Last summer's war in Lebanon triggered a process of national soul-searching unlike any that I have experienced in my nearly three decades living in Israel. Nor did that process end with the war. Fueled by revelations of the failures of the war, an unending string of corruption scandals, and the threat to Israel's continued existence posed by Iran that soul-searching has continued unabated.
Interestingly, the sharpest critique during the war came from Ha'aretz, the newspaper of Israel's elites. The war in Lebanon, as portrayed by Ari Shavit and others, was not simply a failure of the political and military echelons; it represented the failure of Israeli society in general.
Yair Sheleg, for instance, wrote that a decadent society is ill-equipped to confront threats to its very existence. Signs of that decadence are everywhere to be found. Hedonism and the pursuit of material goods occupy the adults. Being a celebrity -- regardless of achievements -- is the primary goal of Israeli youth.
Shavit describes a profound "cultural affliction: the relinquishing of ideas, principles, basic beliefs, worldviews, and an overall grasp of reality --... sophistication without a [moral] compass..."
The elites have lost any connection to the Jewish people's unique history, and convinced themselves that Israel can achieve a normal existence amidst a sea of Arabs.
The elites, Shavit charges, have lost any connection to the Jewish people's unique history, and convinced themselves that Israel can achieve a normal existence amidst a sea of Arabs. He accuses them of imagining Tel Aviv to be Manhattan, sounding almost like Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk warning decades before the Holocaust that if the Jews of Berlin continue to mistake Berlin for Jerusalem a great fire will go out from Berlin and consume the entire Jewish world.
To quell any qualms of consciences about their naked pursuit of the good life, the Israeli elites convinced themselves that Israel is so powerful, so insanely strong, that nothing can threaten it. That strength justifies their failure to show up for reserve duty or to send their children to combat units (a trend recently confirmed by the Chief of IDF Manpower Gen. Elazar Stern.)
Meanwhile they set out to undermine every element of national strength: making mincemeat of the old Zionist narrative, while failing to substitute anything else in its place; criticizing Israel's militarism and denigrating military service; making mockery of the old communitarian values.
All this resulted in a loss of national vitality. The name of the game now, writes Shavit, is rebuilding national will, and all national resources must be directed towards that task.
Daniel Gordis, head of the Mandel Leadership Institute, writes from the traditional Zionist center. Gordis begins a recent account of the loss of the original Zionist hope by recounting an exchange with a doctor he was meeting for the first time. The doctor asks him what he does, and he replies, that he writes. "What do you write about?" the doctor asks. "About the future of Israel," Gordis replies. "Oh, you write short stories," is the doctor's response. Both laugh, but as Gordis notes, "neither of us thought that it was particularly funny."
Next Gordis describes a discussion with an IDF general, who wonders why Israelis have not taken to the street to protest the ongoing series of corruption scandals that have enmeshed so many senior politicians and public officials, including Prime Minister Olmert.
The answer is that Israelis have awakened to the fact that the problem is not just a handful of corrupt leaders or a few lousy generals. Political corruption and military failure reflect on the entire society. Israelis are not taking to the streets, in part, because they understand that they have gotten the leaders they deserve.
Israelis are beginning to wonder, writes Gordis, whether Zionism itself has not failed, despite the booming economy, world class scientific research, still powerful defense forces. He points to two promises that Zionism originally offered: that a Jewish state would prove a safe haven for Jews and the normalization of the Jewish condition. Of late, it has become clear that it has failed to deliver on either promise.
"The summer of 2006," writes Gordis, "put an end to that illusion of safety. For 34 long days, the IDF unleashed enormous potential portions of its (conventional) firepower, but it couldn't stop the firing of Hezbollah's Katyusha's rockets on the North... In the end, the only thing that stopped the shelling of Israel's northern cities was the United Nations." Only 60 years after the Holocaust, more than half the world's Jewish children may soon find themselves in the "crosshairs of a nuclear-armed Iran." In sum, "it is now more dangerous to be a Jew in Israel than in any other place in the world."
Nor has Zionism done any better at delivering on its promise to "normalize the condition of the Jew in the world." The early Zionists believed that once the Jews had a state of their own, the world would "cease its relentless attention to this tiny fraction of the world's population." That manifestly has not happened. Half a million people are slaughtered in Rwanda, another 300,000 in Darfur, and there are 200,000 child soldiers in Sierra Leone alone, and all this merits less attention than one protester run over by an Israeli bulldozer (which could not see her), as she tried to protect tunnels through which arms were being smuggled into Gaza from being destroyed.
"North Korea goes nuclear, Iran threatens to do the same and publicly says that Israel should be destroyed, and still, there's only one country in the country in the world whose right to exist is still debated," Gordis astutely observes. Israeli novelist Amos Oz notes that his Polish-born father heard chants of "Jews go to Palestine" when he was a child, and today the world chants, "Jews out of Palestine." The irony is not lost even on this icon of the Israeli Left. The message: "Don't be here. Don't be there. In short, don't be."
The implications for the failure of Zionism to deliver on its major promises, Gordis writes, go far beyond Israel. No one can be so naïve as to believe that without Israel "American Jewish life would simply chug along? It would last a generation, maybe two." Apart from the Orthodox world -- and even there the response would not be uniform -- it is hard to gainsay his conclusion.
