Israel at 60 – Not for the Faint of Heart or Lazy of mind – Aliyon Special Issue

As it nears its 60th birthday, there is no use denying; Israel is not for the fainthearted. Whether you were born and raised here, chose to make aliyah, or spent your life engaging with Israel and its people, you know that at no point did Israel promise to make it easy for you, and at no point did you have cause to complain that it has been so.
Much like a “high-maintenance” girlfriend, Israel’s draw is addictive, exciting and eternally frustrating. In return for never-ending efforts to woo her, not a trace of gratitude is to be offered – barely an appreciative smile. The frustrated lover might try to call it quits once and again, but her pull is too strong to resist. The drama of living with her is too addictive. Whether one is with her or away from her, she is not to be ignored.
Indeed, I suspect that most Israelis and those who carry Israel in their hearts are secretly addicted to drama. I know I am. The first criticism most Israelis are likely to level at any country that offers the specter of a quiet prosperous life amid lush greenery and perfect weather is “boring”. It is an addiction bordering on bi-polarity, with Israelis exacting peculiar pleasure from the extreme oscillation between intense periods of (mostly unjustified) euphoria and extended swaths of wallowing in (also mostly unjustified) depression.
Life in Israel is one of constant negotiations between extremes. Israel fiercely insists on a national identity as a homeland for the Jewish people, at a time when many people around the world, mostly young, find nationalism a quaint and passé notion; it is a democratic circus in the center ring of the world’s least democratic region. It is a highly developed country bordering on some of the world’s least developed countries and regions. Yet, given the decibels of internal criticism most Israelis would find it hard to believe that Israel is ranked 23 among the world’s countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, (a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare).
Israelis are very much in love with the world and could hardly sustain the thought of their national airport being closed, but are also absolutely certain that the world is against them and their little country. Israelis cannot wait to escape Israel, only to conclude that there’s no place like home.
In the extremities of its being, Israel and life in Israel epitomize the reality of the human condition – that which most humans choose to ignore, but which is the fountain of all creation: that human life is fragile and that each new day brings with it the potential to transform our life as we know it. Israel is a place where people, young and old, dream, create, innovate, and initiate, while never forgetting, and always fearing that all that has been built and accomplished might one day disappear in smoke. In Israel the notion that man makes plans and God laughs is an everyday reality (even if it is our God…).
Israel is not for the intellectually slothful either. It does not lend itself to neat categorizations. Its very existence forces one to re-examine established conventions and add nuances to rigid thought patterns. The society is fiercely secular, but also deeply Jewish. Israel is not a theocracy, but the Orthodox religious establishment has an official role in the life of its citizens. There are many citizens who view themselves as left-wing Zionists, but being Zionists would rule them out as left wing almost anywhere outside of Israel. The question of what it means to be the homeland of the Jewish people is one that is permanently relevant and ever changing. It challenges the mind and presents true dilemmas daily. Living in and with Israel means constant engagement with difficult problems with no simple, good or easy answers.
A. B. Yehoshua was right that life in Israel means nearly total engagement with Jewish dilemmas, but he is wrong if he thinks that engaging in these issues comes only from living in Israel and open only to Israelis. If anything, the ability to tackle some of the most difficult questions of life in Israel would only productively take place in the context of the entire Jewish people.
Israel was designed and created for the Jewish people by the Jewish people. Sixty years after its founding, this has not changed. Israel’s very nature cannot be disconnected from that first element of its birth. To be the country of the Jewish people means much more than taking Jewish money. To be the country for the Jewish people means much more than being a shelter and destination of aliyah. With the Jewish people passing a critical threshold that has not been passed in more than 2500 years, in which the world’s largest Jewish community resides in Israel, it is time for a new and restructured relationship between Israel and the Jewish people, one in which Israel gives as well as takes.
The future of the Jewish people depends now more than ever on Israel embracing its role as a source of leadership in Jewish issues. It is a role that requires investing resources in strengthening the Jewish people as a whole, not as some kind of “reserves in waiting” for aliyah, but in recognition of the inherent value for all Jews of the diversity of Jewish life. It is about calling upon the Jewish people to make Israel if not their first, their second home – not necessarily a physical one – but a home nonetheless. Israel should issue an invitation to all Jews everywhere to find their path to a life of engagement with Israel, intellectual, physical emotional, full-time, part-time, or just once in a while.
For too long, Israelis, and Israeli officials especially, ‘trained’ Jews outside of Israel to ‘pay up and shut up’, to put it harshly. I have heard too many Jews proudly proclaim that they support Israel financially and personally, but because they don’t live in Israel they have nothing to say critically about it (Mind you, this is not because they really have nothing to say). I find this attitude a bit too convenient for all involved. The Israeli side does not have to listen and the non-Israeli Jewish side does not have to think. But Israel desperately needs people who are willing to think long and hard about what it means to be the homeland of the Jewish people, express these thoughts and act to realize them. It was always difficult to square the circle of Israel’s unique nature. It is far more difficult to do so at an age when a national homeland for the Jews appears intellectually out of sync with a new age. Smart, nuanced, sophisticated and visionary thinkers, wherever they may live, are still very much in demand.
Israel is no longer the precocious and promising wünderkind of its first 19 years. It is also no longer the cool “Don’t f… with the Jews” (to quote Munich’s Daniel Craig) older brother of the 1960’s and 1970’s of clear-cut military victories and heroic operations. It is even perhaps no longer the promising beacon of change for the new and improved Middle East of the 1990’s. Israel at sixty embraces its idiosyncrasy.
After decades of fruitless efforts ‘to be like everybody else’ Israel is a country that slowly comes to terms with its abnormality and embraces it. Normality is to be gotten elsewhere. Living in and with Israel no longer offers the razzle-dazzle of youth or the virility of early adulthood, but it offers the pleasures of maturity. Engaging with Israel today means being involved in a relationship that is substantial, fascinating and always unique.
This piece opened the special issue of Aliyon for Israel’s 60th Anniversary.

Read the Article on the Aliyon Website