January 4, 1998
Up in Arms
American Jewsare celebrating Israel's jubilee with great fanfare, but here in thehomeland, folks seem considerably less enthusiastic. You get thesense that Israel at 50 is like a bar mitzvah boy who doesn't want aparty -- not until he gets taller and his acne clears up. Not untilhe feels normal.
On a very hot day last week I walked into theelectrical shop on the main street of my Jerusalem neighborhood.There I found the stocky proprietor grumpily thanking thetakeout-Moroccan food vendor from around the corner for inviting himto his house for a barbecue on Yom Ha'atzmaut, Independence Day.Sensing a journalistic opportunity, I asked the electrical man: So,what say you about the jubilee? His terse reply, freelytranslated:
"Whaddya talkin' jubilee? The country is al hapanim , facedown in the muck. It's ruined. Jubilee, ha!"
He declined to elaborate, and I've beenspeculating since then about the source of his dismay. Terrorism?That's enough to ruin anybody's birthday, though veteran Israelishave been steeled for decades to the grim reality of bloodshed. Thehobbled Oslo process? I don't think so; I'd wager he's a Bibisupporter. Though of course I could be wrong, and the the shopkeepermight be an extreme nationalist, still smoldering over the Hebronhandover, or for all I know a peacenik. I've assigned him a politicalprofile based on his attire, his profession, and his accent -- andthat's another big problem within the Jewish state: ethnicstereotyping. I hate it when Israelis take me for a gullible nitwitjust because I moved here from America.
We are champions of high-tech, our per capitagross domestic product of $17,000 is higher than Spain's, but thesedays unemployment is sharply up, the shekel devalued. Folks with goodjobs and steady incomes have the luxury of feeling glum over the bigissues: war and peace, synagogue and state, the deep rift betweenleft and right. The shopkeeper, most likely, has an added reason tobe in no mood for celebration: Blank videotapes are costing him moreand his customers are buying fewer of them, and his rent iscalculated in dollars, meaning he owes the landlord more shekels thanhe did last month. But does this mean the country is "alhapanim"?
Brace yourself for a daring generalization: Jews,even on happy occasions, like to fret and kvetch and expect theworst. We come by these pleasures honestly: History has dealt us manydisasters worth bemoaning. We avidly complain about the size of apiece of cake, as in a Jackie Mason routine -- or, in Israel, aboutthe size of our share of a very small, successful country that is theonly country in the world we own.
The Palestinians envy our independence and want abig chunk of our land, and most of us Israelis now realize it isright to give them some of it, deeply painful as that may be.Meanwhile, the green spaces in Israel are shrinking as immigrantsarrive and the population grows; and too many cars jockey hazardouslyfor too little road. Working-class people see the economy going fromsocialized to private, see a flourishing consumer culture -- BMW andLand Rover share a showroom in Jerusalem, of all ascetic places --and see themselves losing out. Secular Israelis see theultra-Orthodox getting government subsidies and avoiding army servicewhile they pay high taxes and do reserve duty in the West Bank,guarding Joseph's Tomb while a million angry Palestinians look on andsimmer.
Is this a normal country? A friend who lives inthe biblical heartland of Samaria in the West Bank lately told methat though Israelis are in a hurry to be normal, we aren't yet readyto be. This is a common formulation on the part of the right wing:Zionism's job is not finished, and until it is, we can't andshouldn't be like other countries. There is still land to settle, theargument goes, and there are many more exiles to be gathered fromRussia, Argentina, and -- one can always dream -- America. SecularTel Aviv leftists -- who claim we have evolved into a "post-Zionist"mode, and we must finalize our borders at once, and declare that weare a democracy first and a Jewish state second -- are weary andweak-kneed, and cannot be trusted to carry the ball while ourexistence as a nation is constantly in peril.
But think about it: A normal country is one inwhich government is never a simple matter, and in which it's normalto argue over the problems that sovereignty entails. How muchdisputed territory should we cede to our neighbors? What are theethical parameters of waging war? Should everyone be compelled toserve in the army, and is everyone qualified to? Should there be anestablished church? At what point does a plethora of such problems --particularly in a young, heterogeneous nation -- cross the line intoabnormal excess?
Name a normal country. The United States, wherechildren steal guns and shoot their classmates? England, which wentto war over the Falkland Islands? Denmark is the example often citedby Israelis, a nice quiet place with a population just a bit smallerthan our own. But Denmark is an old country which dominated northernEurope about 600 years ago and has slid into comfortable smallnessever since. Israel at 50 is prosperous, strong and vibrant, butsuffers nonetheless from the little-guy syndrome. We remain even moreinsecure, contentious and arrogant than our unalloyed Jewishnervousness and fault-line geopolitics have destined us to be. Butthis too may be normal, for a brave new nation that is still growingup.
Stuart Schoffman is an Associate Editor of theJerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. Hise-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org