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What Vision of Israel Will Prevail in 5761?

September 29, 2000|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

JERUSALEM — While the world's attention focuses on the latest riot on the Temple Mount and the tenuous balance between peace and war in the Middle East, Israel's anxiety is turning inward. Never before have Israelis been so pessimistic about their ability to form a cohesive society from the ethnic and ideological diversity that has been gathered into the Jewish state. Tonight, as the Jewish New Year begins, we are united only in our anxiety: Even if we manage the unlikely prospect of peace with the Palestinians, can we live with each other?

Time isn't healing our internal contradictions; it is intensifying them. How do we maintain a modern democracy in a holy land? A state that sees itself as fulfillment of the Jewish story while accommodating non-Jewish citizens into the national identity? A high-tech society that thrives on competition while protecting those who haven't yet made it into the mainstream?

Rather than fear an external enemy, we now see each other as the real threat to Israel's survival. For Orthodox Jews, secular Israelis who "pollute" the Holy Land with hedonism threaten to bring divine punishment on the nation. For secularists, it is the Orthodox who risk Israel's viability by trying to impose theocratic rule that would alienate Israel's supporters abroad and leave us isolated against the Arab world.

Nor are those fears entirely theoretical: We are destroyers of each other's dream Israel. If a Middle East deal emerges, the left-wing government of Ehud Barak soon will begin uprooting dozens of West Bank settlements, the cherished legacy of an entire generation of religious Zionists. For its part, the right-wing opposition promises that, if it returns to power in the next elections, it will in effect revoke the Oslo accords, threatening the left's hope of an Israel at peace in the Middle East.

And even if we can manage one more Israeli miracle and unite the Jews around a minimal common cause, what about the million Arabs who are citizens of the Jewish state? How do we create a common identity between Jews who see the founding of the state as an act of redemption and Arabs for whom it is a tragedy?

There are no leaders in Zion, no David Ben-Gurion or Menachem Begin to give coherence to the Israeli saga, remind us why we are here and inspire us with a vision of the future. Prime Minister Barak promised to embody a unifying Israeli identity. He assured us that he would close the growing gap between rich and poor and force the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli mainstream by ending the shameful military exemptions of their young men. Finally, he promised that he would make peace with the Arab world only after uniting Israelis around a consensus position that included preserving united Jerusalem under Israeli rule.

Instead, he has done the opposite: He has allowed the disparity in income to grow and created a disastrous coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, which he is only now clumsily trying to undo. Worst of all, he is offering unprecedented territorial concessions as the head of a minority government, ready to divide both Jerusalem and the nation.

Opposition leader Ariel Sharon, whose appearance on the Temple Mount provoked Thursday's riots, is dismissed even by his admirers as a militant has-been with no chance of ousting Barak. Former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who does lead Barak in most polls, hardly inspires greater confidence. This week, after bribery allegations against him were dropped, he promised the nation that he would be a healing force. Yet, as prime minister, he routinely incited against the left. He whispered into the ear of an aged prominent rabbi that "the left has forgotten how to be Jewish," demonstratively removed his bullet-proof vest at a rally after being assured that no Labor Party members were present and demagogically led a chant of campaign supporters against the left, "They're afraid, they're afraid, they're afraid!"

A whole nation is afraid. And so desperate people seek salvation in desperate places. Every night, outside a prison near Tel Aviv, thousands of working-class Sephardim (Jews whose families come from Muslim countries) gather to pray in solidarity with Aryeh Deri, former head of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, who is now serving a three-year term for bribery. Supporters call him the Israeli Dreyfus; some whisper that he may be the messiah.

Beyond tragedy and farce, there is consolation. The paradoxes that are tearing us apart are precisely why this country still matters. We are an essential meeting ground between tradition and democracy, East and West, ethnic tribalism and the modern nation state.

However reluctantly, we are a laboratory for humanity's contradictions. If we accept that no one vision of Israel should exclusively dominate, we may learn the art of balance, from which new cultural and political syntheses can emerge.

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