Gordis calls for the restoration of Zionist hope -- the kind of hope for the future that once lead Jews to dance with joy upon the completion of the National Water Carrier project. But he offers scant guidance as to how that might be done. Most notably, his powerful essay makes no reference to Torah or to the religion of the Jews of Israel. Absent the Torah's vision of a Jewish future and mission, it is hard to fathom from where such hope could come.
Professor Israel (Robert) Aumann, speaking at last week's Herzliya Conference, began by analyzing the Iranian nuclear threat in terms of the game theory for which he won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics. As serious as the threat from Iran is, however, the internal threat posed to Israel from post-Zionism is far greater, according to Aumann. Without a renewed sense of the Jewish people's bond to Eretz Yisrael and millennial hope of return to the Land, he said, "We will not endure. We will simply no longer be here. Post-Zionism will finish us off."
The Israeli and international press could not get enough of the six nut-cases in Chassidic garb who attended the recent conference of Holocaust denial in Teheran. But however much damage they did to the image of Torah Jews around the world, the actual influence of those six on any segment of Jewry is non-existent. Not so that of hundreds of post-Zionists who fill senior positions in Israeli academia, where they help to shape the views of Israel's young. Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, for instance, has been one of the moving forces behind academic boycotts of Israel around the world.
Israeli post-Zionism was on full display at Tel Aviv University on January 8, when the university law faculty sponsored a conference devoted to the proposition that Palestinian security prisoners are, in fact, political prisoners. Among those warmly welcomed by the audience were Tali Fahima, an Israeli Jew recently released from prison for providing logistical help to the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, and a former Palestinan security prisoner, jailed for throwing a hand grenade at an Israeli bus. Not one academic paper was presented at the conference, just a series of far-Left speeches denouncing Israel. As Ben-Dror Yemini noted in Ma'ariv, "Hosting those that deny the Zionist enterprise's right to exist at Tel Aviv University is not very different from hosting Holocaust deniers in Teheran."
Aumann went on to discuss the weariness of Israeli Jews -- a weariness to which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave full expression when he described Israel as "tired" -- tired of war, tired of winning, tired of being brave. "We are like a mountain-climber who gets caught in a snowstorm; the night falls, he is cold and tired, and he wants to sleep. If he falls asleep, he will freeze to death. We are in terminal danger because we are tired," said Aumann.
Quoting Churchill -- "If you want peace, prepare for war" -- Aumann argued that Israel's weariness, its various capitulations, gestures, convergence plans have only served to convince our Arab "cousins" that "we no longer have spiritual strength, that we have no time, that we are calling for a time-out."
The only alternative, said Aumann, is to convince the Arabs that "We have time; we have patience; we have stamina." Such a message of "spiritual readiness," he admitted was not just a matter of words, but one that the Israeli Jews must "understand and internalize." How that might be achieved, however, he did not say
Yossi Klein Halevi, writing last week in the Wall Street Journal, focused primarily on Israel's ongoing corruption scandals -- "leading tax authority officials have been arrested for fraud, the finance minister is under investigation, and any of a half-dozen alleged financial scandals could topple Prime Minister Ehud Olmert." He quotes Israelis as telling one another, "There is no judgment and no judge."
Cronyism, known as protekzia, has been part of the woof and weave of Israeli life from the start, and Israel's leaders were not exactly moral paragons. But at least, the population knew "their leaders were devoted to the nation." "The same can hardly be said about today's politicians," writes Halevi, "who absorbed the wiles of the founders but not their self-sacrifice."
"The internal challenge facing Israel society is no less daunting that the external ones," Halevi writes. Given that in another article published last week, he and historian Michael Oren remarked on the appearance for the first time of Holocaust analogies in Israeli strategic thinking and took for granted the necessity of an imminent military confrontation with Iran, the claim that the internal threats are every bit as great is not a mean one. That internal challenge, according to Halevi, is "to recreate a society that is worth fighting for."
In no other country do citizens require such a strong sense of national purpose to prevent them from pulling up stakes and leaving.
It matters not that other countries may be equally corrupt, or that all other Western nations possess intellectual classes who identify with the country's enemies. In Israel, these things pose an immediate threat to the nation's very existence. In no other Western nation is so much demanded of the population in terms of military service, high taxes, and constant threats to physical security. And therefore in no other country, do citizens require such a strong sense of national purpose to prevent them from pulling up stakes and leaving.
Whereas the state's founding fathers envisioned a Jewish state engaging in normal relations with the rest of the world, and creating an enviable society within -- "externally normalized, internally exceptional." But just the opposite has occurred -- Israel's existence is still not accepted as normal by the nations of the world, and meanwhile her internal society has turned out to be anything besides exceptional.
In the nature of their critique, the writers surveyed differed in many details. But they all agree on two key points. First, in light of the external threats it faces, Israel cannot survive without a great deal of internal cohesion and sense of national purpose. And second, these qualities are notable today primarily by their absence.
These forceful critiques also contain a powerful message for the Torah community of Israel. We must do everything in our power to create the type of society that can serve as a model to other Jews of what a Jewish society might look like. Only then will be able to convince our fellow Jews that the Torah offers the answers for all that threatens our ability to summon up the will power to survive and prevail in our rough neighborhood.
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman.