybe Netanyahu’s bombastic threats toward Iran unnerved many Israelis, including the military and security branches. Or, the rise of “kitchen table” politics, currently the dominant explanation, accounts for it. Israelis may want to focus on housing and general living costs, having the Haredi population share in the military burden, improving education, and increasing support for the middle class.

It is possible that Israel is going through a Mid-East version of the American Turner Thesis, explained in a 1921 book about the closing of the Western frontier and its effect on the American mind and culture. Without western expansion, the theory went, we focused more on domestic issues.

With its nearly completed Sinai fence, its current construction of the Golan fence, finished West Bank wall, Gaza barriers reinforced, patrolled Lebanese fence, and Jordanian fence and parallel military roads, Israel has effectively sealed itself off from its adjoining world. It has created, in essence, its own ghetto in the Mid-East. Whatever dreams of Arab integration and cooperation some of the early Zionists had are now officially over. There are, according to my rough calculation, 844 miles of barriers and fences between Israel and its neighbors.

This is not the place to discuss how this came about. The smartest minds in Israel, historians like Benny Morris, can shed some light. But while the debate continues, the facts on the ground are there. Israel has no real commerce, no significant cultural or political interfaces with any of its next door neighbors. There will be no more blackjack weekends in Jericho.

I think this lockdown causes a look-in-the-mirror effect. If you’re not focused outward, it is only natural to look within. The Israelis who voted for Yair Lapid may have just declared their own what I label “the fence dividend.”

The Mosssad and Shin Bet have reduced the chances of an Israeli being killed in a terrorist attack to such a degree that dying in a car accident en route to a vacation in Eliat is more probable. Israel may be telling themselves it is time to build a civil society richer in justice, opportunity, and shared military and economic responsibility. Strong and sufficiently armed, they now have the luxury to concentrate on internal policies.

Until the border walls, separation barriers and fences come down ‒ and that seems very far off ‒ I understand why the Israelis should focus on the internal goals of attacking the myriad social and economic issues that are tearing at the fabric of its society. Like all advanced democracies, income and education disparity have become an embarrassment.

The Zionist dream needs refreshing and renewal. For millennia the Jews were forced to manage their own affairs in their own communities. Now it’s a choice, and, hopefully, they’ll make the most of it.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.