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What's Happened to the Land of Our Dreams?

Israel: Why does every large group in the country see itself as a persecuted minority, living under a hostile regime?

September 20, 1998|DAVID GROSSMAN | Israeli author David Grossman's most recent work is "The Zig Zag Kid" (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). This piece was translated by Haim Watzman

JERUSALEM — With the approaching end of the Jewish year, at a time for taking personal and collective stock of ourselves, a question, strange on the face of it, has come to me. Are there today any Israelis who feel that they are living the lives they would like to live? And also how has it happened that the Israeli reality is, more than anything else, a depressing combination of compromises, anxieties, apathy and fatalism? And the government, elected by the majority, who, really, does it represent today?

In other words, are there today Israelis--even a small company of them, from the left or the right--who would give their votes to a leader who promised them the current state of affairs?

"We have a wonderful country," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thunders at every opportunity. He's right; we really do have a wonderful country, but why does it seem like a dream that is fast fading away? And how has it happened that almost every large group in the country--religious, secular, settlers, members of Peace Now, Russian and Ethiopian Jews, the ultra-orthodox, the unemployed and the Israeli Arabs--every group sees itself as a persecuted minority, living under a hostile regime? And why do so many Israelis feel that a void of oblivion and alienation is deepening between them and their country? There is, apparently, something mesmerizing in that vacuum. Fact: Nearly six million people are being sucked into it without much vocal protest, without large and frequent demonstrations, without protest vigils at every intersection or individual hunger strikes or any other legitimate act of civil disobedience.

But the sense that something has been missed simmers within and does not go away. And like it, the feeling that something precious and rare is slipping through our fingers, never to return. Perhaps for that reason, Israelis are becoming more bitter and resentful by the years, and are internalizing, one toward the other, a very particular kind of hostility, like that of prisoners in the same cell, like partners in a failing business. How little sympathy and understanding we have--even for other Israelis--who do not belong to our "group." With what fierce anger or derision do we relate to the real, authentic pain of Israelis who are not "us." As if our automatic and longstanding refusal to recognize in any way the suffering of the Palestinians, lest it deprive us of some bit of the "rightness" of our cause, has finally seeped into our most inner organs and has completely confounded our common sense and our natural "family" instinct. Sometimes, it seems that what Jews do to each other in Israel would be defined in other countries as no less than anti-Semitism.

Anyone who returns to Israel after an extended absence is astounded by the huge development of the cities, by the roads, by the shopping centers, and is repelled by the people, by the violence, the discourtesy and the meanness. Those who live here have already ceased to wonder at how, in an amazingly short time, this young, friendly, bold country has undergone an accelerated mental process of aging; that with a strange kind of enthusiasm, Israel has adopted rigid, paranoid, depressive behaviors and, more than anything else, has lost faith in its ability to change, to be created anew into a better future.

An entire country has gone astray in a kind of time warp in which it spins round and round, as if it were doomed to recreate some of the evils that its tragic history has imposed on it. Maybe for this reason, precisely because Israel is at the acme of its military power, Israelis are becoming more and more paralyzed, turning into people who cannot take action, who are immobilized into victims--except that, this time, they are their own victims.

With infuriating, criminal passivity, 6 million people are sitting idly by as their consciousness, their ability to act, their judgments are degenerating. They have let go of their ability to distinguish between good and evil; they have especially lost the healthy instinct that will shake and awaken them, which will remind them of their true, deep goals and needs as a nation and as a society. An entire nation is in suspended animation. As if voluntarily anesthetizing itself, suspending its power to make distinctions, in order not to face the quiet horror of its situation.

Just to think, for example, that the government is diverting more and more money to the construction of settlements that will complicate and convolute the situation, and make a political solution impossible. Just to think, for example, that an entire nation is mortgaging its future and its only chance of saving itself from the trap just to satisfy the messianic and aggressive instincts of a few hundred--no more--fanatics who insist on packing themselves into Hebron and Nablus and the Gaza Strip.

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