Jewish Journal


March 1, 2001

The Great Awakening


Israel's Jews did not vote for Ariel Sharon by a margin nearly unprecedented in any functioning democracy because they believe he has a magic solution to halt the intifada. Fewer still believe that he is capable of bringing a final resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They voted for him not despite his age, but because of it -- because of his link to an era when Israel was far more confident of the justice of its cause and optimistic about the future than today. Sharon's election signals a national awakening to the importance of national identity and national will, a recognition that our security is inextricably linked to national morale. It is telling that Sharon's most concrete campaign promise was to retain the Education Ministry in Likud hands.

The election marked the death of Oslo, not just as a diplomatic process but also as an ideology. That ideology is fundamentally hostile to national identity.

National identity, in the eyes of Oslo's most ardent supporters, is the great enemy of peace. If people would just stop thinking of themselves as Jews or Muslims, Israelis or Palestinians, conflict would disappear.

Oslo's supporters convinced themselves that the world is moving towards a universalistic brotherhood of man, in which people will view themselves simply as human beings, nothing more or less. Propelling history in that direction, argues Thomas Friedman, is globalization. In the global village, people are primarily defined by their common desire to partake of increasing material bounty. Nothing else matters.

Shimon Peres's "New Middle East," in which hotels are more important than battalions and the cure-all for Palestinian unrest is greater economic investment in the Palestinian economy, was predicated on precisely such a view of man as driven by purely material concerns. That view rendered Oslo's true believers incapable of comprehending the Palestinians. They saw the Palestinians as nothing more than reflections of our own desires. Knowing that Bashar Assad shared their love of the Internet was enough to convince them that peace with Syria must be close at hand.

Those for whom love of the Land of Israel came to be seen as a dangerous anachronism could not understand those in whom that love still burns; those for whom national identity is an unwanted holdover from a distant past could not understand those for whom it is everything.

For nearly a decade such views prevailed among Israel's opinion-making elites and through them filtered down to the population at large. On recent evidence, however, the scorn for national identity no longer holds sway. The recent rejection by the Knesset Education Committee of the ninth-grade world history textbook "A World of Changes," once hailed for daring to expose the truth behind the myths of Israel's founding, is but one piece of evidence.

The overwhelming election of an unreconstructed, old-line Zionist like Sharon is another. "Israeli Jews expect Sharon to mend Zionism's broken tools or totally reconstruct them, so that Zionism can take root once more, not only in the soil of this land, but in the hearts of Israelis," Nadav Shragai wrote a week before the elections.

Even among the elite opinion-makers, chinks have appeared in the armor of post-Zionism. Nothing better indicates the turning tide than Avirama Golan's hysterical lament in Ha'aretz about "authors and philosophers, politicians and publicists suddenly ... enthusiastic about national and political unity."

What changed the tide? Primarily the shock of the intifada, joining Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in common cause. Confronted with the fervor of Palestinian nationalism, Israeli Jews began to search once again for a comparable source of strength to sustain them against the onslaught.

The sense that something has gone dramatically wrong was further heightened by the alacrity with which Israel accepted President Clinton's plan for giving sovereignty over the Temple Mount to Arafat. Suddenly slaying every sacred cow and shattering every taboo no longer seemed such a good idea.

Many shared Yair Sheleg's wonder at the willingness to concede the most sacrosanct sites in Jewish history, symbolizing 2,000 years of longing to return to the Land of Israel, simply to obtain some temporary peace and quiet from a vastly inferior enemy. They sensed that Arafat made such a sticking point of the Temple Mount in order to further cut off the Jews from their past, to force us to admit that the place is of greater importance to Moslems than Jews, because in Palestinian eyes a lack of connection to the past is a sign of weakness.

Yet, as Sheleg pointed out, Barak would never have dared to such concessions unless Israel's "academic, cultural and media elites" had been ruled for a generation by those for whom national identity is irrelevant, surely not worth as much as a "little quiet and integration into the global village."

Israel's Jews today neither seek a false uniformity nor yearn for a halcyon past that never existed absent all social strife. Yet they do seek a rekindled sense of some bond between us. One can hear that yearning in Amnon Dankner's mea culpa for himself and his colleagues on the left who for the past two decades nurtured "a large and thriving industry of hate, scorn, and arrogance to anyone who did not share their views: to those of Eastern descent, to those with right-wing ideologies, and especially to the religious nationalists and charedim."

So filled with empathy for the plight of the Palestinians and understanding of their demands was the left, Dankner confesses, that it had no empathy left for fellow Jews, "only pure, unsullied, sulfuric hate."

Correcting the trends of a decade and more will require more than dusting off a few tired Zionist slogans. The past will not return. We have raised two generations ignorant of basic Jewish belief and practice to a degree unimaginable to the founding fathers. The influx of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews makes all the more difficult the forging of a national identity. And finally, Zionism's very success in building a state has deprived it of a great project to fire the soul.

Yet finally acknowledging the problem of national identity is surely an important first step to solving it.

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