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Israel Diary

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April 6: THE FUTURE (I)

About the Author

Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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A group of old friends from our kibbutz days has driven north to join us for a picnic in a forest high above the Jezreel Valley, some 12 miles southeast of Haifa. The talk gravitates to politics. Why do Israelis seem less engaged by this election? Danny, who used to edit a youth movement magazine and now works as a fundraiser for one of the country's big universities, says, "It's not that people are disillusioned about the leading candidates. Israelis have gotten less ideological--except for maybe the 5 percent at the fringe--and more materialistic. We've become a full-blown consumer society."

Has Rabin's assassination dampened people's involvement in politics? "Not at all. Something worse: It broke an important taboo against Jews killing other Jews for political reasons. And after lying low for a year or two, some religious nationalists formed support groups for Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin. What is really obscene is that the authorities have allowed the settlers to build a memorial to Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer who walked into a Hebron mosque and opened fire, killing twenty-nine worshipers. Even the politicians in the National Religious Party--supposedly the more moderate of the religious parties--haven't spoken out against this. That man embodied pure hate, and there are others here who admire him, as they do Amir."

My friends speak of their fear that the country is splitting apart. It's as if Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Shas communicates in a language that Westernized people like them can't comprehend but that others listen to and obey. Yes, they say, there is a lot of intermixing among Sephardim and Ashkenazim, especially in the educated middle class. Danny himself is married to a Sephardic woman. But, to go back to the Deri case, they say, there are many Shas followers now saying he was framed, even though the evidence is indisputable.

At the same time, our friends haven't withdrawn from their sense of social responsibility or political engagement. Danny volunteers with a local group that has adopted a number of poor families and helps provide them with food, clothing and services. Lee sets up and conducts dialogue groups for Israeli and Palestinian adults. Yehoshua, a kibbutznik, gives talks to high school students and adult groups on Jewish identity and politics, and is building a relationship with the College of Pluralistic Judaism, a new organization that is engaging the cultural struggle head on by drawing on the humanistic and pluralistic roots of Jewish civilization.

Israel is still in transition, Yehoshua says. The country still hasn't decided which version of the Jewish liberation story it wants to celebrate on Independence Day. This is the theme of one of the talks he's developed. There is Passover, the celebration of a people breaking the bonds of slavery. They wandered the desert, following Moses on an introspective search for a new beginning. After decades of risk, infighting, idolatrous backsliding, purges and decisive battles with other nations, this struggle eventually led to the creation of a self-determining society. There is also Hanukkah, which commemorates a very different tale of liberation: The Maccabean revolt was also a civil war led by Jewish zealots against Jewish Hellenists. It began when a priest from the temple assassinated another Jew for religious digression. The fundamentalists of the priestly dynasty who led the liberation struggle went on to become cruel oppressors of their own people. Independence was soon lost.

"In fifty-one years of Israeli independence, we've had our own battles, struggles for leadership, religious tensions, infighting--even our own zealous political assassination," Yehoshua points out. "Most of us lead deceivingly comfortable lives. But these are turbulent times. On the one hand, we cannot be sure that the cultural war will not turn into a civil war. On the other hand, peace may be within reach, and our democratic institutions may yet help us achieve a more tolerant, multicultural and multi-ethnic society."

April 9: THE FUTURE (II)

I've been trying to figure out how people afford to live here, and today, our last day here, I finally glimpsed the answer. Everywhere we've been, prices have surprised me. A simple omelet and salad at the Jerusalem Mall topped 40 shekels, or $10. A good pair of kids' sandals was 180 shekels. A four-bedroom, three-bath house in Givat Tal, $350,000. "Don't forget, we're paid in shekels, not in dollars," a friend told me. The average salaried worker makes around 4,000 shekels a month ($1,000). Yet everywhere we went, we saw Israelis, not just tourists, shopping and eating in the restaurants. One answer is the overdraft: People simply write checks they can't cover. The bank charges them 19 percent interest, and people live on credit. A second answer is tax avoidance, whether by having a cash job or by buying duty-free. But today I finally saw how the average person gets by. Nurit took us to the Jewish open-air market, or shuk, in an older town near Givat Tal. In hundreds of tiny stalls, we saw for sale fruits, nuts, raisins, figs, breads, videos, CDs, craft supplies, toys, shoes, shirts, suits, jewelry, perfume. Kids' pants for as little as 5 shekels ($1.25), shirts for 15. We loaded up on fresh dates, pita bread, strawberries and sandals that were just $18.

I saw something else at the shuk. Most of the people were Sephardim, the sellers as well as the buyers. But there was almost no presence of religious fundamentalism. Girls in tube tops mixed with boys with earrings and stylish haircuts. Pop music blared. Outside in the parking lot the battle of the bumper stickers was at a draw. This was obviously not a Labor stronghold, but it wasn't a Likud bastion either. Is it possible that the same way Israel has been muddling through the Palestinian question toward some kind of accommodation, a balance will be found in its internal cultural wars? That if the right terms can be set, the secular majority and religious minority will choose to live and let live? Not everyone here is on track to owning a three-bedroom villa with a sunny backyard, and while the Sony Discman has more fans than the Talmud, the Talmudists still have more concentrated political power. But maybe, if peace really comes, the economic benefits will soften and mute the interreligious/ethnic war.

Visiting after such a long absence has surprisingly renewed my optimism about this country. It's a feeling I almost can't justify as I scan the day-to-day headlines--the news of Israeli troops occupying more villages in Lebanon, for example, or the hints that Netanyahu may eke out another divisive election victory. But eleven years ago I couldn't have forecast the sea change in Israeli attitudes toward a Palestinian state. Enormous changes are possible, in the blink of history's eye. Whether Israelis will choose the path of Passover or Hanukkah, I don't know. Both paths are still open.

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