Forty Years in the Wilderness

I had lunch recently with the Ambassador to Israel of an Asian country.  The Ambassador told me about his various ambassadorial duties, then added, smiling faintly, “One of my main tasks is to report back on what is happening in Israel, particularly with regards to the chances of reaching a peace agreement.  I have to summarize and analyze the issues and indicate the opportunities and risks, the main topics and the obstacles.  But to tell the truth, that’s a relatively easy job.  All I have to do is find the computer file of one of my predecessors’ reports from 5 or 10 years ago, change the date and the signature, and the report is 90% ready to go… Not too much has changed.  You’re still squabbling with the Palestinians over the same issues: borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security… it gets a bit boring for us to keep reporting that to our governments.”

Driving south to Tel Aviv, I listened to the morning news on the car radio.  To mark the 35th anniversary of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the radio station had dusted off various items of archived reportage, interviews and commentary from the political stars of that time: Begin, Weizman, Dayan, Sharon, Peres (of course), and others.

One of the commentators compared the fierce opposition 35 years ago to the peace agreement with Egypt to the opposition to a possible peace agreement with the Palestinians today.  Here are three slogans of the time and their parallels today:

  • “Uprooting settlements (in Sinai/in Judea & Samaria) will be the beginning of the end of Zionism”
  • “We can’t trust our bitterest enemy (the Egyptians/the Palestinians)”
  • “Only the physical presence of the IDF (in Sinai/in Judea & Samaria and the Jordan Valley) can ensure Israel’s security”

The first time I crossed the Israel-Jordan border via the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, some dozen years ago, I was moved almost to tears.  I recalled how, as a child, I would visit my grandparent’s tiny 1‑bedroom apartment on Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov in the Jordan Valley.  The sight of the Gilad Mountains on the eastern side of the Jordan River would cause me nightmares during my visits, as I was terrorized by thoughts of Jordanian mortar attacks and malevolent infiltrators.  I have now crossed the Jordan more than 10 times since that first occasion, and my initial excitement has gradually given way to the feeling that this is a routine event.

Thinking back over the years, one can see that what today is routine and taken for granted was once thought to be impossible, a wild fantasy.  Who, 60 years ago, would have believed that tens of thousands of Israelis would choose to live and work in Berlin?  Who would have dared to dream, 70 years ago, that the USA would choose an African-American President?

Pesach is the Festival of Freedom, and Yom Ha’atzma’ut is Israel’s Independence Day.  They represent more than just political freedom from the rule of others.  They also represent our release from the chains of history and perception, of fear and trauma.

Moses needed 40 years in the wilderness because it was so difficult to find a patch of land in the Middle East without oil, says the famous joke (now outdated, with Israel’s discoveries of natural gas and oil shale).  But the more serious explanation ascribes the wilderness years to the long psychological journey from slavery to freedom, a transition that required a full 40 years to remove the slave’s mental shackles and allow the Israelites to enter the Land of Israel as a free people, born to freedom.

Who will venture to predict the historical events, the drastic operations, the difficult steps that today seem to us to be impossible, yet will, a few decades hence, be understood in retrospect to have been the imperative of the hour?


About the Author
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, President of the Harvard Club of Israel and author of "Son of My Land" and "Fundraising" - the 1st Hebrew book about Resource Development. Sagi can be reached at